The Big Picture: Careers in Environment and Natural Resources

Human production and consumption rely on our environment's natural resources and ecosystems. Professionals in environmental sustainability work to ensure our activities contribute to – or at least don’t detract from – those ecosystems’ ability to endure. A rapidly growing world population places ever-greater demands on these resources and if left unchecked, leads to climate change. Sustainability leaders look for solutions to both economic and environmental demands to ensure that future generations have the natural resources they need to meet their needs.

  • More than 8.5 million hectares of tropical rainforest are destroyed every year.1
  • Consumers in wealthier nations waste approximately 222 million tons of food a year – almost the entire annual net food production of sub-Saharan Africa.2
  • Greenhouse gas emissions due to human activities worldwide increased by 26% from 1990 to 2005.3

The lowdown

What can you expect if you decide to go into environmental sustainability?

Innovative leaders wanted

Environmental sustainability influences every job in every sector in one way or another. While people often focus on dedicated sustainability jobs, some of the biggest opportunities lie in more conventional roles, where “business as usual” is the norm. Are you ready to tackle sustainability problems where others haven’t? If so, dive in!

It’s not all about communing with nature

Love of the natural world is a powerful motivator, but many environmental sustainability jobs will keep you in the office. While some roles may allow you to spend time in the field, expect to spend more time in front of a computer than on the trail as you advance in your career.

Resilience is a virtue

Unsustainable practices are often entrenched in corporate or government systems, or rooted in the daily habits of millions. Whether you’re chipping away at a corporate system or advocating for radical policy change, you’ll need a mindset that can handle setbacks and keep going despite discouragement.

Meet the players

Who's addressing environmental sustainability and natural resource issues, and how?

Corporations

Corporations are taking major strides to mitigate environmental impact across their operations.Whether conserving energy, reducing packaging, increasing recycling, or sourcing sustainable components, most forward-thinking corporations today recognizes that sustainability can save money, attract customers, and ensure the longevity of their business and industry as a whole.

Social enterprises and sustainable businesses

These ventures build sustainability into their very business model — and sometimes even their legal structures. Some, like the new venture Sanergy, create a product or service to address an environmental problem head-on, while others like Honest Tea build sustainability into every aspect of a more traditional product and business.

Nonprofit organizations

Nonprofits aren’t just sustainability advocates or land preservationists; they’re often thought leaders creating environmental certification standards or lobbying for policy change. Some, like the Environmental Defense Fund, engage corporations in partnerships to reduce environmental impact, while others mobilize citizen engagement on everything from toxic chemicals in urban neighborhoods to organic food co-ops.

Government

Government is a huge employer, offering opportunities to research, set, and enforce environmental standards for companies and individual citizens. Agencies may also enact policies to promote green job creation or, like the USPS, work to improve the sustainability of their own supply chains and operations.

Research and consulting firms

These firms assist with research, analysis, and strategy. Some, like Blu Skye, have a specific sustainability focus and expertise, while many large, established consulting firms have dedicated sustainability practices.

Options within the field

  • Product design, supply chains, and manufacturing all involve rethinking the materials that go into consumer products; where and how components are sourced and manufactured; and where products go at the end of their lives.
  • Waste and wastewater involves working to reduce waste of water and materials; increase recycling and the usability of recycled materials; and improve wastewater treatment.
  • Transportation is a large lever for climate change mitigation, and involves building better infrastructure and improving the efficiency of commercial and personal transportation options.
  • Food systems and sustainable agriculture entails finding solutions that feed the world while preserving freshwater resources, reducing deforestation, greening transportation, and addressing the impact of fertilizers and pesticides.