Higher education in sustainability and environmental management is more important now than ever before, some education professionals believe. While environmental work was a fringe issue decades ago, this is no longer the case. “The issue of the environment has merged with the issue of economic development. In the seventies, managers could avoid paying attention to these issues; today they can’t,” says Steve Cohen, executive director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute and consultant to the EPA.
Environmental management has become a necessity. “Now, with the sustainability field evolving, every manager in the next decade will have to be a sustainability manager,” he says. Cohen, who is also the director of the Master of Public Administration Program in Environmental Science and Policy, as well as the Master of Science in Sustainability Management at Columbia University, says serious harm can come to companies that fail to recognize that sustainability and economics must coexist. “Companies like GE and BP have ended up spending billions of dollars because they weren’t paying attention,” he says.
To an extent that increases daily, companies regularly task employees – who may not have the word “sustainability” in their titles – to tackle complex issues that confront business leaders under the sustainability umbrella. Operations, environmental health, marketing and supply chain executives may find themselves assigned sustainability as a new objective. Leaders of innovation, product development, and new markets are increasingly required to develop and implement sustainability plans, as well, says Michael M. Crow, president of Arizona State University. “When a company hires a professional with a higher education in sustainability, they’re hiring someone who is up to date on relevant topics and best practices, and will have the leadership and communication tools needed to make a business case for sustainability and help to embed sustainability into their organization’s overall strategy,” Crow says.
Higher education in sustainability is also important, some educators believe, because sustainability covers an incredible breadth and depth of disciplines. “Those who haven’t been trained become overwhelmed by the demand to merge new and emerging needs and ideas with traditional systems and strategies,” says Crow. “Often they have trouble stating the sustainability business case to decision-makers. Sustainability leaders know how to take this new reality and use it to inform overall strategy, innovation, investment, engagement and, ultimately, company success.”
Education vs. In-the-Field Experience