Riding the Green Wave

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Posted by The Editors on June 16, 2011
Riding the Green Wave

The idea of a "green career" implies work that's meaningful, where you're changing the world for the better. It involves working in a suddenly sexy field, one that's being covered by nearly all major media, with high-profile magazines publishing annual "green" issues. But just what is it? What counts as a green career? Where did this suddenly omnipresent sector come from?

The simplest definition of a green career is one that involves either reducing human environmental impact or promoting the environment's restoration. You could be doing this in many different ways. You might be involved in reducing the amount of packaging used for the shoes your company sells, underwriting bonds for renewable energy development in your region, selling cleaning products free of toxic chemicals, advocating for the preservation of wetlands, or helping plan multi-use development located near public transportation.

There are opportunities for a green career in virtually every industry and every function-and more will be emerging in the years to come, as companies broaden their commitment to going green, while dealing with a tidal wave of environmental challenges: declining reserves of fossil fuels; climate change; increasing amounts of government regulation; and demands from citizens for healthier communities.

Green Goes Mainstream

Two watershed events in 2006 brought green to the mainstream: the release of Al Gore's film, An Inconvenient Truth, and Vanity Fair's May 2006 "Green Issue"-a model copied by magazines of nearly every genre since. "[The Vanity Fair issue] was the first indication that this is mainstream, that it's a mass movement," says Pippa Sorley, cofounder and vice president of eConscious Market, an online charitable mall. "It seems like it took about 15 years of work to reach that tipping point."

Much work was accomplished in that 15-year period. Companies like Nike, IKEA, GE, McDonalds, Xerox, Herman Miller, 3M, and HP have started initiatives like reducing packaging in their products, creating more energy-efficient manufacturing processes, recycling through computer take-back programs, eliminating toxic materials from their production processes and supply chains, and creating more sustainable products.

"There has been some very exciting work occurring in some of the largest companies on Earth, companies like Wal-Mart, where the CEO is sounding like a true green environmentalist," says Hunter Lovins, professor of sustainable management at the Presidio School of Management and founder and president of Natural Capitalism. Among Wal-Mart's innovations are performance scorecards for its suppliers that measure things like the amount of packaging in products. Suppliers who don't meet minimum standards won't be able to get their products in Wal-Mart stores. "Even if you don't particularly care about green or the environment or sustainability," says Lovins, "if you're in a company that sells to any of these larger companies, you're going to have to start caring."

Where to Find Opportunities

While estimates on the size of the green marketplace vary, it's clear the market is big-and getting bigger. The Natural Marketing Institute puts the LOHAS market-LOHAS stands for Lifestyle of Health and Sustainability-at $209 billion, including personal health, eco-tourism, alternative energy, alternative vehicles, green buildings, and natural lifestyles. Eco-tourism alone is nearly a $25 billion industry. Organic foods-which grew an estimated 21 percent in 2006, according to the U.S. Organic Trade Association-is 3 percent of the total food market, worth $17 billion.

There are some obvious places to look for opportunities, such as companies with a stated mission to be socially and environmentally responsible or the corporate social responsibility (CSR) departments of large multinational companies, but your best bet may be to invent a role for yourself at a place you'd like to work.

In the technology sector, clean tech companies-which create products and services that improve performance, productivity, or efficiency while reducing costs, inputs, or pollution-have been one of the fastest growing recipients of venture capital investment.

Green building is another rapidly growing sector. Its revenues barely registered 10 years ago, but today it is a $12 billion industry that's being embraced by hotels, hospitals, homebuilders, and corporations.

Many nonprofits have a mission that involves the environment and sustainability. These can be excellent places to develop expertise on an issue, while typically providing more reasonable work-life balance than many for-profit companies. Many of these nonprofits hire MBAs to help.

Even at non-socially minded multinationals, some business groups are working on green products or services-even while other groups continue to operate in decidedly un-green ways.

Researching a Green Career

If you're interested in this sector, you'll want to be clear about what you want to do and where you want to do it. Understanding what it means to be green, and in particular the challenges involved in operating a company sustainably, will be critical in your effort to make a difference.

The green-minded will very likely choose their employer based on personal values and goals. Wherever you start, be aware that this isn't a defined field, career, or path yet. It's in the early stages of being institutionalized, and the folks in the field today come from a wide range of backgrounds. Research, networking, and even working toward the creation of your own role (or business) can be key tools in initiating your career.


Frank Marquardt is a freelance writer and editor, specializing in career information and sustainability. He was executive editor at SustainLane, an online media company focused on "green" issues, and was content producer for its animation series, The Unsustainables. Frank has also served as managing editor of WetFeet's Insider Guides and websites., and is co-author of How Green Is Your City? (New Society, 2007). He has written articles, book reviews, and essays for GreenBiz.com, Wired, The Sacramento News & Review, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, Fortune, Playboy.com, and many others.

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