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5 Things You Need to Do to Become a Sustainability Specialist

UW Online Collaboratives August 9, 2018
An illustration of three people in business attire who are holding suitcases and jumping between two cliffs.

You’re a visionary person with a strategy for everything. Maybe that’s why a career as a sustainability specialist is so appealing to you.

We get it. Professionals who implement sustainable business initiatives help build some of the most prosperous organizations in the world. It’s exciting work, but the sustainability field can be competitive, especially when starting out. So you might be asking yourself, how do I become a sustainability specialist?

For inspiration, we looked to our UW Sustainable Management graduates. They have worked as full- or part-time sustainability specialists for companies such as World Wildlife Fund, the Cleveland Browns, American Family Insurance, Georgia-Pacific, and SIG. Here are five things they did to open the door to a career in sustainability.

5 Steps to Becoming a Sustainability Specialist

1. Get involved with a sustainability effort. Or, create one of your own.

If your workplace has sustainability efforts in motion, join these efforts. That’s what Amy Glawe did before earning a Sustainable Management master’s degree and becoming a sustainability manager. She championed her company’s first initiatives to reduce carbon emissions and improve recycling programs. Fast forward to today: Amy leads a global team to improve sustainability performance for SIG.

Okay, so what if you don’t see any sustainability initiatives happening? Seek out an opportunity to design a sustainability project of your own and put it into action. This is a key first step for many of our graduates. And it’s something you can do at your current workplace or within your community.

Initiatives could be:

  • A one-off project such as organizing a volunteer event
  • A longer-term initiative such as helping the office go paperless or evaluating waste streams and recycling programs

For graduate Susan Suchy, her journey to sustainability started with rain gardens. She joined a local committee to brainstorm ways to promote rain gardens in the community. Championing initiatives like this will help you earn your sustainability stripes and prove your interest in the work.

2. Deepen your knowledge of economics and business strategy.

Before hiring you as a sustainability specialist, employers want to see that you have the required knowledge. You need to know:

  • Business strategy development
  • Marketing, law, and environmental science
  • Economics and triple bottom line theory

Don’t have advanced knowledge and skills in these areas? Most Sustainable Management graduates didn’t either, having started out in different fields—laboratory science, community development, wastewater treatment, customer service, accounting, military, law, teaching, and insurance.

So, to build skills and deepen their knowledge of economics and business strategy, they chose to earn a bachelor’s or master’s degree in Sustainable Management.

The strength of this particular degree program is the breadth of material it covers. Graduate Amy Glawe again: “Most programs focus on just economics or business. This degree covers a variety of subjects from environmental science to economics to law to business leadership.”

Alexandria Skoch landed a job as a sustainability program coordinator in the competitive San Francisco job market. Her UW Sustainable Management master’s degree—with its business twist—was the number one differentiator from other candidates.

3. Wear your passion on your sleeve.

Another common denominator in Sustainable Management graduate stories: their passion for driving sustainable change.

Angela Dybdahl Oroian, a graduate and environmental insurance industry leader, said, “As Sustainable Management students, we are drawn to the program because we want to make an impact in some way.”

Share your ideas and passions with others and make connections. That’s what Maggie Lee did. “I started chatting up anyone who would listen, telling them, ‘I want to do environmental sustainability.’ Sure enough, I found many people who were like-minded. After a while, I was given responsibilities of sustainability for P&G Hong Kong and Taiwan.”

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4. Hone your interpersonal skills, especially in communication and management.

As a sustainability professional, you’ll likely be seen as a leader within your workplace. You might lead a team, engage with different departments, sites, and stakeholders, and present to diverse audiences. For that reason, you must be an effective communicator and manager.

How can you work on these skills? Take a course. Practice them in your current role. Ask others for feedback and advice.

Some graduates get involved in associations to build leadership skills or present at industry conferences. But practicing these skills can be simple, too. One Sustainable Management graduate gave a talk about sustainability at her daughter’s school.  

5. Get sustainability work experience.

One of the most important steps to becoming a sustainability specialist is getting related work experience. You can do this in a few different ways.

Add sustainability tasks to your current role. In Greenbiz’s 2020 state of the profession report, it’s claimed that “most professionals in sustainability report getting their position because someone they knew at the company or someone from the company contacted them.” Some of our graduates take on additional responsibilities—and possibly a title extension at work— as a stepping stone before they become a sustainability specialist.

Complete an internship, training program, or capstone project. Internships and training opportunities are out there. Jessie Johnson found one through her employer, Georgia-Pacific. Now, with her master’s degree in Sustainable Management, she works as an environmental specialist for the company.

All graduates of Sustainable Management leave the program with a capstone experience under their belt. Students complete the capstone project at a real organization, and several have been hired by their capstone site after graduation.

For example, Stacie Reece researched how local breweries finance sustainability projects for a nonprofit organization. Later, she was hired as director of sustainable business initiatives. Alexandria Skoch’s capstone project focused on “greening” the Cleveland Browns, and after graduation, she became a sustainability analyst for the team. Gary Gilles did his capstone with GDS Associates and was offered a full-time position as an energy analyst.

Join an association. You could also get involved with a sustainability organization. Angela Dybdahl Oroian became director of the Society of Environmental Insurance Professionals and progressed her sustainability career that way. See a list of sustainability associations.

What’s Next?

Start exploring the online Bachelor of Science or Master of Science in Sustainable Management from University of Wisconsin. Additionally, you can reach out to an enrollment adviser by calling 608-800-6762 or emailing

Programs: Sustainable Management