Top Tips and Takeaways from the Sustainability Careers Week

As the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) was taking place in November this year, so did the Oxford Careers Service's week dedicated to career paths in sustainability: Working Towards a Sustainable Future: Building an Impactful Career.

This series of careers events and workshops between 1 and 5 November was dedicated to all Oxford University students and researchers interested in pursuing a career in sustainability. The sessions covered a wide range of career routes into all sorts of organisations, from sustainable start-ups to large corporates working towards net zero targets, as well as tips for making successful applications, and first steps into the sector.

Marina Popp, fourth year student at Trinity College Oxford, reading Spanish, was in attendance at our events. Read her highlights from our sessions on:

Working Towards Net Zero: Sustainability Careers Outlook

The main question at issue in this event was how to take sustainability into account when considering one’s future career. The chair of the meeting was Jonathan Smith, the founding director of Oxford University’s spin-out social venture Skylark Works. He was joined by two very impressive individuals in the world of environmental thinking: Sir Tim Smit, who is the Co-founder of the Eden project, and Jessica Sansom, who is currently Director of Sustainability at Huel. The two give us an insight into how they have reached the position they are currently in, how sustainability can actually make a difference, and what it takes to be successful in a sustainable career.

Sir Tim Smit approached his career in a rather instinctive manner. Having joined a rock band during his degree and once he had finished studying, he moved to London to pursue the music business for ten years. He then moved to Cornwall, spent his earnings from music on the restoration of a farmhouse, and, some years later, set up a rare-breed farm park. It was only when he accepted an archaeology job on an estate – which would soon become the well-known Lost Gardens of Heligan – that he started to appreciate the power of plants. Smit talks quite a bit about the hugely restorative role of plants with relation to the planet, and he tells us how he has worked on ways of building sustainable buildings for producing plants. The Eden Project is his most renowned venture; this is an attraction in Cornwall which has had over 22 million visitors and raised over 2.5 million pounds.

Smit studied Archaeology and Anthropology at Durham University, and states he has never had any experience in science. Indeed, both Smit and Sansom are keen on the idea that you do not have to have a particularly scientific background to go into a career in sustainability. Sansom says that it is in fact a benefit if people from different academic backgrounds join the cause, as breadth and variety is crucial in the formation of effective business decisions and models going forward.

Jessica had a slightly more targeted approach to her career. She grew up in Australia where one always has to be in tune with environmental concerns because of the likelihood of, for example, bush fires. Having studied Environmental Studies and Environmental Law at university, Jessica went on to work in sustainability at some extremely successful businesses, including the likes of McDonald’s, Innocent Drinks and now Huel. Huel is all about sustainable nutrition, which is of upmost importance today because food systems represent over 1/3 of carbon emissions. Sansom’s job is all about how to make sure that resources used for making food are balanced with nutrition while also making it affordable and accessible for all.

Both speakers talk of the importance of ‘circular’ patterns of production. Smit goes as far as to say that the term ‘sustainability’ is ‘dead’ and that we have to think about what is circular, and make sure that everything we use does not end up in landfill or as a form of poison. Sansom gave the example of one of her projects at McDonald’s, where the oil from used chips was then used for biofuel.

The main take-away from the event is that we must take responsibility for supply chains, and accept the long-term risks posed by environmental degradation.

Applying for Sustainability Jobs: CV and Cover Letter Advice

In this talk, careers advisers from the Oxford University Careers Service came together to give advice on crafting CVs and cover letters in a way that is beneficial for jobs in sustainability. The general consensus is that it is unlikely for a graduate to go straight into a job in sustainability, as it is not a particularly focused area for companies yet. Nonetheless, an interest in sustainability would certainly be a valuable asset for jobs in corporate strategy or communication, for example, as most companies are now aiming to reduce their carbon emissions and have set goals to reach Net Zero.

CVs are the first calling card to the company you apply for, so they need to be clear representations of who you are and what you have done. Companies will often be looking at the CV’s of about 50 applicants, so make sure your CV is concise and focuses more on your skills rather than your interests and motivations, which is the purpose of the cover letter. You also do not need to include a summary at the top of the CV if you are writing a cover letter – save the content of the page for a concrete description of your skills and experience. Clear headings are highlighted by advisers as a beneficial feature of CVs, as they will jump off the page and draw the reader’s eye first. Dates are also key to include, as they make the CV easier for the recruiter to follow. In terms of jobs in sustainability, a passion for the environment will certainly have to be manifested and you should show that you are confident to talk about it fluently. In general, other skills which will likely be desirable to employers are: agile thinking, a keenness to learn, communication skills, analytical skills, and a desire to make an impact.

In terms of the cover letter, you should kick it off by saying why you have chosen both the organisation and the role that you are applying for. A massive issue employers have found with cover letters in the past is when they can easily tell that the cover letter has been copied and pasted from another application. You should be engaging with the companies you are applying for by researching them and examining their specific job description so you know the exact skills and interests you should be manifesting in your application. It is very flattering to an employer when you show evidence that you have thought about the role and how the company is structured and makes money. You do not need to repeat all of the details in your CV, as you can here write about experiences of, for example, team work, which may come from extra-curricular activities such as sports. The top tips for cover letters as given by the Careers Service are as follows:

  • Keep it short
  • Project confidence
  • Keep the tone and content professional
  • Include specific, relevant details
  • Double check for errors and typos
  • Ask for feedback from a careers adviser

For more, you can read the advice given by the Careers Service on CVs and on writing applications in general.

