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4 sustainability leaders reveal career path, challenges, goals

There's a demand for companies to create dedicated sustainability roles. Here are key insights and advice from four sustainability leaders on how to succeed in this career path.

The growing number of companies that are focusing on their environmental impact have opened up associated career paths. That's great news for people who want to be sustainability leaders.

The number of company sustainability officers tripled in 2021, according to "Empowered Chief Sustainability Officers: The key to remaining credible and competitive," a 2022 report published by PwC.

As more boards, consumers and other stakeholders demand environmental, social and governance (ESG) accountability, those sustainability job roles will only become more important.

But how did today's sustainability leaders earn their position, and what are their current goals and struggles?

These four people share insights on just those issues.

Erin Meezan, chief sustainability officer, JLL

Previous job: Vice president and chief sustainability officer at Interface Inc., a flooring manufacturer headquartered in Atlanta, Ga. Meezan called this her "real estate-adjacent" role that prepared her for her position at JLL, due to Interface's prioritization of fabricating carbon neutral products.

Current job responsibilities: As chief sustainability officer at JLL, a global real estate and investment services firm, headquartered in Chicago, Meezan is responsible for ensuring that the company delivers on its ESG commitments, including a net zero -- the result of lowering greenhouse gas emissions as close as possible to zero -- target of 2040.

Erin Meezan, chief sustainability officer, JLLErin Meezan

In addition to driving internal change, she also works with clients to understand their sustainability best practices, she said. This helps her research additional ways to boost JLL's sustainability processes.

Inside her role: As a sustainability leader, Meezan must navigate the technical and the human challenges and opportunities.

"One of the reasons I was attracted to this [position] was its dual role," Meezan said.

Change management is a major part of her role, she said.

"I think one of the really large challenges that any CSO [chief sustainability officer] faces -- and that certainly I have -- is understanding that as we're implementing things like action plans to achieve net zero, we're often asking the business to do business differently," she said.

In JLL's case, this requires the organization to alter its approach on processes like how it selects office locations or the leasing agreements it engages in, Meezan said. Implementing these changes not only requires a sustainability action plan, but also good communications and engagement from everyone in the company.

"It isn't just about building the technical roadmap of all the things that have to happen," Meezan said. "It's [also] the people side of ensuring that it happens and connecting people along the way."

Advice for those who want a sustainability career: Those aspiring to pursue a career in sustainability should look to the increasing number of academic programs and online learning available, she said. Aspiring sustainability leaders should also reach out to those already working in this space.

"[Don't] ask them, necessarily, about their career trajectory," Meezan said. "Ask them about those experiences that they found really helpful in building their knowledge."

Janelle Meyers, chief sustainability officer, Kellogg Company

Previous job: Meyers held leadership roles in several positions at retail giant Walmart, including private label sourcing. That role, combined with working in supplier engagement and development at Kellogg, gave her insight on how to embed sustainability into procurement and sourcing.

Janelle Meyers, chief sustainability officer, Kellogg Janelle Meyers

Current job responsibilities: At Kellogg, a U.S. multinational food manufacturing company headquartered in Battle Creek, Mich., Meyers works at a global level with teams in North America, Europe, Asia and Latin America. Her role includes working toward the food giant's goals related to greenhouse gas reductions, energy and water use reductions, waste reduction and responsible sourcing.

"I have a passion for understanding responsible sourcing from a very holistic perspective, and then really bringing that to bear," Meyers said. "It's such a rewarding career path; you get to work with so many different peers internally and externally, and really stay in tune with some of the big challenges that we have within the [broader] food system."

Inside her role: One of her biggest challenges is embedding sustainability throughout a large organization, Meyers said. Her team is continually working with the different functions within Kellogg to understand how sustainability fits into their framework, and the support they may require in meeting the company's commitments.

The regulatory environment also presents challenges, simply because the space is evolving so rapidly.

"We make sure that we stay plugged in with our industry groups, or NGO partners and advisors to understand where things are going," she said.

