What is a sustainable job?

I am currently studying in a program called “Master’s in Strategic Leadership towards Sustainability” (MSLS) at Blekinge Tekniska Högskola (BTH) in Karlskrona, Sweden. The goal of the program is to give students the tools to support the transition to a more sustainable development in their field of interest or expertise. We are around 50 people graduating from the program in 2018.

At the moment, my colleagues and I are busy working on our Master’s theses and – more and more – thinking about our personal futures, where to go and what to do next. After graduating from a program with such a specialized focus, the expectations for the next professional step are very high.

Many questions

Working in Sustainability

Most of my colleagues obviously want to work in the broad area of sustainability. When it comes to details, there are many questions to be asked: Are you supposed to go and work for a company that is already perceived as sustainable? Are you supposed to search for a company with an inspiring leadership that cares about society and the environment? Are you supposed to look for a company with a diverse employee body that values individual development?

Or should you work for an organization in which developing a sustainable future does not seem to be an obvious goal? Would you work for a company that does (at least officially) not care about sustainability? Would you even consider working in a job that does not include any of the buzzwords used in the title of our master’s program?

My colleagues and myself discuss these things frequently those days. Most of those questions require very personal decisions. However, I think that one question can be answered in a more strategic way: What is a sustainable job?

A Definition of Sustainability

In order to find an answer, it is necessary to somehow define sustainability. The MSLS-program works together with an NGO called The Natural Step, founded by BTH-professor Karl-Henrik Robèrt. Amongst other things, they use the same definition of sustainability:

In a sustainable society, nature is not subject to systematically increasing …

  1. … concentrations of substances extracted from the Earth’s crust,
  2. … concentrations of substances produced by society,
  3. … degradation by physical means,
  4. … and in that society there are no structural obstacles to people’s health, influence, competence, impartiality and meaning-making.

These guiding sentences are called the Sustainability Principles. If the principles are followed, then sustainability becomes possible. The first three principles are concerning environmental sustainability, principles four to eight (summarized above in 4.) address social sustainability*.

Environmental sustainability means that the environment should not be systematically destroyed or harmed. The extraction of substances from the Earth’s crust, e.g. of fossil carbon, should be avoided. There should be no concentration of substances produced by humans, e.g. of CFCs. Also the environment should not be degraded, e.g. through over-harvesting of forests or over-fishing.

Social sustainability means that people should not be exposed to conditions leading to injury or illness and conditions that hinder them from participating in shaping social systems. Also, they should not be stopped from gaining competence, unequal treatment should be avoided and people should have the possibility to create meaning.

While the environmental principles feel very tangible to me, the social principles sometimes feel a little vague and it helps to know what they are based on. One aspect I like to focus on that is crucial for a sustainable society is that there is trust between people and in societal institutions. Trust is the glue that holds societies together and therefore crucial for social sustainability.

Defining a Sustainable Job

Back to the topic: does a certain job contribute to sustainability? It does, if it does not harm the Sustainability Principles described above. So a job (in an organization) that does not harm the environment and a job (in an organization) that helps society to develop towards a positive direction, e.g. through helping to create trust, can be called a sustainable job.

Some jobs quite obviously contribute to a more sustainable development. Organizations like B Corporations focus on sustainability, other companies get ranked regarding their engagement towards a more sustainable development.

Apart from all that, I think that many companies, organizations and jobs do not get a lot of attention but contribute significantly to a sustainable society and/or environment.

Some examples of jobs that contribute to sustainability in my personal point of view:

  • – Auditors: As mentioned above, trust is very important for the sustainability of societies. In many countries people are losing trust in the state, the economy, the media or in each other. Auditors or tax inspectors (e.g. of the European Anti-Fraud Office) guarantee the adherence to financial rules in a country. Therefore, they co-create trust in the financial system and the tax system which contributes to social sustainability.
  • – Open Source Software Engineers: While many proprietary software products are great, there is always the risk of dependence on one company. Merely knowing that there is an open source alternative creates a feeling of reassurance, at least for tech enthusiasts like me. Jobs at the organizations that are creating those free, open products (like e.g. Firefox for browsing the internet, Signal for messaging or AntennaPod, an open-source podcast app) contribute to social sustainability by supporting people to keep influence and independence.
  • – Jobs in the area of education: As a former teacher I am obviously biased towards this one. However, I am convinced that teaching (of every kind) is one of the most important professions in our societies. Teachers contribute to the creation of independent and responsible citizens and through the delivery of knowledge they can contribute to social and environmental sustainability.
Choosing a Path

A very personal choice

It has to be said that it is very unlikely, that what you do does not at all harm any Sustainability Principle. Every product that you buy could potentially violate one of the Principles and so could every job. Avoiding trade-offs is probably not 100% possible.

Aside from that, the contribution of one’s job to sustainability is probably not the only important criteria for choosing a path for the future. Location, industry, career opportunities, wage – everything matters up to a certain extent. However, if someone is driven by the thought that they want to contribute to a more sustainable society, I think that it is important to consider different options. Jobs that include key words such as “Corporate Social Responsibility” (CSR) in their titles might be obvious choices. However, supporting environmental and social sustainability implies a company’s commitment beyond the mere creation of a CSR-department.

Fortunately, those are not the only jobs that help moving our world into the right direction and there are many more out there. A specific definition of sustainability could help with this very personal choice.

* This is a very simplified summary of the Sustainability Principles. Further information about this definition of sustainability can be found in the research paper „A framework for strategic sustainable development„.

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