If you want to combine your interest in the environment with business and leadership, sustainability consulting could be for you

As a sustainability consultant, you'll promote sustainable solutions for the often conflicting needs of people, the environment, development and successful business. You'll help businesses develop an environmental conscience, while simultaneously saving them money by making choices that positively impact the earth and all who live on it.

Your work will involve evaluating the impact a company is having on the environment (for example, their carbon footprint) and then minimising that impact or planning the use of limited resources. You may be involved in all or some stages of a project from planning and building, through to remediation, restoration and reuse of land and property, for example.

Types of work

Areas of work in sustainability consultancy include:

  • residential development, renovation and lettings
  • on-shore and off-shore oil and gas, marine and coastal projects
  • urban regeneration schemes
  • transport infrastructure
  • industrial facilities.

Responsibilities

As a sustainability consultant, you'll work closely with clients to help them measure and then improve their sustainability performance. This could involve looking at:

  • materials used and the waste produced, including pollutants and noise
  • management of energy, water, air and land
  • how a building performs in terms of energy use - how much energy is used for power and temperature regulation, and how this energy can be recycled
  • impact on local communities and eco-systems
  • suppliers and procurement
  • sustainable construction strategies
  • compliance with environmental legislation.

Although tasks will vary depending on your area of work, you'll typically need to:

  • carry out research and ecology surveys and use environmental impact assessments to measure issues such as carbon footprint, energy performance, air quality and noise pollution
  • undertake mandatory assessments required by law for commercial and residential properties, such as the Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method (BREEAM) and the Code for Sustainable Homes assessment
  • collect and analyse data, and produce reports to demonstrate your findings
  • present your findings to clients
  • provide advice around how clients can meet regulations laid out in environmental law
  • recommend technologies and explain the most cost-effective and beneficial routes to sustainability. This could involve switching to alternative energy sources to lower energy costs, smarter water usage, reducing waste and lowering carbon emissions
  • keep up to date with current research and legislation via specialist publications, following relevant social media groups or by attending conferences
  • manage projects which involve identifying potential clients, preparing bid documents and managing resources and budgets to deadline.

Salary

  • Starting salaries for graduate, junior and assistant sustainability consultants are between £18,000 and £25,000.
  • Experienced sustainability consultants can earn between £25,000 and £40,000.
  • Senior or principal sustainability consultants can earn salaries of £40,000 to £60,000 or more.

Additional benefits may include financial bonuses for securing contacts, a company car and mobile phone.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

Working hours are typically Monday to Friday, 9.00am to 5.30pm. However, you'll be expected to work extra hours when project deadlines approach.

What to expect

  • Initially, you may spend a lot of time on site, carrying out environmental assessments and providing advice. As your career progresses, however, you're likely to become more office-based.
  • You'll typically work as part of a team, liaising with other professionals such as architects, contractors and surveyors
  • It can take time to get into this line of work, as it's a relatively new area of business. Many organisations are only just starting to realise that using a sustainability consultant may be beneficial. While this means that competition for roles is high, the demand for sustainability consultants will grow as environmental issues become more complex and legislation increasingly focuses on sustainable development.
  • You'll be able to make a genuine difference to communities and to the environment, which is fulfilling. However, it can be difficult to find a balance between what the law says, what a client wants to do and what is best for the environment.
  • You may have to travel and attend site visits, which add variety, but might mean long days or overnight stays.

Qualifications

Although you don't always need a foundation degree, HND or degree, most sustainability consultants do have one. A degree in one of the following subjects may be particularly useful:

  • biology
  • building and construction management
  • business and management studies
  • civil engineering
  • environmental science
  • estate management
  • geography
  • geology
  • urban planning.

Sustainability consultants come from a range of backgrounds, including environmental, built environment, construction and business-based careers.

Flexibility is important when getting your first job and you may need to get experience in a relevant area of work before moving in to a sustainability consultant role. Many start their careers as environmental impact assessors and there are a number of graduate schemes available for both roles.

Postgraduate courses around energy, sustainability and environment management may improve your chances. Search postgraduate courses in sustainable development.

Student or graduate membership of the Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment (IEMA), the Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers (CIBSE) or an equivalent professional organisation could be beneficial.

Skills

You'll need to have:

  • the ability to balance your commitment to the environment with the need to be corporate and business minded
  • excellent communication skills to rationally explain, explore and discuss environmental issues, as well as to sell your ideas and services
  • persuasive skills to navigate resistance to change and influence people to accept your idea
  • confidence to present information to various stakeholders, lead client workshops and represent the company at industry events
  • the ability to build relationships with a range of people, such as project managers and contractors
  • the ability to manage client expectations around sustainability issues
  • flexibility to work under pressure, responding to changing legislation and project and programme demand
  • knowledge of environmental issues, but also technological solutions, and relevant environmental legislation, policy and guidance
  • project management skills to manage a budget and cope with practical issues such as health and safety
  • creative thinking and problem-solving skills to enable you to think outside the box and spread your idea
  • excellent numeracy and literacy skills for analysing and interpreting quantitative and qualitative data, carrying out research, writing reports and making recommendations.

Work experience

Competition for jobs is strong so getting some work experience is important. Many charities are active within the environmental sector and offer opportunities to volunteer in conservation work. You may be able to do a relevant work placement as part of your degree course or apply for a summer internship.

Work on any type of eco-project, alternative energy, living-building design or sustainable-community scheme would be useful. Experience in waste management and recycling is also relevant. Roles such as sustainability or energy project officer/assistant can provide an insight into issues around sustainability. Office experience can also help develop your understanding of how businesses operate.

Employers

Many opportunities are within the infrastructure and built environment sectors. Jobs are available with construction and engineering organisations in the private sector, in both large and small organisations.

There are also opportunities within specialist consultancy firms, such as business, management, environmental and sustainability consultancies.

You could also work for environmental charities, universities or local and central government.

With experience, there are opportunities to work freelance.

Look for job vacancies at:

Specialist recruitment agencies such as LewisDavey also advertise vacancies.

Professional development

Your employer will usually support your training in a range of environmental impact assessments, such as BREEAM, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) and the Code for Sustainable Homes.

Although a lot of training will be on the job, you'll also have access to industry training, often through the IEMA. Training can be around assessing and measuring pollutants, carbon footprint or energy use, as well as the use and implementation of environmental management systems (EMS).

As you gain experience, you can train to become an IEMA practitioner (PIEMA) or a chartered environmentalist (CEnv), both respected benchmarks of the profession. Chartered status is achieved through the Institution of Environmental Sciences. Both PIEMA and CEnv involve training and examinations to demonstrate sound knowledge, proven experience and a commitment to sustainability. You may receive support from your employer towards professional accreditation.

Career prospects

During your first few years, you're likely to spend a lot of time carrying out environmental assessments and working on site. With experience, you may be asked to take full responsibility for small projects, from start to completion.

It will usually take around five years for you to progress into a senior role, where you may have responsibility for junior staff. You will manage larger projects and build relationships with potential clients.

You may choose to stay with a consultancy and progress there, or take on an in-house role for a previous client. There are also opportunities to move into policy making in the public sector or to go freelance and set up independently.

With sufficient experience at senior level, you could progress onto principal level, where you would take full responsibility for multiple substantial sustainability projects, lead a team of sustainability experts, prepare tenders and grow the business by developing new services and products.

If you're willing to relocate within the UK, you're likely to increase your chances of progression. There are also opportunities to work on projects abroad.