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Why organizations need employees and leaders trained in sustainability leadership | Claremont Lincoln University
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Why organizations need employees and leaders trained in sustainability leadership
September 19, 2022

Why organizations need employees and leaders trained in sustainability leadership

Challenges to standard business practices and shifting consumer behavior demand that leaders are knowledgeable and adequately trained in navigating social, environmental, and economic shifts. Demand for leaders who understand sustainability leadership is rapidly growing, and will be essential for organizations to survive and thrive in the future.

Organizations are facing a compounding series of challenges – supply chain impacts, raw material and resource scarcity, consumer demand for transparent environmental practices and an earnest commitment toward greater social responsibility, changes to employee expectations and workforce practices, adoption of public policies and regulatory standards, and demands for greater oversight and accountability at state and federal levels. But it simply isn’t enough for organizational leaders to rely on traditional market tactics to address these challenges. 

Responsible, socially-minded organizations need dedicated sustainability leaders who:

    • Understand the importance of sustainability as a measure of organizational viability
    • Apply holistic systems-level thinking to all organizational strategies and decision making
    • Care about the future and have a clear vision for a world where people are treated more fairly, where organizations operate with more ethicality and transparency, and where all decisions consider social and environmental impacts
    • Can help organizations think beyond business models based on unending consumption
    • Know how to develop impactful sustainability goals, build actionable plans toward those goals, and drive aggressive changes for the company’s future
    • Avoid sustainability theater and greenwashing practices

Here’s why it matters.

Since the early 1990s, the Global Footprint Network and the World Wildlife Foundation quantify how much all natural ecosystems in the world can generate in a given year. They then compare that against how much humans and organizations produce and consume each year.

In an ideal world, the planet would produce more than enough resources for us to use annually (e.g., more than enough trees for wood and paper products, an abundance of minerals for producing electronics and other home goods, clean and flowing water to sustain life and while still supporting all other uses like agriculture and energy, abundant green spaces for capturing carbon emissions from our factories, cars, and planes, etc.). Sadly, our business practices and consumer behavior over the past 80 years have caused us to over-extract, over-produce, and over-consume almost all of the planet’s natural resources.

Each year, when we collectively pass the point where consumption and production exceeds what the planet can produce, we call it the Earth Overshoot Day. 

In 2022, Earth Overshoot Day arrived on July 28 – just 7 months into the year! According to estimates, at our rate of consumption humans need about 1.75 earths to continue with all of our modern institutional practices.

The year 2022 also marked another sobering milestone: the moment when the amount of human-made “stuff” – roads, cities, cars, suburbs, factories, dams, airports, mines, etc. – surpassed all other life on earth. According to the researchers that quantified these findings, urbanization and industrialization has accumulated a biomass that now exceeds the total biomass of all plant and animal life. This is the combination of over-production and land conversion (land being converted from natural space to “developed” space). According to two recent comprehensive studies, 44% of all land on earth needs to be preserved as natural space for the planet to remain liveable. We are edging closer and closer to this limit, as land conversion continues to expand every year. 

The more we take, and the more we make, the more it may seem like we have. But doing so means we are borrowing against our future.

Simply put, it is not sustainable to live the way we live or do business the way we do business. 

Despite these very real challenges, there is a path forward. In recent years, there has been a groundswell of momentum calling for businesses and indeed entire industries (which are by far the most responsible for the environmental and health-related impacts to our planet) to act more responsibly and operate more sustainably.

Organizations need people who are trained in sustainable leadership principles and practices.

Sustainability leadership is a discipline that focuses on training practitioners and leaders to enact practices and policies that are more just, equitable, and sustainable (enduring).

This marks a fairly dramatic shift in how businesses would measure success. Since the mid-to-late 1900s, businesses primarily made decisions based on whether those decisions would help them increase profits in the near term. But in recent years, there’s been a broad acknowledgment that an unhealthy workforce and an unhealthy planet is untenable for business to survive let alone thrive.

As organizations face more pressure to be accountable and think beyond their near-term profit margins, they need experts, practitioners, and professionals trained in stewarding sustainable approaches, beliefs, and values systems into organizational cultures and practices. To date, organizations are making some in-roads to be better global stewards. For example, the mid-to-late 2000s saw the rise of new corporate designations such as B-corps (benefit corporations) that require they adhere to a stricter set of standards beyond profit. Most recently, organizations have started adopting a triple bottom line approach that equally prioritizes people, the planet, and profit. Environmental experts also refer to these as the three pillars of sustainability (environmental, social, and economic). This new approach is a realization that no one priority is sustainable without a commitment to all three. 

To realize these aims, many corporations have started adopting environmental, social governance (ESG) strategies as part of their long-term planning and success metrics. Despite these efforts, however, many organizations continue to take shortcuts, engage in “greenwashing,” and refuse to take measured steps to divest from political interests and/or industries that do not align with their stated environmental social goals. In fact, the United States on the whole fails to meet most of the standards set in the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which includes 17 indicators of sustainable development including “education, health, social protection, and job opportunities” as well as environmental protection and climate action.

As demand from shareholders and consumers for more responsibility and transparency increases, so too will companies’ need for leaders and skilled practitioners who have knowledge and passion in sustainability leadership best practices and approaches across all areas of the business. Companies do not have the luxury of continuing on with “business as usual.” The future of organizational design must be sustainable and sustainably focused. Sustainability leadership programs help prepare organizational leaders to navigate these new and enduring organizational challenges.

The author, Matt Donovan, Ph.D., is an organizational communication scholar and program chair for the sustainability leadership program at Claremont Lincoln University (Claremont, CA). 

Claremont Lincoln University (CLU) offers an online, 13-month* Master of Arts in Sustainability Leadership program designed to equip students with the knowledge and skills urgently needed in the areas of development, the natural world, and corporate responsibility leadership, to assess and effectively lead socially responsible organizational initiatives. Focused on positive social change and intentionally designed for the working adult, CLU provides an affordable and engaged, 100% online learning experience and community.

*Full-time status; two courses per term

For more information, please contact Chris Mayweather at