Advice for those who want a sustainability career: While young and mid-career professionals alike may dream of a sustainability leadership role, everyone can incorporate sustainability into their functions, Meyers said.

"I don't think you need to have 'sustainability' in your title to work in sustainability by any means," she said. For example, a category manager working in procurement can contribute to improving an organization's supplier selection process for more responsible sourcing.

It's also essential to understand how a business operates -- especially in its finance division -- to incorporate sustainable practices effectively, she said.

Andrea S. Murphy, director of environmental affairs and sustainability, Panasonic Corporation of North America

Sustainability education: After working in various sustainability roles, Murphy obtained her master's in environmental science and management from the University of California at Santa Barbara before joining Panasonic, the global electronics company. This degree prepared her to apply sustainable principles in the corporate environment, she said.

Andrea S. Murphy, director of environmental affairs and sustainability, Panasonic Andrea S. Murphy

"I like to say that [in environmental science and management] they train tree huggers how to survive in the business world," Murphy said. "That's really what they did, because you need to know how business operates."

Current job responsibilities: Murphy is the sustainability lead in Panasonic's North America region, based in Newark, N.J.

In that role, she works toward the commitments established by the Panasonic Holdings Corporation, headquartered in Osaka, Japan. She explained that this includes the following:

  • Improving package design.
  • Increasing the recycled content of the company's products.
  • Reducing water consumption and waste generation.
  • Decreasing energy consumption.

Inside her role: Murphy said she loves this job due to the breadth of products that Panasonic manufactures.

"I really get to interact with all of the manufacturing companies, and that's what I love because my days are so exciting -- every day is different," she said.

This product scope, however, also presents challenges. Panasonic makes everything from professional audiovisual equipment to home electronics and appliances. A cookie cutter approach to sustainability isn't possible because the components differ from category to category.

"If we're trying to [reduce] the carbon footprint of our products, it's going to look different for each of the product lines," Murphy said. "We find that challenging, because we're really not able to [shift] what we've learned from one [product line] to the other at a wide capacity."

Advice for those who want a sustainability career: These days, there is a considerable range of sustainability roles from which to choose. Murphy encouraged aspiring leaders to follow their passion.

She cited herself as an example: After working for an NGO, she discovered that the job -- which had her cooped up in an office doing research most of the time -- was not for her. Instead, she moved into a position that enabled her to connect with other sustainability practitioners.

"Follow your gut with what feels good," Murphy said. "There are so many varieties of jobs in this field. Make sure you find something you enjoy and that makes you happy."

Jennifer Huffstetler, chief product sustainability officer, Intel

Previous job: Huffstetler has enjoyed various roles and a long career at Intel, a U.S. multinational tech manufacturer, headquartered in Santa Clara, Calif. Her degree in chemical engineering helped her understand the chemical processes at the factory level, "which deeply impact a product's embodied carbon," she said.

Jennifer Huffstetler, chief product sustainability officer, Intel Jennifer Huffstetler

Current job responsibilities: Intel created the chief product sustainability officer role just over a year ago in response to customer inquiries about the company's net zero goals, Huffstetler said.

As the first person to fill this position, she works with Intel's manufacturing facilities, product development teams and sales teams to build strategies that will result in more sustainable offerings.

"I'm working now on executing the strategy that we pulled together, which is really to help our customers lower their footprint," Huffstetler said.

Inside her role: In the product space, the main challenge is gaining an accurate measurement of a product's carbon footprint, Huffstetler said. And that's important since it's difficult to improve a product's sustainability performance if you don't know its carbon impact right now.

"That is a top priority for us, to figure out how we align our methodologies," Huffstetler said.

Advice for those who want a sustainability career: When she first stepped into her position, colleagues contacted her to learn how they, too, could work in sustainability, Huffstetler said.

Her answer to them has widespread application.

"Be a sustainability leader in your current role," she said.

Every role within an organization can examine how to reduce things like energy consumption, materials usage and recycling, she said. There's an opportunity for each and every person to be a sustainability leader.

Next Steps

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