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Embedding environmental justice into career planning

May 2019

We know that students are interested in the ethical practices of their future employers, so why not explore environmental and sustainability issues in careers guidance?

Planet Earth is in peril. As David Attenborough says in his documentary series Our Planet, 'In the last 50 years wildlife populations have, on average, declined by 60%. For the first time in human history, the stability of nature can no longer be taken for granted. What we do in the next 20 years will determine the future for all life on Earth.'

Do we, as careers professionals, have a role to play here? In recent years there has been a growing acknowledgement that the link between careers guidance and social justice should be strengthened.1 But what about careers guidance and environmental justice?

Careers and the environment are inextricably linked. A geographical environment influences how industry develops (take coastal industries as an example), and work practices impact on the environment (energy, waste, land use and so on). A Native American proverb comes to mind: 'The frog does not drink up the pond in which he lives'. Yet we continue to treat the environment as a resource to be plundered, to drive industry and boost our economy.

It's not just universities that are interested in sustainability - students are too

Many UK higher education institutions have a strong value base around sustainability. At the University of Plymouth, this is reflected in the presence of the Sustainable Earth Institute, the Centre for Sustainable Futures, a range of sustainability-inspired degree programmes, and an entire school whose curriculum is underpinned by the United Nations' sustainability goals.

But it's not just universities that are interested in sustainability - students are too. At the recent Wonkhe 'Secret Life of Students' event, Dasha Karzunina, head of research at Trendence, presented findings from their ethics survey. Students' awareness of companies' ethical practices has increased, and 72% of students felt working for an ethical employer was important.

Integrating sustainability into curriculum-embedded careers felt like an obvious move. Over the past few years, within the School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences, we have been framing our employability work around environmental issues and sustainability. We use the UN Sustainable Development Goals as the basis for a range of career exploration activities, encouraging students to consider which goals they would like their careers to contribute to, and to discover how occupations align with the goals.

We are currently designing an embedded stage 1 event that empowers students to consider sustainability in their own lives, but also to use sustainability as a framework for career management activities. This approach has three strands:

  • raising the profile of careers that contribute to environmental issues
  • supporting students to explore the sustainability values of potential employers
  • applying sustainability thinking to gaining experience such as vacation opportunities and travel.

We discuss an individual's values around money, geographic mobility, status, autonomy. Shouldn't environmental considerations be highlighted too?

Taking this approach wider, we have also begun to look at how sustainability might fit within other disciplines. Are your computing students aware of careers developing eco-friendly smart cities? Do your maths students know about opportunities to apply modelling to determine the management of timber and fish resources? Have your music students considered whether the festival venues they perform at have adopted an environmental policy?

As careers practitioners we acknowledge and encourage the exploration of a broad range of motivations within career thinking. We discuss an individual's values around money, geographic mobility, status, autonomy. Shouldn't environmental and sustainability considerations be highlighted too?

It would be a tragedy for graduates to walk blindly into a future career where they find themselves in a position where they realise: 'Only after the last tree has been cut down… the last river has been poisoned… the last fish caught, only then will you find that money cannot be eaten.'2

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of HECSU/Prospects


  1. Career Guidance for Social Justice, Hooley, Sultana and Thomsen (2017).
  2. Cree Indian prophesy.

Further reading

Green Career Guidance, Running in a Forest, Tom Staunton, 2018.

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