The importance of building sustainability skills in-house
Updated: Mar 14
In January 2023, Federica got the chance to speak with Elisabetta Marani. Elisabetta is a sustainability professional in the healthcare & pharma industry and the founder of The Young Sustainability Network.
They talked about:
What it takes for organizations to integrate sustainability successfully, so that it can transition from being the cherry on top to the new business as usual.
Why up-skilling the workforce can help tackle the mismatch between supply and demand for sustainability talent.
How the role of CSR-manager has changed and what 2 main skills it takes to succeed at this complex and ever-evolving profession.
We hope you enjoy this discussion as much as we did. You can either read the text below or listen to it on audio by clicking the button below.
How did you build your career in sustainability from a Biochemistry degree?
Many people wonder at first how I ended up in sustainability because I did start from a biochemistry bachelor's degree. In my case, getting my first exposure to a sustainability project was a lucky and totally unplanned encounter.
I was in a graduate rotational program, and I got assigned to a project that was related to water pollution. And I really loved it. After that, more projects became available in the wider field of sustainability because that company was just starting its sustainability journey.
At that time, I made it very clear to my managers that I had a strong interest for those projects. And that’s how I started forging my career path in the field.
How would you say the Sustainability manager role has evolved?
I think there was really a transition from the famous one-person-show, one person knowing it all about regulations, about certifications expected to set, implement, and deliver the sustainability strategy, to slowly embedding green skills across the whole workforce.
There’s been an evolution to a more holistic structure of how sustainability spurts forward in a company. The financial reporting team will know about ESG reporting, procurement will know about scope three emissions and the Operations Team will look at increasing recycling on the manufacturing floor and so forth.
Ideally, we want a transition towards sustainability experts and managers in all functions rather than a central and standalone sustainability person or team that manages it across the different functions.
In a BCG-report I read recently*, they talked about green talent and green skills. What do these terms mean and how can we foster them?
In the corporate world, green skills really translate to both the mindset and the know-how related to a sustainable transition of the business. They can be related to overarching themes like climate change and biodiversity. But there’s also more practical skills related to business needs, for example tracking emissions, implementing an energy management system, conducting human rights due diligence, and so on.
In a nutshell, green talent is really the full kit of what you need to know and to apply to embed sustainability in businesses.
What are the top “green skills” for sustainability functions?
According to that report that you are quoting, the top three needed skills are data management, climate change fundamentals and stakeholder engagement.
For me it really boils down to two key attributes: being a quick learner and a great communicator. A quick learner because everything moves so quickly. Climate science regulations, new guidelines, consumer interests, public information on sustainable companies: all of it travels so fast, it's always out there. You need to keep up and be ahead of it.
And a great communicator, because it's impossible to drive forward sustainability initiatives if you're not able to explain succinctly and indefinitely the why and the need for it to all sorts of levels, to all sorts of functions, while being able to speak their language and to think with their heads.
What’s the biggest challenge that companies are facing with regards to green talent?
While most businesses understand and value the sustainability imperative, there is still a silent gap that's not so talked about, which is the gap of green talent. A recent survey from the pharma industry showed how respondents ranked lack of large scale technologies and budget limitations as the most pressing challenges for delivering a sustainability strategy.
To me, we’re overlooking a more urgent issue, the one of talent for doing that. Because good luck implementing sustainability with good tech and enough money, but no people understanding what to do and how to do it.
Also, there was a LinkedIn report on green skills for 2022 that showed how job postings requiring green skills have increased 8% versus the share of green talent that's only grown 6% over the past five years. There is clearly a mismatch between supply and demand and it's likely to grow.
What does that mismatch between demand and supply mean?
Well, a likely scenario is that too many companies will be looking for green talent. And there might not be enough candidates to fill the vacancies, so companies could run out of green talent.
This means they can't achieve their strategy and their goals. It's also a problem for the planet, because without enough green skills, then we might fail to stay within the 1.5 degree increase by 2030.
What can companies do about it?
This shortage of talent and the speed at which companies currently need to move is really leading many companies to cultivate this green talent in-house through rapid upskilling. This is key to building a strong culture of sustainability as well as enhancing employee engagement.
If we go back to the idea of creating “fertile soil”, growing the sustainability expertise in-house ensures that in the long term you have sustainability integrated and distributed across the different functions. It will then become the new “business as usual”.
I hold a great deal of hope and excitement on this approach. Companies that are going in this direction are really ahead of the game in setting up their sustainability strategy for success.
How can training play a role in fostering in-house green talent?
Training, workshops, strong communication campaigns on sustainability can all help a lot. But alone it's not the winning factor.
To get the workforce ready for the sustainability transformation, it really boils down to three levels for me: structure, culture and talent.
Let’s talk about structure first:
One sustainability person or team that reports to a board of sustainability of the company is not sufficient. Sustainability inputs to this board should really come from many functions through a collaborative and iterative process.
Second, a strong sustainability culture:
This is really tied to good internal communication and alignment. All employees firstly need to know what their company's doing to be sustainable and, on a second level, understand how they can contribute to it. Very often companies jump to the latter directly.
Last but not least is talent:
That means integrating sustainability training into leadership career accelerator programs and investing in young talent. According to the latest LinkedIn report on green skills, young generations are the most committed to solving climate change through their jobs, but they’re also experiencing the greatest growth of green talent in all countries.
What advice would you give to someone in other departments that want to move into a sustainability role?
I regularly monitor job boards not for any personal interests, but mostly to stay up to date with sustainability jobs trends. I see that employers are increasingly diversifying requirements. It's not only anymore “Sustainability Manager” title with knowledge of sustainability strategies, but it's evolving to be more heterogeneous and with function-specific skills.
There are green jobs for any background. Through the Young Sustainability Network, we really stress on how transitioning to green jobs has never been as accessible as now.
Because of this urgency to act, companies are not so rigid and strict on requirements. The ability to learn quickly and communicate well are slowly taking over the expert knowledge profiles.
So, if you're in a function which is not aware of sustainability currently, you can act as a bridge between your function and the sustainability team and very soon they might be looking for a sustainability person in this function.
Lastly, don’t forget that data shows how most people that currently work in sustainability don't have a sustainability academic background. Nowadays, pivoting to a green career is expedited due to the urgency of companies to find someone proactive to step up and take the initiative.
*BCG-Report, published January 2023: