If you're looking for a way to mix business and leadership with a burning desire to help the planet, sustainability consulting could be for you

The environment is under pressure from multiple directions - population growth, resource scarcity, climate change and ecosystem fragility, and business decisions have social, environmental and economic consequences.

Your role as a sustainability consultant is to promote sustainable solutions for the often conflicting needs of people, the environment, development and successful business. You will 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.

As a sustainability consultant, you will need to have a detailed knowledge of the scientific and legal issues concerned with environmental issues and use this knowledge to influence ways of living and working sustainably.

Types of work

You can work in many sectors, but most opportunities are within infrastructure and the built environment, in the construction and engineering sectors. Projects can range from urban regeneration schemes, transport infrastructure and industrial facilities, to on-shore and off-shore oil and gas, marine and coastal projects. You may also be involved in residential development, renovation and lettings where legislation ensures the involvement of sustainability consultants.

You may be involved at the planning stage of a project, building stage, or with existing projects, through to remediation, restoration and reuse of land and property. 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.

If you choose to work within construction, your focus will be on 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.

If you work in the UK, you are likely to be responsible for undertaking 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.

Responsibilities

As a sustainability consultant, you will 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
  • impact on local communities and eco-systems
  • suppliers and procurement
  • sustainable construction strategies
  • compliance with environmental legislation.

You will:

  • carry out research and use environmental impact assessments to measure things such as carbon footprint, energy performance, air quality, noise pollution and also ecology surveys
  • 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

Your working hours are most likely to be Monday to Friday, 9am to 5.30pm. You may have to travel and do site visits, which add variety, but might mean long days or overnight stays. As you progress through your career, you are likely to be more office based but, during training, you may spend a lot of time on site, carrying out environmental assessments and providing advice.

What to expect

  • You will be able to make a genuine difference to communities and to the environment, which is fulfilling.
  • The sector is young, dynamic and increasingly important with legislation increasing the impact of your work.
  • It can take time to get into this line of work, as it's a relatively new area of business. Many organisations haven't considered employing someone to look at sustainability issues.
  • There's quite a lot of public speaking involved in this career. You'll need to be confident at communicating to an audience and giving presentations.
  • 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. This can be frustrating, particularly when companies could potentially make a big impact for sustainability if they chose to. It isn't always possible to convince them otherwise.

Qualifications

You don't need a foundation degree, HND or degree to be a sustainability consultant. As it is a relatively new area, consultants come from many backgrounds, such as environmental and business-based careers. However, most sustainability consultants do have a degree.

You may progress into sustainability consulting with a degree in any subject, but a degree in the following subjects is likely to help:

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

Postgraduate courses around energy, sustainability and environment management can also lead into this career. Search for postgraduate courses in sustainable development.

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

Skills

You will need:

  • 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

Positions for sustainability consultants are competitive so work experience is a good way to gain an advantage. Many charities are active within the environmental sector and offer extensive opportunities to volunteer in conservation work. Any type of eco-project, alternative energy, living-building design or sustainable-community scheme would be beneficial. Other relevant experience could be in an office, where you are able to deepen your understanding of how businesses operate.

Change Agents has a range of sustainability internships and structured work experience.

Employers value experience of geographic information systems (GIS) and environmental impact assessments (EIA) so try to gain this during your degree.

Many sustainability consultants start their careers as environmental impact assessors and there are a number of graduate schemes available for both roles.

When you join the sector, your employer will usually support your training in a range of environmental impact assessments. It is possible to independently access this training but there are costs involved.

Employers

You'll find most opportunities in 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, within universities or within local and central government.

Look for job vacancies at:

Professional development

You will learn a lot on the job but also have access to industry training, often through 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). You will be trained in specific assessments such as BREEAM, Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) and the Code for Sustainable Homes.

You could 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 profound commitment to sustainability.

Career prospects

Sustainability is a relatively new area and specialist roles, such as that of a sustainability consultant, are even more recent additions. 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.

During your first few years, you are 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.

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

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.

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 are willing to relocate within the UK, you're likely to increase your chances of progression.