I vividly remember leafing through dozens of tabs on my MacBook Air, each one featuring a different academic program at Ohio State University. As I tried to figure out what was next, the majors, minors, specializations and relevant requirements blurred together.
A year and a half in, I still had almost no idea what I was doing. That’s when I stumbled upon our university’s sustainability program. And just like that, I'd found my new minor. Looking back, I have no doubt that studying sustainability had a profound effect on the success of my career — and expanded me immensely as a young professional. Anyone interested in a cross-disciplinary program that can educate on how to approach complex problems and set them up for an insane, varied amount of career opportunities, seriously ought to consider studying sustainability in college. Here's why.
Sustainability is hot right now.
Arizona State University enacted the first sustainability program in the US in 2006. Less than a decade later, 475 colleges and universities had followed suit, making certificate and degree programs in sustainability available to students. Ohio State's own “Environment, Economy, Development, and Sustainability” program (a cumbersome name that instantly got nicknamed "EEDS") was started in 2012 to focus on the intersection of environmental science, sustainability, economic development, and business.
No longer a buzz word, sustainability has become big business. The subject factors into businesses models themselves; from candy companies to manufacturing plants. Because of how wide a net sustainability programs can cast, students are flocking to them to prepare for an uncertain future. And as consumer demand for eco-friendly products, services, and experiences grow, a background in sustainability only becomes more valuable.
As a career move, you get to be steeped in one of the most relevant conversations of our time.
I took my new minor's introductory class during my junior year, and was blown away by how broad the subject of sustainability actually is. The class was co-taught by professors from the economics and environmental science departments. Both believed in sustainability as a concept, but interpreted it in very different ways. In and of itself, this dynamic was a pretty accurate metaphor for the broader disagreement on what it means to be "sustainable."
For example, "strong sustainability" refers to the belief that there are specific functions of nature that cannot be truly replicated by humans, which is why we should strive to conserve them. "Weak sustainability," on the other hand, is the belief that natural resources can be replaced by human capital through technology; and as long as the pace of technology keeps up with environmental degradation everything is okay. Some see a fixed definition of sustainability as too constraining, not allowing for regional differences (the sustainability needs of Alaska might be totally different from New Jersey, for example). Others believe that it is impossible to act, or for the government to effectively regulate, without a cohesive definition.
We also examined sustainability based on the specific actors who can impact it. There are ways society can be sustainable from the perspectives of an individual (smart houses, recycling, composting), company (better procedures and environmentally friendly techniques), and government (regulations and initiatives).The class definitely got me recycling more, but I also came to the sobering realization of how much of the planet's future relies on "higher level" actors such as businesses and governments.
This is definitely not a subject you can just shut the book on. It affects how you perceive the whole world. And once you start thinking about it, you see the topic of sustainability pop up everywhere.
An education in sustainability is relevant in absolutely every career field.
As far back as 2005, every last one of the top 150 largest companies in the world had sustainability officers installed at the vice-presidential level or higher. And in In 2011, a study found that the majority of top sustainability officials at companies were only two degrees removed from the CEO. Not bad for a "green career."
During the course of my studies, we had a chief sustainability officer from a local company who came in to talk about his job. He told us about how he managed to streamlined procedures in order to create a new process that was more eco-friendly and saved the company money. This idea that turning a profit and going green don't have to be mutually exclusive has stuck with me.
And the truth is, jobs in this market are only becoming more sought after. The McKinsey Global Institute found that 49 percent of CEOs say sustainability is either their "top priority" or one of their top three priorities at their companies.
That’s an increase of 15 percent in just four years. Sustainability isn’t just a feel-good green field anymore, it’s a serious career path that slowly could be worth just as much as some STEM fields. Studying this field has undoubtedly expanded me immensely as a young professional, and has unequivocally helped me be successful in my career. Even if you don't have goals to one day be some company's chief sustainability officer, studying the subject prepares you for a world that has to take sustainability into consideration at every turn.