Where a Master of Sustainability Leadership may take you

September 10, 2018 · 6 min read · By ASU Online

Sustainability has become a core business concept of many industries around the world. As a result, sustainability-related roles are becoming more prevalent and essential for organizational success. Learn more about some of the most popular sustainability leadership careers today.


Environmental awareness and concern have increased significantly over the past several decades. Many private-sector companies now realize that implementing sustainability best practices benefit their operational bottom lines as well as the world around them. This has created the need for individuals in supervisory positions to direct and integrate the sustainability efforts of businesses and other organizations through an intricate understanding of its core tenets and practices.

Because sustainability, conservation and renewable energy are emerging concepts, the professional management roles in this sector have only recently been defined. Many of the first sustainability managers and leaders may have been self-taught in environmental science or have other sector backgrounds such as risk mitigation or public relations. They may not have had formal sustainability training, but they still brought a passion for sustainability to their work.

Today, colleges and universities throughout the U.S. now have programs for various degree levels and formats that center on learning the principles of sustainability, such as an online Master of Sustainability Leadership. This academic discipline and the associated coursework can serve as a strong foundation for individuals seeking a long-term career in the sustainability management field. Through a combination of hard work and expert instruction by faculty, students pursuing an MSL can develop the skills essential for strong roles in this field. The common outcome of higher education—career advancement—may be there upon graduation, too, as the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a growth rate of 11 percent between 2016 and 2026 for these types of positions.

Here are five notable career possibilities for an MSL graduate:

1. Sustainability Planner.

This role is undeniably broad, and its details and job specifications may vary between organizations. Sustainability planners may be tasked with managing the day-to-day operations behind resource efficiency and environmental preservation efforts. These tasks can include green building initiatives, eco-friendly procurement plans, the development of the paperless office, energy efficiency, implementing alternative or renewable energy and more. At times, planners may have to make the case for environmentally friendly initiatives to the company's executive managers who might not immediately understand the bottom-line benefits. As a result, any successful planner must be proficient in general business skills such as project management, decision-making and communication.

It will also be necessary for these professionals to have knowledge of both historical environmental issues and developing trends in sustainability. Data analysis is a major aspect of quantifying sustainability in an organizational setting, so an understanding of this concept can be extremely valuable. Salary estimates from Indeed, PayScale and Glassdoor place this role at an average salary ranging from $53,000 to $70,000 annually.

Sustainability professionals discuss work at a table.

2. Chief Sustainability Officer

After individuals who have earned an MSL gain relevant professional experience and have proven their expertise, they can begin pursuing higher-level roles. The position of chief sustainability officer stands out prominently among these possibilities.

Chief sustainability officers spend much of their time speaking to major company stakeholders: members of the board of directors, fellow C-level officers and owners. They are responsible for developing and reviewing green initiatives from both a tactical perspective and within the context of the organization's short- and long-term strategies.

Succeeding in this position requires confidence as well as the ability to be clear and forthright in justifying the value of any proposed green practices. Indeed reported executive-level sustainability director salaries at approximately $108,000 to $124,000. The BLS doesn’t have a dedicated entry for CSO, but data for chief executives in general cites a median wage of $183,270.

3. Resources Specialist

Sustainability-oriented resources specialists have an analytical role in this industry, managing sustainability practices for an organization, tracking energy usage, monitoring the supply chain, assessing renewable materials and more. Resources specialists oversee sustainability initiatives through the lens of resource management, optimization and consultancy.

An MSL may be the desired path for resources specialists, as students can focus on skills related to many of the duties under the job title. For example, a student who enjoys business strategy could find fulfillment in devising organization-wide sustainability policies in this role. MSL students who are interested in environmental policy can learn the related subjects in an MSL program and use that knowledge in a resources specialist position. Overall, the BLS estimated this profession's median salary at $69,400.

4. Public Relations Specialist

Resource use and climate change are prominent issues in today’s media, but they remain divisive topics. For instance, a 2017 Gallup poll found that 62 percent of Americans believe the effects of global warming have already begun, up from a 54 percent average between 2001 and 2014. However, disagreements regarding the specifics of how climate change has developed and how it impacts the world are still prominent. Organizations need professionals who can navigate sensitive topics like these by communicating the essential aspects of sustainability policy on a public stage through a variety of different channels, including social sites and other media.

Public relations specialists with a lens on environmental issues must possess the skills necessary to increase the public’s understanding of an organization’s sustainability priorities and initiatives. These professionals must also keep the public’s focus on the facts and not personal opinions toward sustainability. A sustainability PR expert will be responsible for upholding a company’s brand identity through these messaging efforts.

According to the BLS, PR specialists can expect a median salary of $59,300.

5. Director of Business Development

Sustainable business practices have direct effects on the profit, sales and continued operation of an organization. Directors of business development oversee these initiatives to ensure they align with organizational goals and strategies.

These professionals perform a variety of tasks intended to ensure sustainability initiatives don't interfere with the bottom line and can grow successfully. Such responsibilities may include forming partnerships with other companies to create mutually beneficial, affordable arrangements that maintain eco-friendly practices. Business development directors can also work to oversee the sale of green products or services. The BLS projects that demand for directors of business development will increase at a pace greater than the national average for all occupations, with 10 percent growth predicted from 2016 to 2026. PayScale also noted that professionals in this role can earn a median salary of $104,000.

Learn more about your potential career in sustainability leadership

Those who believe that they would be well-suited for a leadership role in sustainability may benefit from the Master of Sustainability Leadership program offered online from Arizona State University. The ASU School of Sustainability, the first college of its kind, is supported by faculty members who are experts in these concepts and experienced in sharing unique perspectives in the sustainability field.

Earning an online MSL provides students with the flexibility to learn on their own schedules and study a broad spectrum of subjects. With classes that cover global sustainability strategy, leadership skills, the economics of sustainability and more students can learn the skills needed to advance their career in sustainability.


ASU Online – Master of Sustainability Leadership
O*Net OnLine – Sustainability Specialists
PayScale – Environmental Planner Salary
Indeed – Sustainability Planner Jobs
O*Net OnLine – Chief Sustainability Officers
Indeed – Chief Sustainability Officers Salaries
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics – Environmental Scientists and Specialists
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics – Public Relations Specialists
Gallup – Global Warming Concern at Three-Decade High in U.S

Sustainability employees hold a conversation in a meeting room.


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