Closing the Sustainability Skills Gap: essential competencies for the modern workforce

Closing the Sustainability Skills Gap: essential competencies for the modern workforce
July 26, 2023

As global sustainability challenges intensify, businesses are recognising the crucial role they play in driving solutions. But to effectively transition towards more sustainable practices, they need a workforce equipped with the right skills. As Microsoft’s recent report on the issue highlights, there is a pressing need to close the sustainability skills gap. Here we explore key sustainability competencies, offering examples of how they apply to various roles, and emphasizing the importance of ongoing learning and fostering a sustainability mindset.

Understanding the Sustainability Context

Every employee, from the C-suite to entry-level positions, should have a basic understanding of the sustainability context. This means being aware of the global challenges that are shaping our world, concepts like overshoot and understanding how these issues are relevant to their role and their industry. For example, a procurement officer should be aware of the social and environmental impacts of their supply chain, while a product designer should understand the principles of circular economy and design for disassembly.

Systems Thinking

One of the key skills in sustainability is systems thinking, which involves understanding how different elements within a system interrelate and influence one another. This perspective is crucial for understanding the complex dynamics of the social, environmental, and economic systems in which we operate. For example, a key component of systems thinking is circularity, which involves redesigning our linear "take-make-waste" systems into circular ones that minimise waste, keep resources in use, and create more sustainable, resilient economies.

Stakeholder Engagement

Stakeholder engagement is another critical skill. This involves the ability to understand and respond to the needs and concerns of various stakeholders, from employees and customers to local communities and regulators. For example, a project manager might need to consult with local communities to understand the potential impacts of a new development, while a marketing manager might need to engage with customers to understand their expectations around sustainable products.

Long-term Thinking and Decision Making

Sustainability requires us to think and make decisions with a long-term perspective, considering the impacts of our actions not just in the immediate future, but decades or even centuries ahead. For instance, a finance manager with this skill would understand the financial risks and opportunities associated with climate change, and incorporate these into investment decisions, considering the implications for the company's long-term resilience and success.

Data Collection, Monitoring, and Sustainability Reporting

The ability to collect, analyse, and interpret data is vital for driving (and communicating) sustainable outcomes. A risk manager, for example, could use data to assess the financial risks associated with environmental challenges and advise on risk mitigation strategies. Other metrics such as greenhouse gas emissions, waste produced, and water consumed, should be tracked and interpreted across the organisation, as well as fed into sustainability reports for external consumption.

Collaboration and Communication

Collaboration and communication are essential for implementing sustainability initiatives successfully. This means being able to work effectively in teams, across departments and even beyond the organisation's boundaries. A sustainability committee member, for example, would need to collaborate with various departments to implement a new sustainability initiative, and communicate effectively to get buy-in from all relevant parties. Said committee member would also need to be well-versed in change-management, adaptive leadership, and empathy; all critical skills for those leading the charge on sustainability initiatives.

Fostering a Mindset of Sustainability

Beyond specific skills, fostering a mindset of sustainability is critical. This means creating a culture where employees feel empowered to make sustainable decisions, where they are encouraged to innovate and think creatively about how to solve sustainability challenges, and where ongoing learning is valued.

At the individual level, this means being open to new ideas, being willing to challenge the status quo, and being committed to lifelong learning. At the organisational level, it means providing training and development opportunities, rewarding sustainable behaviours, and leading by example.


As we navigate the complexities of the sustainability transition, it's clear that all roles across an organisation must evolve. From long-term thinking to systems redesign, data mastery and communication skills - every function has a role to play in creating a sustainable future. By investing in these areas, businesses can not only contribute to a more sustainable world, but also drive innovation, resilience, and long-term success.

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