Building the Profession of Sustainability Management

by |September 21, 2020

“In order to make an omelet you’ve got to break some eggs.” I remember interviewing a production manager in a thriving factory and that’s what he said when I asked him why his company created so much waste and refused to stop pumping pollutants into the river. For some reason, that factory closed down a few decades after our discussion. I thought of his approach as one of “damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead.” It was a form of management that was heedless of the indirect impact of production and only focused on making stuff as fast and cheap as possible. When I first started teaching and writing about management in the 1980s, I focused on adding mindfulness to the management process. I believed that an effective manager needed to think constantly about the organization’s people, and the organization’s capacity for change. The goal of the effective manager was to develop and implement strategies to ensure the organization could attract the resources needed to survive and thrive. The mindlessness of the macho manager seemed a prescription for failure and with decades of experience, I now know that is generally true.

As we entered the 21st century on this more crowded and polluted planet, it occurred to some of us that the process of formulating and implementing public policy and of organizational management needed to factor in and prioritize a concern for preserving the planet. To do this, managers and analysts needed a deeper understanding of earth systems science. That led to the development of the MPA in Environmental Science and Policy in 2002, a partnership between Columbia’s Earth Institute and School of International and Public Affairs. The path-breaking masters program we began back then continues to thrive as it nears its twentieth year. In thinking through the management part of that program’s curriculum, it became clear to me that the mindfulness of the effective manager should no longer be limited to human resource management, strategy, finance, performance, information and financial management. In addition to those functions, managers needed to systematically integrate the “physical dimensions of environmental sustainability” into routine and strategic decision-making. As our thinking on management evolved, we decided to create a second masters degree, to educate professionals in a new form of management we termed “sustainability management.” A partnership between the Earth Institute and Columbia’s School of Professional Studies was formed and continues today as that degree program celebrates its 10th anniversary this year.

Together, both of these programs have graduated over 1,700 students and when I speak with our graduates and discuss their career paths it’s obvious that we are in the process of creating a new kind of professional — a sustainability professional, and a new kind of manager— a sustainability manager. The graduates of our programs routinely factor sustainability issues into their decision-making processes. They push their organizations to pay attention to environmental impacts. When looking at their place of work, they consider the source of its energy and the efficiency of its use. They think about indoor air quality, the use of water and where the building’s waste ends up. When thinking about the goods or services they produce, they think about environmental impacts including the production of greenhouse gasses. The vulnerability of their organizations to climate impacts and extreme weather events are typically top of mind.

What has been particularly interesting to me is how the curriculum of these programs has evolved in ways that I could not have predicted. My colleagues on the faculty, and our students and graduates all recognize that this is a new and dynamic field. Early on, we divided our ecology curriculum into general and urban ecology. A course on land use evolved into a course on toxics and risk. We added courses on green architecture and the built environment, on green infrastructure and energy efficiency. An entire subfield in sustainability finance has developed under the leadership of my brilliant colleague Satyajit Bose, and courses on the circular economy, environmental law and gender and sustainability have also been established. This year, we added a course on sustainability and fashion, and we are also offering a course on corporate sustainability reporting and another on the changing nature of consumerism. In response to the national movement against racism and for equity and environmental justice, we are changing existing courses and adding new ones. The list could go on, but you get the point, the field of sustainability management continues to be defined.

A conclusion I reached years ago is that organizations that were managed sustainably needed to be located in sustainable cities that were populated by people leading environmentally conscious sustainable lifestyles. If people spread out into the countryside in order to “get back to nature,” they could damage the planet and certainly lose the economy of scale provided by cities. But COVID-19 makes density difficult and has convinced me that a key piece of urban sustainability infrastructure is a robust, functioning global system of public health. In the second edition of my book, The Sustainable City, my Columbia colleague and now co-author, Dong Guo and I have added a number of sections on systems required to ensure public health. This is not the first pandemic nor will it be the last, but the multi-trillion-dollar impact of COVID-19 requires that we do better at detecting, isolating and treating viruses; and we need to invest in the capacity to develop vaccines to address the next pandemic. Sustainability requires densely settled cities and those cities require comprehensive public health systems.

If you “google” the definition of a “profession” it states that a profession is “a paid occupation, especially one that involves prolonged training and a formal qualification.” That is true, but I would add that professionals operate within a similar set of values and have a shared understanding of how the world works. Sustainability is both a profession and a paradigm. The sustainability paradigm places great importance on understanding the interconnectedness of ecosystems and environmental impacts and the problems caused by the deployment of technologies without considering their possible negative impacts on human and environmental health and welfare. Sustainability managers understand that negative impacts such as toxics in drinking water, polluted air, global warming, or the transmission of dangerous viruses must be understood and mitigated. But they also understand that renewable energy is less expensive than fossil fuels (and will be even less expensive in the future). They understand that environmental impacts on a crowded planet can lead to huge costs for clean-up and compensation for damage. Ask the folks running BP and Volkswagen about the financial costs of sustainability mismanagement and then ask those running Walmart how much money they’ve saved (and therefore made) by installing solar power and requiring their suppliers to report on the sustainability of their supply chains.

My view is that all competent managers must be sustainability managers and therefore, the profession of sustainability management should eventually be subsumed by the profession of management. Of course, it could happen the other way around and the only type of management taught in business and public policy schools will be sustainability management. No manager would be considered competent if they could not read or understand a balance sheet or a financial control system. A manager who ignored the cost of energy or waste and ignored potential environmental liability should also be considered incompetent.

Accounting was developed as a critical management profession in the mid-20th century, resulting in the creation of the position of chief financial officer (CFO) in many organizations. At the end of the century, we saw a similar development as information management became central and we saw the rise of chief information officers (CIO) in many large organizations. In this century, we are starting to see the development of organizational units that work to promote the principles of environmental sustainability. The professionals we are educating at Columbia and in a growing number of universities are being prepared for those roles and have already begun to fill them. Today, most of those running sustainability units are trained in other fields. As they retire they will be replaced by well-trained sustainability professionals.

Get our newsletter

I'd like to get more stories like this.
Email address
Secure and Spam free...

Leave a Reply

1 Comment threads
0 Thread replies
Most reacted comment
Hottest comment thread
1 Comment authors
Deborah Recent comment authors
newest oldest most voted
Notify of

Excellent and easily understood for us non-professionals! I intend to post this article on my Facebook page.