What to expect from a sustainability career in Europe?
As the world continues to globalize, a career in Europe is becoming more of an attractive proposition to young Americans across the board.
This is particularly true for those looking for a career in sustainability. Recent research from LinkedIn looked into the top cities around the world with the highest concentration of sustainability professionals, and found that six of the top seven were European (Vancouver was the exception, if you’re interested).
Part of this is down to leaders from the European Union recently agreeing a $1.8 trillion package, “The European Green New Deal,” to create green jobs and help Europe cut down its emissions by at least 55 percent by 2030, a much needed but steep curve. Europe is investing in green jobs on a historic scale, and it’s the most attractive place in the world to take one.
However, those making the jump across the Atlantic must realize that it won’t be simple, there are some colossal differences that will make Europe’s market a whole new world to you. Here are the most important factors to get your head around, across culture, politics and business regulations.
Climate change is not a political opinion
One immediate contender for culture-shock will be the fact that climate change is not considered a political opinion in Europe. The way we fight it will be fiercely debated ad infinitum, but we are all united on the fact it exists. Whilst those on our left, including green parties, often express stronger support for measures to address climate change, most conservative, right-leaning political parties also maintain a similar sentiment. The existence of climate change is not something we debate in the office and it would be extremely unusual (and a big faux pas) for someone to say otherwise in a professional place of work.
This more serious and severe approach to climate change in Europe is well backed-up by data. A 2021 poll by the Pew Research Center found that while most countries in Europe have seen a sharp increase in people who are “very concerned” with climate change affecting their lives, attitudes in America have barely shifted since 2015. It’s something we take with the utmost severity. Given that you’re hoping for a career in sustainability, this will hopefully be an extremely welcome relief to you.
On a personal note and to highlight the difference, in a recent call with a prospect in the U.S., we were advised by one of the parties to talk about “climate challenge” instead of “climate change.” This kind of thing is very, very unlikely to happen in Europe.
Our relationship to individual freedom is different
Next up on our list of potential culture shocks for you to navigate is the fact that Europe’s relationship to individual freedom is simply not as strong as it is in the U.S.
While considered a guiding star of American business and culture, Europe has a history of limiting individual freedom for the common good. For example, France just passed a law banning domestic flights that are less than 2.5 hours if a train alternative is available, and the public opinion opposition was close to non-existent. It’s probable that such law in America would appear as very limiting for individual freedom and would garner a lot of vocal opposition. In fact, America has very limited rail infrastructure due to ongoing lobbying efforts by the airline industry.
Perhaps the most pertinent example of this is a growing debate within Europe on embracing the concept of “degrowth.” This is the idea that while doing our utmost to maximize GDP, we have way overpassed planetary boundaries of what our planet can sustain. Therefore, we must shift our attention away from solely focusing on maximizing GDP, and even agreeing that it might shrink, in order to maximize other important metrics in life such as getting carbon emissions to zero, protecting crucial natural ecosystems and reducing human inequality.
Each and every job here is evolving to include some contribution to fighting the climate crisis, but this isn’t resulting in CSR departments shrink. They’re growing.
While still only a growing conversation within Europe, it’s undeniably an extreme far-cry from the capitalist-first fueler of American success, and is considered a radical, taboo concept on that side of the Atlantic. You must be prepared for, and indeed not shy away from, discourse of this level within your European sustainability career if you are to thrive and reach your potential. It is not a simple debate, and is being discussed more and more within business circles.
Reporting, reporting, reporting
And as part of the package with greater regulation and seriousness, you should expect much, much more demanding levels of reporting in your daily work that will at times likely feel like a frustration (and may well drive you mad) if you’re not mentally prepared. The Task-Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) was born in the U.S. to introduce a much-needed framework of reporting, but in Europe regulation and reporting has really proliferated.
We have, to name a few: The EU taxonomy for sustainable activities, to clarify which investments are environmentally sustainable; a strict certification requirement for sustainability requirement known as the Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD); and the Sustainable Finance Disclosure Regulation (SFDR), to introduce transparency and reduce greenwashing in investment products. And that’s without even considering local laws within different European countries.
Needless to say, get ready for some reporting on a huge scale.
There is a plethora of green career pathways, some you haven’t even heard of yet
With some major culture shocks established, it’s now time for some good news. And that is that for you, young graduate at the precipice of your sustainability career, there are a plethora of sustainability career options in Europe, with new roles you hadn’t even considered.
Dell’s Allison Ward recently wrote for Hire Learning about how sustainability departments are shrinking, with a need for such specialism declining as sustainability itself becomes a more integral part of almost all individual jobs across the board. This might be true for America, but doesn’t quite hold up in Europe where a similar movement is happening, but playing out differently.
Yes, each and every job here is evolving to include some contribution to fighting the climate crisis. That is the core idea behind what we do at The Climate School; upskilling existing staff across every arm imaginable in your business in the transition to a focus on sustainability. But this isn’t resulting in CSR departments shrink. They’re growing, too.
One of our clients in commercial real estate recently told us that they were aiming to grow from their current figure of around 200 sustainability/ESG professionals to 2,000 within five years.
We’ve already touched on one the main drivers behind this, the increasing and much tighter sustainability regulations and subsequent demands on businesses. You need a hard-working, far-reaching department to manage this workload alone.
‘Europe’ is not one place. It’s 27
And finally, hopefully somewhat obviously, you must consider that Europe cannot always be bucketed into one place. Throughout this article I have outlined common themes that I believe apply across the continent, but ultimately you must recognize that each of the 27 countries is a unique, distinct entity that will influence your career in a very different way.
For example, I was recently asked to input into a report on the advancement of sustainable digital advertising across Europe. One datapoint looked at whether different advertising companies across Europe had concrete plans to begin measuring their carbon emissions when not currently doing so. There were staggering differences among France, Germany and the U.K., with France leading the way, Germany slowly following suit and the U.K. lagging behind. This was led (once again) by regulation, a 2010 law passed in France has made it mandatory to measure carbon footprint for every company with more than 500 people. We’re all on the same side in Europe, but different countries are at different stages, with different local laws.
My advice? Apply due diligence and do your research on the country you’re moving to. Look into its local laws; discover its history; talk to its people. If you do just that, you’ll give yourself the best chance of making the difference you hoped for when visualizing your green career.