Sustainability consulting and design - how to start?
September 25, 2008 11:26 AM   Subscribe

Interested in the field of sustainability consulting and design - questions and concerns inside

Hello Mefis,

I'm interested in breaking into the field of sustainability consulting and design, but don't know how to.

My background is in Web and user experience design - but my passion lies in doing something meaningful besides building Yet Another Corporate Web site for an Agency. I'm reading about sustainable design and social entrepreneurship and like what I've read so far. I'm looking at companies like Sustain, SustainAbility, BluSky, IDEO and others, and reading sites like Design21 ( to get up to speed on the field. The idea of helping companies become sustainable through life cycle analysis is probably my strongest passion out of my many, many interests.

However, because the field seems to be relatively new, there don't seem to be existing standards of what's necessary to get into the field - and I'm hesitant to use the job ads I've seen so far as 'the' standard, since often HR folks write the job ads without really knowing what the job entails. While I have consulting experience, I'm hesitant to just sign up for a 3 year MBA or environmental studies related degree for the sake of being able to enter the field - and find out that the standards for getting into the field have changed. It's similar to user experience in that sense - the ads often read 'needs a minimum of 5-7 years work experience' yet UX as a field hasn't been around for 5-7 years.

Any ideas of what to do? I can network, and attend events, and keep up to date on professional resources, but wonder if there are specific companies or forums to explore. I'm thinking sustainability is a good field to explore considering current (and future) energy and business concerns, but feel like breaking into the field is harder than it should be.

Thanks in advance for any comments or advice. Drop me an email via MeFi if you wish to take this offline.
posted by rmm to Work & Money (6 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Did you do an undergraduate degree? If so you could probably go straight into a 1-year masters program, as you mention not wanting to put 3 years in. I just finished one in environmental assessement and management and now am an environmental consultant. In terms of sustainability, there are definitely opportunities in designing and implementing environmental management systems such as ISO 14000. I don't have a lot of ideas on combining the field with design, unfortunately, but as I say I'm new to the environmental field and hopefully some folks with more experience will pop in soon with better answers.
posted by hazyjane at 12:53 PM on September 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

Can you link to some of the companies you're talking about? Their names are so commonplace that it's pretty much a crapshoot as to which ones are correct in the Google search, and even the couple that I can figure out have websites full of gobbledy-gook PRspeak, and IDEO seems like they're all over the map with their work. Also, is there any particular aspect of "design" you'd like to work with? Like, designing what?
posted by LionIndex at 1:22 PM on September 25, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks for the replies.

Hazyjane, yes, I've done an undergrad (in philosophy and liberal arts); I can convince any employer that I have the critical thinking skills, but hadn't thought of approaching grad schools to see about advanced placement into a program. I had thought about the MBA in Design Strategy from the California College of the Arts, but the amount of course work on sustainability seems to be limited to one course.

LionIndex, some of the companies that I'm talking about include: Fit Associates - in particular the "Designing for Experience" presentation Marc Fitting and Aradhana Goel from Maya did on the Carnegie Library. Their work got me excited about the idea of real world design problems. I also like the work that Lunar Design is doing, and the fact that like IDEO they take an interdisciplinary approach to their work. I also like what Act Now Productions is doing - when they "identify opportunities for sustainability across the entire organization". However, I'm a little cautious about delving into PR or branding related work - the possibility of greenwashing seems to increase when one starts talking about positioning. I also agree with the amount of "gobbledy-gook PRspeak" in the field - it's maddening trying to find out what is the real work and what is the PR talk, and if companies truly want new employees or if the Web site is more for prospective clients.

In summary, I like designing solutions to problems - sometimes that's a digital problem, but often it's an analog, physical product related problem, and if there's a sustainable solution by default I'll choose it. My ideal process or approach toolbox is based on the needs of the client, but I'm beginning to wonder where, if any, I should apply to... the issue isn't with the clients so much as finding the company to target.
posted by rmm at 3:49 PM on September 25, 2008

rmm, are you wanting to work for a design firm or for an environmental consulting company? If the latter, I think most employers will want to see some sort of science background - doesn't have to be environmental science - most of the people I work with are geologists or engineers. I'm neither, but it helped that I had a science degree when I entered the field. The rest was just on-the-job learning.

As far as sustainability, I think it's hard to break into the field because it's still being defined. I'm part of the Sustainable Solutions Group at my company and we're still working out how we fit into all of this and where the business opportunities lie. Much of that will be dependent on what sorts of regulations come about in the next couple of years. A lot of the big corporations are already implementing sustainable practices and it's hard to break through and get work from them. And the smaller guys aren't necessarily doing it yet because they don't have to.

We are doing what you suggest - networking, attending conference and seminars, and keeping up-to-date on new developments. In addition to marketing to new clients, we're also suggesting sustainable solutions to current clients and encouraging them to go that route. That might one way for you to approach it.

I suggest that you join local environmental organizations in your area and try to attend their meetings regularly. Additionally, you might check out the Chamber of Commerce - they usually have an energy and environmental subcommittee. And look into the local chapter of the US Green Building Council. Those types of organizations can be great for networking.

Have you considered getting LEED accreditation?
posted by curie at 4:36 PM on September 25, 2008

It would help if you narrowed down your interests. There are a lot of ways to break into the business and the highest paid jobs will got to those with a technical background: landscape architect, chemist, engineer etc. There are other positions (implementation) that require less technical expertise and more of a project management background. Then there is a HUGE market for people with a legal/ policy background who can negotiate or coordinate things like carbon offsets, water rights etc.

Non-technical jobs are probably in the area of non-profits, outreach, education and liaising between businesses and various local governments or within a business, helping them to reach their sustainability goals. That seems like it would be fun and wouldn't require much of a technical background.
posted by fshgrl at 6:16 PM on September 25, 2008

What about doing web work for one of the many NGOs doing corporate sustainability work out there?
posted by chefscotticus at 6:55 PM on September 30, 2008

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