Closing the Sustainability Skills Gap

In our roles as researchers and educators, we have identified a significant gap in companies worldwide: the lack of knowledge and skills necessary to lead and implement sustainable transformations. We call upon business leaders to educate their executives and upskill their workforce, enabling them to turn sustainability commitments into actionable results. As individuals gain sustainability literacy skills, they become empowered to drive meaningful change. 

The case for investing in sustainability skills

Embracing sustainable business practices offers a twofold advantage: it addresses pressing environmental and social issues while positioning companies for sustained competitiveness and profitability. In response to the growing demand from conscientious consumers and investors, integrating sustainable practices into operations can yield cost savings, drive innovation, and strengthen brand loyalty. Consequently, sustainability has evolved into a shared organizational goal, necessitating active participation from all team members to drive transformative efforts. However, the question remains: are employees adequately equipped with the necessary knowledge and skills to contribute effectively to these efforts? 

A recent survey conducted by Kite Insights, spanning over 7,000 respondents across 10 countries, revealed that fewer than half of employees feel confident in their ability to take meaningful climate action (Kite Insights 2023). A corporate sustainability report by former Unilever CEO Paul Polman states that many cite a lack of knowledge on where to start or fail to recognize sustainability as part of their job responsibilities (Polman 2023). These findings echo our observations and research, indicating that even employees who perceive themselves as highly skilled often demonstrate a gap between their perceived and actual sustainability knowledge.

While sustainability departments are becoming more proficient and specialized, essential skills for sustainable transformations are lacking across other departments. Many companies have made significant progress in reducing their scope 1 and 2 emissions, the direct and indirect emissions under their control. However, they face challenges in mitigating scope 3 emissions, which result from activities outside their direct control but within their value chain. To address such emissions, organizations must consider a diverse range of factors such as product design, supplier emissions, and employee commuting or business travel. Effectively reducing scope 3 emissions requires active involvement from multiple departments, including research and development, operations, procurement, and human resources. 

Identifying key sustainability skills

But what specific skills are required for sustainable transformation? “The Handbook of Sustainability Literacy” (2009) underscores the importance of sustainability literacy, which encompasses a broad range of skills, attitudes, competencies, and values essential for thriving in a world facing sustainability challenges. Building sustainability literacy requires more than just transmitting knowledge; it entails fostering critical thinking and developing practical skills necessary to address global challenges effectively. A similar concept, Inner Development Goals, focuses on fostering the abilities, qualities, and skills necessary for individuals, groups, and organizations to contribute effectively to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Encouragingly, a majority of the global workforce expresses eagerness to contribute to sustainability initiatives, with approximately 8 out of 10 employees willing to engage in climate change and sustainability initiatives within their roles (Kite Insights, 2023). Furthermore, almost 7 out of 10 global workers express a desire for sustainability-related qualifications, indicating a strong demand for opportunities to enhance their skills in this area (Kite Insights, 2023). However, a 2022 Saleforce report showed that a significant obstacle identified by nearly 9 out of 10 respondents is the lack of investments in sustainability and ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) training.

Several diverse options are available to provide such training. For instance, at ESMT Berlin, we offer the Sustainability Starter Kit, a concise online learning module tailored to enhance the skills of the entire workforce and collect ideas for sustainability improvements. Additionally, we provide customized departmental programs aimed at accelerating sustainable progress. Furthermore, our executive open enrollment program, “Leading Sustainable Business Transformation”, empowers leaders to spearhead sustainable transformation efforts.

Conclusion

Closing the sustainability skills gap requires a concerted effort from business leaders to prioritize education and training initiatives. By upskilling their workforce and providing opportunities for experiential learning, companies can empower their employees to drive sustainable growth and lead transformative change. 

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