The growth of the sport sustainability career

May 16 2024

In recent years, as more and more organisations and businesses address sustainability, the number of professionals choosing careers in the area has rocketed – both within and beyond the sport sector.

The growth of the sport sustainability career

But, as the number of sustainability roles grows at a rapid pace, the scope of the job can be unclear – and the route into a sustainability career uncertain.

So how is the field developing – and what are some of the issues that people are facing as they attempt to get ahead in the industry?

The growth of ‘green’ careers

It’s undeniable that the number of ‘green’ jobs – from ESG consultants to sustainability managers to engineers and data scientists – is increasing as industries and businesses look to meet green targets.

Last year, researchers from Yale and Arizona State University analysed a database of job adverts and found that there had been a tenfold increase in the number of jobs with ‘sustainability’ in the title – reaching around 177,000 in 2021.

Meanwhile, research by LinkedIn found that, in 2024, ‘sustainability analyst’ was the fastest-growing role in Sweden, while ‘sustainability manager’ was the fastest-growing job in both Germany and the UK, coming in third in Spain.

Sustainability roles have grown across organisations, from entry-level to executive positions. Between 2016 and 2021, the number of companies with chief sustainability officers in executive positions tripled, jumping from 9% to 28%.

In sport, more and more clubs, venues, organisations and charities are hiring for sustainability-specific roles.

Last week, Sport Positive released its first environmental responsibility report, which reviews the progress on sustainability made by Premier League football clubs.

Findings of the report show that some clubs now have established sustainability roles. Brentford FC, for example, has hired a sustainability manager who is responsible for delivering the club’s environmental sustainability strategy, while Chelsea FC has hired an Environmental Social Governance manager.

Meanwhile, federations and governing bodies covering sports from Formula 1 to tennis to table tennis all have at least one sustainability-specific job role on their staff.

Defining the sustainability field

While the number of sports roles with ‘sustainability’ included in the title are growing, the levels and types of roles can still vary hugely across the sector.

Some sustainability job roles may be added on to existing positions – for example, operational roles with additional sustainability responsibilities. Some roles may be more technical, requiring specialist training or knowledge, while others may not. Many jobs may be mid-level or targeted at sustainability professionals moving into sport from other sectors.

Essentially, there is not yet a clear definition of the roles and responsibilities required for roles as sport sustainability managers – and no clear pathway into the profession.

This lack of entry-level roles is one challenge that many younger professionals face when looking for work in the field.

“I don’t think there are many entry-level jobs in sustainability,” Jess Rogers, co-founder of Second Nature Sisters, a newly-created community for women working in sustainability, tells Global Sustainable Sport. “Companies are only just finding budget now to bring someone in at a more senior level.”

This can mean that, for younger professionals or graduates looking to find work in the sustainability space, it can be difficult to find relevant experience or build a track record of work.

Many sustainability roles, however, don’t necessarily require degrees in sustainability or environmental science. For sector-specific roles, like sport sustainability managers, knowledge of the industry, or of areas like stadium operations or event management, can be equally as important, while short courses and micro-qualifications can help fill gaps in technical knowledge.

“I don’t have any qualifications in sustainability, and I want to prove that you don’t need them,” says Rogers.

Another key challenge is making sure that sustainability roles are clearly defined and accelerating meaningful change – and not just continuing the same old conversations or greenwashing.

“Each sustainability manager, wherever they are, needs to work out what sustainability means for their organisation,” says Rogers. “It needs to be right for your organisation, because what’s right for a Premier League football club is very different to what’s right for a local tennis team or a sportswear provider.”

Once roles are clearly defined, finding passionate people to fill them is key, says Rogers.

“I really want people to do a job they love. People are in corporate jobs they don’t love, it sucks their soul, and it’s not doing anything good for the planet,” she says. “If we can get more people aligning to what their purpose is, and to do a job they love, they’re going to have more impact.”

Facing challenges and creating networks

Those wanting to develop a career in sustainability can be faced with challenges like broad job definitions, a lack of entry-level roles, and unclear training or skills requirements.

Creating networks to support sustainability professionals could be one way of establishing sustainability roles more formally in the industry – while also making sure that the conversation progresses.

Second Nature Sisters, which Rogers co-founded with SailGP’s Chief Purpose Officer Fiona Morgan, grew out of this gap.

Rogers and Morgan had both found themselves at times frustrated by the slow pace of change and by finding themselves listening to, or sitting on, the same panel conversations.

“We thought, can we try and do something about this? Can we try and build something where we can support exciting ideas and help support other women who are working in sustainability?” Rogers explains.

The community, which launched in April, will be a space for all women working in sustainability, both in sport and beyond. It has already reached almost 500 members, and will focus on community building, inspiring content, and careers advice. Importantly, membership will be free.

“We wanted it to be 100% free,” says Rogers. “There are a few networks or communities out there in the sustainability space, but we wanted this to be accessible for everyone – for anyone who identifies as a woman working anywhere in the world.”

Being part of a wider community can be valuable for sustainability professionals who may not have support or expertise to draw on within their own organisations.

“You may be head of sustainability at a business, but nobody else is working in sustainability at your organisation, so who do you actually talk to who’s got insight in that area who can help you?” Rogers says.

Collaborating and connecting with sustainability professionals from across different sectors could also help to accelerate the conversation and generate more creative solutions to common problems.

“That’s one reason why we really wanted to create a community where people could come together and share ideas,” says Rogers. “It may just be that you need a sustainable clothing supplier for an event, or you’re really struggling with something as a chief sustainability officer – you want to talk to other people who are in the same position.”

Importantly, creating communities for those who have historically been underrepresented at executive or senior levels can help to improve diversity in the field of sustainability, which is an ongoing challenge.

Improving racial diversity is a major area that the growing sustainability industry, both within and outside of sport, still needs to address.

The Racial Action for the Climate Emergency (RACE) Report, which highlights the need for greater representation in sustainability and climate action, argues that the environment and conservation professions are amongst the least diverse in the UK.

This year’s report found that, among 140 organisations focusing on environment and sustainability, only 6% of staff and 7% of governance or trustee boards were people of colour or those from racial or ethnic minority backgrounds.

This lack of representation and scarcity of role models can make it even more difficult for people of colour to establish sustainability careers.

Future outlook 

It is clear that, as the sustainability field grows, both organisations and jobseekers face a unique set of challenges.

Issues including a lack of diversity, difficulty finding support, a scarcity of entry-level jobs and a lack of clarity surrounding the required background and experience can make beginning and establishing a career in sustainability challenging.

But, at the same time, a growth of roles, including entry-level positions, the creation of supportive communities, and communication across industries could help people find and develop meaningful careers.

Rogers is hopeful that these changes are on the horizon.

“Once it’s become normal, for want of a better word, to have a sustainability manager, and it’s not just beneficial for the planet, and not just nice to do, but also commercially viable for the sports entity, then hopefully they will start hiring for more junior roles,” she says.

For those looking to establish a career in sport sustainability, the increasing number of sustainability-related roles, and the creation of networks like Second Nature Sisters, is a promising sign that more opportunities are on the horizon.

And developing skills experience in this area is critical – because, ultimately, sustainability will become an integral part of every sports organisation.

“If you want to lead or be CEO of a sport, you should care about sustainability,” Rogers says.

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