Observations on the Sustainability & ESG recruitment market

Posted on 17 April 2023

A year in Sustainability & ESG Recruitment – What I have noted

I launched Verdant Search, a specialist Sustainability and ESG recruitment agency, just over 12 months ago and thought I would share the insights I have acquired in this first year of trading; consisting of trends on candidate preferences and how businesses can be successful in attracting and hiring the best candidates.


Verdant focuses on senior appointments and leadership roles, however we have also supported businesses build out entire teams covering a range of seniorities and industry sectors, across permanent and interim solutions. Therefore, although this article predominately relates to senior management roles I believe the factors noted are widely transferable to hiring at all levels.


Driven by the improving global effort to combat climate change it is no surprise I have found the sustainability and ESG space a dynamic and rapidly changing environment, the result though is an extremely fragmented recruitment market. Highlighted by the range of salaries on offer, variation in job titles, seniority of these positions and where sustainability and ESG teams are positioned in the org chart. Though understandable it provides significant challenges when looking to hire, but also opportunities for those that can position themselves correctly.


One of my initial observations has been the depth of passion candidates have for the space, while this might not be surprising, it isn’t something I have experienced before in my previous 18 years as a recruiter. Having spoken to 100s of sustainability leaders all have emphasised the importance of having an impact in their next role and wanting to work for a purpose led business that is truly looking to deliver real change.


Businesses that can demonstrate this and highlight their commitment to becoming more sustainable are going to be far more successful in their candidate attraction. However, candidates are extremely wary of empty promises and businesses looking to produce sustainability strategies solely for optics to the market with no appetite to implement them.


A consequence of this is the issue of reporting lines, candidates regularly state they are unwilling to report into anyone in the marketing, communications, human resources or legal teams. Reporting into marketing and communications is often perceived (rightly or wrongly) as meaning the main priority of the position is to highlight how green the business is and not on actual delivery.


I’ve learnt that for a sustainability strategy to be effective it must work hand in hand with the corporate strategy as it will impact every aspect of a company and requires complete backing from the CEO, CFO and COO to be successful. Delivery means a company wide transformation programme of work that depending on the size of the business will take several years to complete. Reporting lines into these aforementioned channels can signal to candidates that the hiring business has failed to recognise the complexity of implementing a sustainability strategy and that the new hire will lack the stakeholder support necessary to be successful.


How a business goes to market is vital, if you do not ensure the job description, website and any advertising is detailed and correctly worded they risk deterring talent, the businesses’ leadership should be seen to be committed to driving change and that sustainability is not considered a buzzword or tick box exercise. Candidates do fully recognise sustainability is challenging and understand every business will have limitations on what can be achieved, often candidates have stated they enjoy the challenge of influencing the senior stakeholders and developing their sustainability appreciation over time.


I have similarly found that many candidates are excited to work for businesses with substantial carbon footprints because they can have a larger impact on climate change, whilst not everyone is willing to work in oil and gas or heavy industry several candidates are excited to help these types of businesses transform. In fact most candidates are more indifferent about opportunities in professional services companies that have limited carbon footprints.


Salary positioning is proving a challenge for a number of reasons, going to market with a below average salary can easily be viewed as not valuing or understanding the role within the business, immediately discouraging candidates and worse yet, potentially damaging the businesses’ brand; as they can be viewed as not taking environmental issues seriously. While this may not be fair as companies have limited resources and inhibitive structures, it can still resonate in the market. The recent surge in salaries as demand for talent has far outstripped supply has made hiring complicated, yet remuneration is still not the biggest driver for most candidates and so if the role can be positioned as one where the candidate can deliver real change; you will still find suitable applicants.


A successful sustainability strategy will make your business more profitable and similarly to digital transformation the market is only going one way. The benefit to the business though is far wider, a strong sustainability strategy will aid in attracting talent across all roles, not just into sustainability and ESG, plus it will aid in boosting the existing staff’s morale and improving retention. Two critical components for any business looking to grow.


I could go on and for anyone looking for advice on sustainability or ESG recruitment please reach out, to conclude though I would highlight that if you are looking to hire, don’t be afraid to be transparent about where your business is on its sustainability journey. Candidates want to join businesses to help you transform, however do ensure you can offer them the chance to deliver real change and have a positive impact.

Verdant supports businesses in all sectors hire Sustainability and ESG talent, into permanent or interim / contract roles. We offer retained search, exclusive and contingent services and primarily focus on leadership roles. Recent successful searches include Global Head of ESG – Asset Management, Head of ESG – Banking, Head of Sustainability – Water Utility, Ethics Lead – Luxury Retail, Sustainability Lead – Manufacturing and Senior ESG Manager – Property.

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