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  • Marie

Working in the sustainability field

There is nothing better than a change in your work habits and work environment to look back into the journey that has brought you to the point where you are, today. Another trigger to question your steps is the frequent question: "What did you do to become a sustainability professional?"

Little experience, too high expectations.

I graduated in 2008 with a Masters of Science in environmental studies and sustainability science from Lund University in Sweden. Sustainability had always been a part of my life and philosophy, so it was an obvious choice; however in the case I would not enter this selective class, I had the plan to study economic and human geography, and then specialize in urban planning. In our modern world I always thouht cities could lead the way to design a better, more sustainable living environment.

I graduated in 2008 with no professional experience in my hands but a rather giant ego boosted by the continuous discourse that I was part of a generation that would change the world thanks to this sustainability background. More than 10 years later, I can somehow say this feeling wasn't so wrong after all; but in 2008, I can tell you with confidence that no one on the job market was waiting for me with the open arms I had hoped for. I wasn't ready to hit the job-search wall, and to be honest I had never ever written an application letter. The dream Master had not prepared me for the 2009 economic crisis that hit the world, and I was mad.

So I moved forward the way I could: I learn a new language, followed online courses, (watched a few seasons of Dawson's Creek), and got a job in a café where I learned how to prepare cappuccinos and endure my first psychorigid, micromanaging boss.

Things changed as I accepted a 6 months, unpaid internship in a global organization. I was lucky enough I could afford an unpaid position, that's for sure, but it was also the only opportunity I found to finally touch the professional ground. From there I moved internally a few times and navigated through various areas of work, until I eventually reached sustainability topics to deal with. These moves took some time and sweat of mine, but they allowed me to develop multiple, very useful skills, from internal and external communications, to managing various reporting platforms or budgets.

Here would be my first advice to graduates: If you can afford it, do not spit on internships, paid or unpaid, as they can give you a great start - as long as you are willing to suck the experience, make yourself useful, necessary and probably very tired at the end of the day.

Moving around.

Building an international experience came from my life story in general. Moving countries to study, find a job or build a family has more or less been the continuous drive. It has allowed me to live and work in France, Sweden, Denmark, the UAE and now Switzerland. It has also allowed me to work with people coming from all over the world, in a way one would not normally do.

This is a critical asset, especially when talking about sustainability: no one will have the same understanding of it based on where one comes from, based on what one has experienced, and based on what one wants to reach. This point can show you exactly how difficult it can be to implement sustainable solutions, wherever you are in the world.

Profit vs. not-fot-profit: the usual dilemma when dealing with sustainability in our global economy.

I worked in an international, global, public organization. I worked in a small, not-for-profit organization. I am now working in a large, global corporate group. I was also interviewed by a few start-ups, and I went through hundreds of job vacancies.

Each time I was asked whether I would be able to adapt to a new organizational set-up, for instance, how I would work for the private sector after years in the non-profit one. Obviously there has always been a strict separation between them, but the concepts remain the same: if you want to do a good job, you will do it in any set-up. If you are not here to make money, you might instead try to increase the number of members, knowledge, content, etc...One might involve more bureaucracy and administrative restrictions, an other one more politics, an other one micromanagement.

Another aspect of the dilemma, if you have sustainability at heart, is to question the difference between "evil big companies address the topic" (or not) and the perceptions people have about "tree huggers and hippies".

I did hug a tree, once, to see how it feels like (to be fully honest, I even tasted forest mud, as I was told you can test the minerals'content in the soils - i am still not sure it was meant as a joke or not).

As mentioned above, I worked in 3 vary different sectors, which led to one central conclusion: a job is a job, as long as you want to work, as long as you want to make a difference through your work. A job will pay your rent, a job will help you build skills and netowrks, a job will allow you to learn, a job will maybe give you the ground to change things to the best. So do not spit on the opportunities, even if you might grind your teeth and play the devil's advocate: these opportunities are often scarce and you should jump on them.

Patience is the virtue.

To find my latest role, I submitted more than 120 applications (including, maybe, a third of unsolicited ones), got interviewed maybe 10 times in person (+2 video interviews), reached the last rounds 3 times, and got 2 job offers at the end.

The hardest part of submitting applications, apart from preparing individual letters and sometimes working on aboslutely-awful application plateforms, is to never doubt your skills and wait for answers. The second hardest is to receive negative replies. The wait can be long. If you are lucky, you will receive an automatic mail with generic content. In a lot of cases, you might receive nothing at all.

If you combine this with the fact that there are not many sustainability jobs on the market, you might have to wait a lot to see a relevant vacancy, and even more to receive a follow-up invitation. Remember that in most cases, sustainability is managed either by one person only (and therefore you need to wait until this person leaves), or the topic is mixed with others (sustainability and impact investment, reporting and communications, environment with Occupational Health and Safety). You will be asked for degrees or experience that you might not have. But this might give you an idea already on how genuinely committed a company might be.

By experience I can say that the longer you wait, the longer you risk to doubt yourself. And telling you not to is easy-said obviously. But there are things to do to keep your head above the surface:

  • Meet people, both socially and professionally, and make yourself known and visible.

  • Apply systematically: often the requirements are too high or irrealistic. If you tick a few boxes already, shoot an email. And to my fellow ladies here, DO NOT UNDERMINE YOURSELF: you are worth the same, if not more, as many of the men that will apply for the same position.

  • Keep yourself busy and curious: find new job platforms. Sign up for networking events and online courses to keep yourself up-to-date with the market's needs.

  • Invest time and positive energy in your hobbies: It will keep you happy, but it might also provide you with an asset to talk about during a discussion or an interview (for instance, OUTSIDE THE BOX is a hobby that allowed me to start a webiste, edit articles, create content, interview people, design my understanding of sustainability and turn it into a deliverable I can talk about).

To complement my own words, I have asked peers on LinkedIn and other networks of mine to share their own experience and advice to any newcomer on the sustainability-related job market.

If you want to participate, please get in touch.

The more words we can collect, the more meaningful this exercise will be, and hopefully the more it will inspire others to search for a job in sustainability.

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