What is Sustainability and why is it so important?

White Windmill
White windmill powering small mountain community.

When people talk about making the energy sector or the agriculture industry more “sustainable,” they usually mean “better for the environment.” And you certainly can’t overstate the importance of reducing the environmental and climate impacts of these industries! But there’s more to sustainability than that—there are actually three interrelated dimensions (or “pillars”) to the concept:

  • As stated above, environmental sustainability focuses on the environmental impacts of an organization’s operations—especially greenhouse gas emissions, which drive climate change.
  • Social sustainability aims to promote equitable outcomes for all of an organization’s stakeholders, both internal and external.
  • The economic dimension relates to an organization’s financial goals—i.e. ensuring that they’re met through sustainable strategies and practices.
Duke Sustainability and Engagement program students active in field.

Duke’s Certificate in Sustainability Engagement is designed to provide undergraduates with learning and research experiences that confront the interconnections among these three pillars. Undeclared undergraduates can get involved with campus sustainability via the Sustainability Ambassadors program. But who are these programs for? What type of student should join them? Every student stands to gain from learning about sustainability. That’s because sustainability is not a single industry;

instead, it’s a concept that is growing in importance across all industries. Development of “green skills” that promote all the pillars of sustainability is therefore an essential aspect of preparing for the 21st-century workforce.

In a 2022 article for the Harvard Business Review, Nahia Orduna highlights four useful green skillsets as defined by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization:

  • Engineering and technical skills
  • Science-based skills
  • Operational management
  • ESG/compliance monitoring

Wait, what’s “ESG”? It’s a framework for evaluating an organization’s business practices and performance on sustainability and ethical issues; the acronym stands for “environmental, social, and governance.” Many businesses and other types of organizations are incorporating ESG frameworks into their operations and creating roles that promote ESG performance.

When industries evolve, their staffing needs evolve too, and students eyeing their first job should consider how they can prepare themselves to meet those needs. The growing popularity of ESG is a strong signal of the increased importance of sustainability across many sectors. So ask yourself: what green skills do I want to build?

By Carl Thompson
Carl Thompson Senior Career Specialist