New survey sheds light on diversity in sustainability

By Maddie Johnson | September 16, 2021 | Last updated on September 16, 2021
2 min read
Diverse Executive Team Meeting in Office Reception Room

Findings from a new study reveal that the sustainability sector needs to make itself more inclusive.

“With an industry that is focused on creating a better and more sustainable world, we as a profession have far to go in terms of creating an inclusive sector,” said Heather Mak, co-founder of Toronto-based non-profit Diversity in Sustainability (DiS), which published its first Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) in Sustainability survey on Thursday.

The survey, which polled sustainability professionals in Canada, the U.S. and the U.K., found that sustainability is an “elite and privileged profession, which attracts those who have the means to be in it.”

Of the respondents, 75% had a middle-class upbringing, 90% have at least a bachelor’s degree and 62% have a master’s degree. The profession is known to offer low pay for entry-level roles and internships while also requiring a high level of education, the report said, which can exclude qualified candidates, including those who typically suffer from environmental and social injustices.

Further, only a quarter (27%) of all respondents felt that their leadership teams were diverse, and Black (24%), South Asian (29%) and East Asian (37%) practitioners were less likely to agree that they saw someone like them in the profession as compared to White women (70%).

A demographic shift may be on the horizon.

Forty-two percent of sustainability professionals aged 25-34 are people of colour, and 54% of sustainability professionals aged 18-24 are people of colour. In addition, junior and middle management roles were more often held by women (both white and non-white) and people belonging to the LGBTQ+ community.

“While this suggests that leadership may naturally become more diverse over time, it also suggests a need for considered approaches to succession planning and inclusion now, to avoid a drop-off in retention,” the report said.

Even before demographics shift, respondents also wanted their firms to take immediate action: only half of respondents (52%) felt as though their organizations had translated their EDI statements into action.

A report released earlier this month by the CFA Institute found that incorporating successful DEI strategies requires three components: leadership that is committed, trained and accountable; frequent, informative, two-way communication with employees; and a DEI plan embedded in the overall business strategy.

“While organizations are making strides and trying to close the gap in equity, diversity and inclusion, it is clear that significant improvements are needed to ensure that the views of society — particularly the most vulnerable voices — are truly reflected,” concluded the DiS report. 

The survey received 1,500 responses between February and April, primarily from people in Canada, U.K. and the U.S. Most respondents worked in corporate social responsibility and sustainability, with another 17% of respondents working in responsible investing or investor relations.

Read the full report here.

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Maddie Johnson

Maddie is a freelance writer and editor who has been reporting for since 2019.