How Activism-Inspired Roles like “Sustainability Manager” Emerge and Evolve
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Organizations May 1, 2023

How Activism-Inspired Roles like “Sustainability Manager” Emerge and Evolve

First, these new positions are held by activists themselves. Over time, this changes.

a climate activist in their university office

Jesús Escudero

Based on the research of

Grace Augustine

Brayden King

In the 1990s and early 2000s, college students and other activists pushed universities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, heed new environmental building standards, and make recycling a priority.

Under this pressure, university leaders made public commitments to undergo environmental audits and incorporate sustainability into their operations. But how to start? Facilities staff weren’t equipped with the knowledge to lead such a change. So instead, universities began to create formal sustainability manager positions.

This is an example of occupational activism: when employees push their organizations to embrace socially transformative change, their pressure can result in new positions and job titles that manage those changes. Occupational activism is different from change that comes from external pressure, such as from protestors, or from internal mobilization, such as from unions, as the focus is on creating new occupations that will help realize the goals of activists.

The creation of the role of sustainability manager in higher education offered a way for researchers to study how occupational activism evolves. Specifically, once these formal roles were created, how much influence did activists actually have?

In new research, Brayden King, a professor of management and organizations at Kellogg, and Grace Augustine, a former Kellogg PhD student who is now at the University of Bath, find that when universities first created sustainability manager roles, the positions were primarily filled by environmental activists themselves. But once those roles were formalized across the industry, they were then more likely filled by professionals who had degrees in environmental studies.

By understanding this process, King says, managers can better understand the evolution of these new movement-instigated positions and how activists can play a role in defining them. For example, many organizations are currently creating diversity, equity, and inclusion management roles as a result of the Black Lives Matter movement and racial reckoning within the U.S.

“With these social movements, organizations are asked to make a change,” King says. “And with these new roles, activists can come in and have a say over some issue that they care deeply about, and organizations are often better for it.”

Following the career paths of activists

Social movements have repeatedly led organizations to create new roles, including affirmative action officers, ethics officers, and corporate social responsibility managers. But previous research hasn’t shown to what extent those within a social movement directly enter these roles.

To find out who was hired for the new sustainability manager roles in higher education, the researchers looked to The Green Schools Forum, an online forum created in 1992. It was first used by students and activists to coordinate pressure on their universities. Later, newly appointed sustainability managers joined the conversation.

The researchers collected the names of all 1,435 individuals involved in the forum between 1992 and 2010, at which point the occupation of sustainability management had become firmly established.

“Just like an MBA degree became a sign that you are a professional manager, now a graduate degree in an environmental area shows you are trained to be a sustainability manager.”

Brayden King

They then gathered biographical data on those names from LinkedIn. Of the initial list of names, 800 forum members had active and complete LinkedIn profiles.

The researchers hand-coded each individual’s work experience, examining each job title to discern whether it would be considered sustainability management. They also hand-coded the organizations for which the individuals had worked, or with which they were affiliated, to see if they could be categorized as a movement-oriented environmental organization, like Sierra Club, Greenpeace, and Alliance for the Great Lakes. In addition, they examined everyone’s posted educational history.

From novelty to legitimacy

Of the 800 forum members that the researchers studied, 40 percent had become sustainability managers in higher education at some point in their career. Many of those also had experience as environmental activists. Indeed, for each additional year as an environmental activist, an individual was 7 percent more likely to become a sustainability manager.

“They were the experts in those early years of that position, and they had the greatest amount of influence,” King says. “They could define that role and what its goals should be. There were likely administrators in other positions wondering why there were a bunch of crazy environmentalists coming to work for the university. But they were the pioneers, paving the way for others to follow.”

Interestingly, the researchers also found that overall number of years of work experience was negatively correlated with becoming a sustainability manager. That means that those who became sustainability managers had less overall job experience on average, compared with a wider sample.

However, when the researchers looked at only the later years that the study covered, they found differences in the trends.

Most people entered the sustainability positions between 2005 and 2010. And once these jobs became more prevalent, the types of people hired for them shifted. After 150 individuals in the sample became sustainability managers, having more experience in the environmental movement was no longer a statistically significant predictor of getting the job.

So who was getting these sustainability manager jobs instead? Not those with careers in higher education, the researchers found. Instead, the positions were more likely to be filled by applicants who had a graduate degree in environmental studies.

“The activists were no longer getting hired, but they won, in a sense,” King says. “The activists legitimized sustainability managers as a normal role within the university. Just like an MBA degree became a sign that you are a professional manager, now a graduate degree in an environmental area shows you are trained to be a sustainability manager.”

A way to hire risk-takers and innovators

The research shows that social movements can push organizations to change by pressuring them to create these new roles, which are then filled by activists who can define what successful outcomes look like.

This is a notion that many corporate leaders might balk at. But King argues that making space for activists can ultimately help disrupt the status quo in a positive way.

“Activists may make some mistakes and break things, but they are really trying to push the organization to be better,” King says. “They are risk-takers who are pushing for innovation, and as the position becomes more institutionalized, it’s not clear that those who are hired—highly trained professionals—have that same kind of risk-taking nature.”

Featured Faculty

Max McGraw Chair in Management and the Environment; Professor of Management & Organizations

About the Writer

Emily Ayshford is a freelance writer in Chicago.

About the Research

Augustine, Grace, and Brayden King. 2022. “From Movements to Managers: Crossing Organizational Boundaries in the Field of Sustainability.” Work and Occupations.

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