Decades before environmental, social, and governance became the fast-growing investment area it is today, individual employees were creating sustainability opportunities in their organizations — leading a used book drive, or advocating for double-sided printer settings.
Over time, that handful of concerned employees spread into different departments within a company. Supply chain managers started to examine their companies’ sourcing, traceability, and relationships with distributors. Regulatory compliance roles began to emerge as laws like the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act were enacted, and government relations divisions turned their attention to managing lobbying dollars and community outreach.
But it wasn’t until the last 15 or 20 years when this shift from reactionary to proactive environmental practices became the norm, and a company’s sustainability was tied to its success, explained lecturer and senior associate director of the Sustainability Initiative at MIT Sloan.
“Now there’s a whole set of roles and industries that have popped up around socially responsible investing and ESG,” Patten said.
Sustainability is no longer an afterthought in corporate strategy, Patten said, it’s embedded into every part of an organization. Even the public sector has realized this, she said, pointing to President Joseph Biden’s “whole-of-government” approach to the climate crisis.
“The tides have changed in terms of organizational design,” Patten said.
To reflect that change in companies, the MIT Sustainability Initiative shares with its students a matrix of where and what kinds of jobs are available in the field.
Here’s a closer look at five MIT Sloan alumni with 21st century sustainability jobs, and expert insight on how such roles can intersect with diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Senior product manager — Keurig Dr Pepper
Even though “sustainability” isn’t in her job title, 90% of Neha Thatte Mallik’s work at the beverage producer and distributor is related to it.
“My role is on the coffee pod innovation team, but the majority of my work is driving sustainability through understanding what consumers want, and coming up with an innovative product road map that delivers that through sustainable materials and processes,” Mallik said.
Mallik joined the company in 2016 as a manager responsible for the brand and communication strategy for recyclable K-Cup pods. In 2019 she transitioned to her current role, which includes overseeing the strategy and execution of different sustainable pods due to launch in the future.
Mallik said she’s seeing more of an integration of innovation with sustainability jobs, especially in the food and beverage and consumer packaged goods industries. Now job titles look more like vice president or director of innovation and sustainability, she said.
“You can’t really become more sustainable without being innovative,” Mallik said. “At a certain point you need to be doing things differently, you need to innovate to be more sustainable, otherwise you’re just stuck in the status quo.”
Program director, agriculture and environment — Sustainable Food Lab
Kelly Rincon joined the Sustainable Food Lab after a two-year stint as the global sourcing manager for procurement and sustainability at Anheuser-Busch InBev.
The Sustainable Food Lab is a nonprofit founded in 2004 that helps food and beverage companies (including Anheuser-Busch) be more sustainable. Rincon works on a team handling large-scale commodity agriculture — for example, corn, soybeans, and wheat — in North America, Australia, and some parts of Europe.
"We’ll run these different labs where we bring companies together in precompetitive collaborations, so these companies can work through various aspects of sustainable agriculture together,” Rincon said — such as aligning on how to account for Scope 3 emissions reductions. “It’s a way for them to foster shared learning and find ways to partner on specific programs with farmers. We also consult for individual companies who want to dive deeper on a specific agriculture topic.”
Rincon said she’s also noticed more partnerships between sustainability and other corporate functions, such as sustainability and procurement teams working together on supply chains.
Sustainability lead — Tatcha
There is no silver bullet for sustainability, according to Lauren Schilling, but she’s doing her best to make a difference through her work at Tatcha, a Japanese skincare company.
Schilling works across the company’s different departments — including packaging, product development, and operations — to develop and implement sustainability programs.
“That can be everything from trying to reduce our waste through packaging, but also through logistics such as looking at container utilization and how that would impact our carbon emissions,” she said.
She also looks at ingredient sourcing and harvesting, in addition to end-of-life considerations for products, and she works with the marketing team to ensure Tatcha isn’t greenwashing.
Schilling said she’s seen suppliers and manufacturers that work with Tatcha also take a similar approach to weaving sustainability through a variety of departments.
“That just speaks to how many other companies that they work with are asking for those things as well,” Schilling said.
Energy management executive
Harini Sundaram most recently worked for Schneider Electric USA, leading the commercial growth of its IoT platform, EcoStruxure, which offers data analytics to customers and partners to help them be more sustainable.
Schneider is not the only company pushing for more sustainability, Sundaram said.
Whether it’s BlackRock CEO Larry Fink calling on his portfolio companies to disclose how a net zero economy factors into their long-term plans, or younger talent pools showing their preference for greener employers, this “fire is everywhere,” Sundaram said.
That’s why more roles are emerging in sustainability consulting, she said. For example, someone who can help a hospital building operate more sustainably while not jeopardizing employees’ and patients’ safety.
“Ideally the consultant role should have that knowledge, that’s on the hard skill side,” Sundaram said. “On the soft skills side: Problem-solving, curiosity, and learning agility are critical given the rapid pace of change.”
Senior consultant for environmental, social & governance — Liberty Mutual Insurance
Andy Wu integrates sustainability into Liberty Mutual’s underwriting and investing through the identification of ESG risks and opportunities. This is also where he said he sees more roles being created in other companies.
“I am happy to see growth in those [sustainable finance] roles,” Wu said. “I’m seeing a lot more organizations focus on integrating ESG topics into their investment decisions, and these are opportunities that I would say weren't as prevalent 10 years ago.”
While the hiring efforts are long overdue, there’s still a lot of room for progress, Wu said. Years ago, he and some of his peers had a conversation about what success would look like in their line of sustainability work.
“The picture that we painted for ourselves and in our roles was that we wouldn’t be needed by an organization,” Wu said. “If the ultimate goal is to embed sustainability into everything an organization does, our role wouldn’t be needed. I think we still have quite a long runway to get to that point, where sustainability is truly integrated in every aspect of what an organization does.”
More sustainability jobs mean more opportunities for inclusion
With sustainability roles developing across companies in every industry, the benefit is not just a greener economy, but more opportunities to reach untapped talent in a variety of spaces.
“If you think about how the world has to transform to that 2050 net zero world, there’s so many opportunities,” said David Miller, co-founder and managing director of Clean Energy Ventures. “What we’re seeing is entrepreneurs, engineers, scientists, everyone is much more aware of the climate crisis, and there’s a lot of motivation now. So folks are coming up with new technologies, new business models, new approaches, to address the climate crisis across lots of different dimensions.”
While Clean Energy Ventures usually deals with younger two- or three-person startups, the investment group is conscious of broader ESG and DEI goals, and includes specific clauses in its term sheets to address them.
For example, an early-stage company making solar panels might not be thinking about supply chain or diversity, said Miller, PhD ’07.
“Once we invest, then we’re following up on it and saying look, when you hire, you need to think about diversity, when you’re working you have to think about using a sustainable supply chain, and you have to think about safety in the workplace. Things like that,” Miller said. “We’re making sure that they are thinking about them, taking them into account, and we’re tracking their progress on those measures.”
Kerry Bowie, ’94, MBA ’06, founder of Browning the Green Space, is also working on improving DEI in the sustainability space. The coalition has a threefold mission to create jobs, create wealth, and reduce energy burden in communities of color. This is done, Bowie said, by creating a pipeline for career advancement, providing technical assistance and access to capital, and removing barriers to the adoption and uptake of green technology, products, and services in communities of color.
“How do we make sure that we have a just energy transition, that we are making sure that we have Black and brown folk, and women, as we do this work? How do we make sure we’re getting them jobs, getting them trained, getting them the technical assistance and capital to launch startups?” Bowie said. “I think there’s an opportunity for sustainability to mix with that.”