Sustainability professionals have an important role to play in the circular economy, so how can you make sure your skills fit? As companies across the globe get to grips with the concept of doing more with less, systems thinkers who understand the big picture of finite resources, overburdened ecosystems and the need to reduce social inequality will be the ones to forge the critical links in the value chain that provide the solutions for sustainable business.
The fundamental first step is to move away from the linear model of extraction, manufacturing, consumption and disposal towards something that mirrors the kinds of systems we see in nature. The hydrological cycle, the nutrient cycle, the carbon cycle… they’re all closed loops, feeding back into themselves in a dynamic balance. This is the ultimate sustainability model. In industry, you may have heard of “cradle to grave” thinking, the idea that you can trace a product’s life cycle from the start to the finish. Well, inspired by nature, the emerging circular economy takes this thinking one step further from “cradle to cradle”, turning waste streams into resources that can be mined for value. The challenge to sustainability professionals in this exciting new field is not only to reduce and minimize waste streams in the first place, but to figure out how to turn the waste that can’t be avoided into something useful, and ultimately sold for profit to be turned into something new.
This is not simply an engineering challenge, or a design challenge, or a finance challenge, or even a supply chain challenge. It’s all of those things. But more than anything else, it’s a communication challenge. Any brand that wants to sell something previously defined as waste is going to need to earn a significant amount of trust before it can do so. That’s trust from within the company, trust from supply chains, trust from investors, trust from regulators, and – the biggie – trust from customers and clients. As Nick Liddell points out in his great article on the Huffington Post, “Imagine knowing the gold in your wedding ring used to be someone’s tooth. Our concept of old and new will need to evolve.”
So what does this mean for CSR and sustainability jobseekers?
How can we best prepare ourselves for a jobs market that’s responding to this transition? The clear answer to me is by focusing on traits. Traits are the things that underscore the hard skills with which you do your job and answer the HR manager’s “do I want to work with you?” question. They are the approaches or styles of delivery that will help you communicate the concepts embedded in the circular economy and gain stakeholder buy-in, develop collaborative partnerships with key departments, forge new strategies out of old systems and identify progressive solutions to modern challenges.
It’s no longer enough to claim ‘great interpersonal skills’ on a sustainability CV – you need to demonstrate that you understand the agenda by listing traits that the company you’re applying to needs and wants to help it respond to today’s business landscape. Here, I break down the key traits the circular economy needs from its employees at each stage of the sustainability journey, inspired by thought leader Dr Daan Elffers’ recent article on the Guardian.
1) Traits you’ll need…if your company is not on board
Great traits: Translator, collaborator, long-term visionary, motivator
It’s crucial to communicate the importance of shifting the business model, so you need to make sure that everyone from the newest employee to the company stalwart understands why it matters and what their role is. Hiring managers will be looking for someone who naturally works in a collaborative way, brings a broad horizon perspective to their day-to-day work, and effortlessly communicates a strong, clear sense of where the company needs to end up. Inspiration and motivation are a key part of this call to action as they empower people to participate and contribute above and beyond their technical area. These are the traits you’ll need if you want to make a company that’s currently outside the circular economy break in.
2) …if your company is just starting to move to this model
Great traits: Strategic innovator, big picture thinker, creative approach, inclusive, explorer
Strategy and creativity coupled with a systems perspective are the approaches you’ll need to take in a company taking the first steps towards cradle-to-cradle thinking. While using key reasoning skills like assessment and evaluation to figure out what can be recycled, what can be reused and what should be phased out, you’ll need an innovative, open-minded and inclusive work-style that enables you to listen to others’ opinions while simultaneously thinking outside the box. An attitude that’s keen to things out and explore new ideas – while mindfully respecting internal stakeholders’ expertise – is what a hiring manager will be looking for from a sustainability professional at a company like this.
3) …if you want to transition to a role/company already doing this
Great traits: Connector, leader, influencer, dynamic, honest, positive
To bring key partners along with you on the journey, you’ll need strong leadership traits. Engaging suppliers, clients and business partners is an essential function for sustainability professionals in companies embedded in the circular economy, so dynamism, passion and the ability to influence will be super-important. As Dr Elffers rightly points out, being honest and transparent about challenges and taking a positive attitude towards dealing with them celebrates possibilities rather than obstacles, inspiring stakeholders, reinforcing your integrity and strengthening your brand. Sharing these experiences will benefit your relationships with your network – that’s the connector piece – and ultimately help you create enduring partnerships within a learning community that gives as much as it takes. As a sustainability practitioner, you’ll need to show that you can use your skills in combination with these traits to drive your company’s agenda – and the circular economy’s agenda – forward into new horizons.
Let me know what kinds of traits you think the circular economy needs in the comments below. If you’d like some help determining the kinds of skills, traits and values necessary for a bright career in sustainability, feel free to contact me.