How to Make it in Corporate Sustainability

In this panel session, the Careers Service is joined by Sam Sherburn, a consultant at BCG, Daniel Costigan, who works as Sustainability Lead at Ocado, and Andrea Du Rietz, Senior Manager in Sustainability at the LEGO Group. The group discusses whether you can really make an impact on Net Zero targets in the corporate world as a new graduate, and how graduates can become future leaders for sustainability.

Daniel Costigan looks after sustainability, charity and corporate affairs at Ocado. He studied Maths at Keble College, Oxford, and then got into consulting at Deloitte, where he fulfilled roles in various different sectors before moving to sustainability. He points out that he had acquired no formal sustainability qualifications before this, and that the skills he learnt in the jobs he did earlier were invaluable to securing the role.

Andrea Du Rietz did her undergraduate degree in Management at the LSE, and then completed various internships in sustainability followed by a master’s degree in Environmental Management at Oxford. Skills learnt while working as an analyst at Bloomburg allowed her to then secure a job at the LEGO group, where she now works on sustainability. There is no graduate programme for this role at LEGO, so you would need to gain the desired skills in the workplace before applying.

Sam Sherburn did his undergraduate degree in PPE, and then went into consulting, and now works at BCG, one of the largest consultancy firms. BCG has a varied client base, made up of NGO’s, governments and leading companies. Sam’s work at the time of speaking involved being the consultancy partner to the UK government in its preparations for COP26. Sam came into his job from a non-sustainability role, demonstrating how other skills are valuable in pursuing a career like Sam’s. Sam’s main advice in achieving a career in sustainability is:

  • Be open to all the different opportunities out there – you will always be learning the relevant skills you can bring into a sustainability context
  • Be keen and open – a lot of employers are drawn to the passion and energy of young people with regards to sustainability
  • Be ambitious in whichever role you find yourself – ask questions and always try to push people further.

Looking at the three speakers above, we can see how you can take either a specialist or a generalist route into a sustainability career. It should not be assumed that you have to complete a master’s degree in an environment-based course to build up the necessary knowledge, as this will be found more in work experience and gaining the necessary skill-set. Daniel even says that, at Deloitte, they do not take into consideration which degree you did when it comes to employing – they are more interested in enthusiasm and intellectual horsepower. Sam places emphasis on people who can learn quickly and ‘get stuff done’ – an ability to show leadership and excellence in something other than your degree is also a valuable asset for the BCG employment team.

If you are interested in consulting, read the briefing on Management Consultancy from Oxford careers advisers.

Sustainable Finance Careers

Speaking at the Sustainable Finance Careers panel session were Tim Doubleday, Luke Dickinson, and Boris Prahl.

Tim Doubleday is the CFO of Burger King. Since graduating from Manchester University, where he studied Physics, has had over 20 years’ experience in the hospitality sector. At Burger King, he sits in the Global Goals team, where he has significant responsibility for environmental matters. While Tim started off his career in accounting, he, like many people with experience in finance, made the transition into sustainability. Customers are now asking much more about the sustainable agenda a business has, and, while in the past sustainability in business was more of an added bonus, it is now an essential part of financial professionals’ job role. Tim tells us that it is essential for a business to show a promising ESG agenda if they are to grow – if they fail to do this, they simply will not receive money. A large part of Tim’s job is to help companies through this journey of becoming sustainable and to make this more accessible for SME’s (small or medium-sized enterprises).

Boris Prahl has a background in Natural Sciences and spent some years in risk advisory but was then drawn back to the field of science. Boris works at the Climate Risk Centre of MSCI, where he mainly focuses on the impacts from climate change but in a futuristic way. Instead of looking at the risks in the present moment, he looks forward to the upcoming risks which may emerge in the future. Boris highlights that the field is very multi-disciplinary, and that people in his role are essentially united by a desire for the world to ‘live’ again.

Luke Dickinson works as a Senior Consultant as part of the Sustainable Finance Team at Deloitte. This team sits within the section of Risk Advisory. Luke’s main role involves advising clients on their greenhouse gas emissions and helping them to reach their Net Zero targets. Luke studied Economics at Bath and has been at Deloitte for just over 3 years, where he has moved from the internal audit sector to sustainability. Luke talks about the EU Taxonomy Regulation, which aims to combat the problem of greenwashing by encouraging the activities of companies to comply with this regulation.

All speakers talk of the variety of backgrounds sought in sustainability careers – indeed, a background in sustainability studies is not completely necessary. Luke says that the majority of his team at Deloitte do not have a background in sustainability, but are all united in their incredible interest for the subject. In terms of boosting one’s CV, he stresses the importance of staying up to date with the news, and suggests The Economist and The Climate Briefing as useful podcasts to stay in tune with. Carbon Brief is a useful website which gives a daily roundup about environmental issues. He pinpoints the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership as a fitting and less expensive alternative to a master’s degree. Diversity is another question at issue, and all speakers assure that this is at the top of their agendas; Luke, for example, claims that 3 out of the 4 senior partners at Deloitte are women.

Further reading

For more information on careers in sustainability and to access employers' green credentials, please visit the links below.