May 17, 2022

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Dream job 2.0: As companies get serious about the environment, sustainability consultants are in demand

EcoAmmo’s Stephani Carter, pictured here at Edmonton’s priMED Mosaic Centre, went from a career as an interior designer to founding a sustainability consultancy.Megan Albu/The Globe and Mail

The nature of work and what it means to achieve your dream job is changing. In this series, we dive into some of the most aspirational jobs coveted by a new generation.

As a child, Stephani Carter drew floor plans of her bedroom, mocking up furniture rearrangements before enlisting her parents to move things around.

Carter’s grandfather had been an architect and her father owned an excavation company in Edmonton, so Carter spent her childhood thinking about buildings. “I got an appreciation for design,” she says.

After studying interior design at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT), Carter worked for a commercial-design company and was struck by the amount of waste in the industry.

“A new company would move into an office space and the finishes would still be good, the carpet still fine, but they’d want to put in their own colour scheme,” she says. “They’d clear it out, and all of it would go to landfill.”

Carter says when she realized that this was happening in office towers all over the world, “the scale really got to me.”

She began asking suppliers about the origins of building materials, but no one could answer her questions. She learned all she could, building expertise in sustainably-sourced products, and people in the industry started asking her to educate them.

In 2006, Carter launched EcoAmmo, a sustainability-consulting firm. “There was no firm like mine at the time,” she says.

Carter and her team began consulting with clients who wanted to source green building materials. When Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) certification started taking off, the firm began helping companies through the process.

Now, Carter and her team of eight staff members work on a range of green-design and building-certification processes and help companies with solid, air and water waste in operations.

Stephani Carter speaking at the priMED Mosaic Centre. This net-zero building is where the EcoAmmo offices are located and is one of the company’s prominent projects.Handout

“What we do is vast,” says Carter, “It’s understanding that it’s not just one issue, it’s a suite of issues. [And] having the technical knowledge of how things interconnect. When you pull on this, something over here moves.”

Sustainability careers on the rise

As the needs and interests of workers change, most prominently among millennials and Generation Z, the aspirational jobs of these generations are also changing. One factor may be an increasing concern for the environment – in Deloitte’s 2020 Global Millennial survey, respondents aged 18 to 38 named climate change and protecting the environment as their top societal concerns.

Plus, careers in sustainability are on the rise. In 2020, 315,800 people in Canada worked in sustainability-related jobs – up dramatically from 2013, when that number was just 60,000 or so.

“That’s a big shift in the numbers,” says Yogendra Chaudhry, vice-president of professional services for ECO Canada, the environmental work force organization that collected the data. By 2025, the sector will need to hire almost 80,000 people, according to Chaudhry.

Sustainability consultants like Carter are in demand, whether as independent consultants or as part of organizations’ sustainability teams. Leading corporations employ chief sustainability officers who help make key strategic decisions. These professionals help companies with their emissions, labour practices, supply chains, waste and energy use.

It’s a job category that is growing and well-paid. ECO Canada’s job-posting analysis found that professionals in the field make a median salary of $102,000 – however, almost half of those jobs require eight-plus years of experience.

Michelle Adams, associate professor and director of the School for Resource and Environmental Studies at Dalhousie University, says these jobs require broad knowledge and skills. “It entails understanding the intersection between [the] environmental, social and economics of it,” she notes.

“It’s not a business if the business goes bust.”

Chaudhry says that the job of sustainability consultant has its roots in the corporate-social-responsibility reports companies started issuing several years ago, which were merely exercises in public relations.

EcoAmmo’s Elise Vajsabel on site during a ‘lean-construction’ walk, where the team identifies efficiencies with site personnel.Kristin Tollovsen/Handout

Today, some companies are still at this stage. Adams warns against working with a company where the sustainability consultant reports to human resources or communications, as sustainability is clearly not a core value.

“They have hired you to spin,” she says.

On the other hand, some organizations have gotten more serious about sustainability, says Chaudhry, prompted when socially responsible investors started asking questions about companies’ risk exposure related to their emissions, supply-chain inefficiencies and labour practices.

Organizations are now under pressure to take the environment into account, with some claiming they abide by the United Nations’ 17 sustainability goals, he adds. Most need an outside consultant or team to address these complex goals.

A path to help organizations do better

Adams says that Stephani Carter’s indirect, accidental path to this career is common for sustainability consultants.

“Most get here through experiential means,” says Adams, who herself trained as an engineer. Some start working for a company as an accountant or oil-and-gas professional and come across a sustainability issue and teach themselves about it. Then they see how a challenge in another department relates, and over time understand the bigger picture.

Some enter the field after studying environmental science – perhaps landing a job as a junior sustainability officer – but Adams says many need additional experience.

“Environmental science is only one very narrow focus of sustainability. It’s really intersectional,” she says.

There are master’s programs that are relevant to the field, such as those that blend an MBA with sustainability, and Adams believes that schools will offer more on-point advanced degrees in future.

While it may take time for those interested in becoming a sustainability consultant to gain the experience and knowledge they need to tackle this complex job, it’s a career that allows people to do good and help companies do better, too.

Carter says she is encouraged by the huge growth of the industry and how companies increasingly want to work with professionals like her.

“It’s a sea change,” she says.