Sustainability Policy Careers: Changing the Rules of the Game

By Eban Goodstein. Reposted from on Oct 23, 2012

image by Stephen Finn

Are you (1) a patient leader and a systems thinker? Or (2) an impatient leader who likes to
build things?

When I counsel students interested in careers in sustainability, I direct them down two paths: policy and business.

A policy career is about changing the rules of the game. Through government action, and within corporations, NGOʼs and agencies, policies incentivize behavior, sustainable or otherwise. From international treaties governing trade and investment, to national policies on energy, agriculture and transport, to local zoning and transit regulations, getting rid of bad rules and putting good ones in place is critical for progress.

One example: Microsoft recently introduced an internal carbon tax. This new policy makes
carbon intensive activities, like flying, more expensive, and will push company budget
managers to find substitutes for their teams— video conferencing for example. The policy
also creates a pool of money for Microsoft to incentivize energy efficiency and renewable
investments, helping build a more local and resilient energy system within the company.

What are the types of policy jobs? Careers include analysts and decision-makers,
administrators and organizers, sustainability professionals, advocates and lobbyists,
journalists and educators, and politicians and political staff. Policy work, while mostly
located in the NGO and government sectors, is also a big part of what drives CSR and
corporate sustainability.

Policy careers are for folks with patience, who understand how natural and social systems
work, and who have strong analytical, writing and communication skills. Successful policy
people are good at outreach and networking, and politically saavy.

While a policy career works on changing the rules of the game, business is about playing
the game. Within the confines of existing policies, sustainable business leaders set about
solving social and environmental problems by creating profitable solutions and bringing
them to scale. Solutions must be profitable to be financially sustainable and self-replicating, ensuring they spread quickly to seriously address the problem in question.

Careers in this field include all the functional areas of business: from marketing and sales
to finance, operations, accounting, strategy, and HR. Sustainable business people are
change agents, acting either as entrepreneurs in start-ups or as intrapreneurs in established companies, refocusing the direction of the business on opportunities to profitably solve environmental and social challenges. Business skills can be applied in the corporate, government or non-profit world. A business career calls to people with impatience, and a talent for building things, who have strong analytic writing and communication skills. They are good at outreach and networking, and politically savvy.

Next Page: Taking People Where They Otherwise Would Not Go
Notice the overlap in the business and policy skill set here. The common key to career
success and satisfaction in the sustainability field is the ability and desire to lead, not to
manage. By definition, driving sustainability—either through rule-changing or
game-playing—involves taking people where they otherwise would not go, and inspiring
others to lead in the same direction.

Imagine: 80 percent reductions in global warming pollution by 2050; rewiring the world
with clean energy; re-designing the global food system. We canʼt manage our way to
these outcomes. Both policy and business demand entrepreneurial, innovative strategies
to meet the profound challenges of the coming decades.

The final point: neither business nor policy can get the job done alone. Anyone playing the green business game soon bumps into policy constraints. And sustainable policy advocates need critical business support to drive good changes in the rules. Around the country and across the globe, wherever we see vibrant, emerging green economies are the places where smart policy-makers work synergistically with green industry leaders and entrepreneurs.

So which career suits you best? Glad to talk further. Contact me at

Eban Goodstein is Director of the Bard MBA in Sustainability in New York City and the Bard Center for Environmental Policy at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson NY.


About Eban Goodstein