Turning Green Degrees into Sustainable Careers Discover Environmentally-Friendly Degrees and Job Options

Meet the Expert
expert
Nurit Katz

Nurit Katz is UCLA’s first Sustainability Coordinator and recently become the executive officer of UCLA Facilities Management where she works to foster partnerships and further the goals and initiatives of the campus sustainability program. Nurit is also an Instructor for UCLA Extension’s Global Sustainability Certificate Program. Previously, she founded the UCLA Sustainable Resource Center. She has served as President of the Graduate Students Association and has helped develop a new interdisciplinary graduate certificate program – Leaders in Sustainability. After graduation, she helped launch the UCLA Center for Corporate Environmental Performance and worked on a variety of sustainability projects in the LA area. Nurit holds an MBA from the UCLA Anderson School of Management, a Masters in Public Policy from the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, and a BA in Environmental Education from Humboldt State University.

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According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, many businesses and organizations today are implementing sustainability measures for a number of reasons, including making a positive impact on their communities, as well as improving profits and reputations, and retaining employees. As a result, there is growing opportunity for students to pursue a college degree in fields such as environmental protection, renewable energy, waste reduction, green architecture, and other sustainability-related disciplines. Find out what green degree options are available and the types careers graduates can pursue in the world of sustainability.

Why Go Green?
Choosing an Environmentally Friendly Major

The popularity of college degrees in green majors is large and growing, and for good reason. The demand for sustainability professionals is growing, too. That means more high-paying, long-term “green-collar” jobs are being created daily. Demand breeds variety. Due to the greater demand for green-collar workers, colleges and universities are stepping up and offering a wider variety of green majors and specializations at every degree level.

This wealth of options has created a whole new problem for prospective students: how to choose the right environmentally friendly major. However, once the choice is made and the student has established a solid footing on his or her education path, current projections indicate they will be able to find careers in their field.

The benefits of a green education and green careers to individuals specifically and the world in general are numerous. Here’s a look at some of the biggest:

Climate Change is Real

The evidence is compelling. Climate change is real. In fact, among peer-reviewed scientific literature, 97.1 percent endorsed the consensus position that humans are causing global warming. According to NASA, some undeniable evidence of rapid climate change include:

  • Rising sea level
  • Rising global temperature
  • Warming oceans (the top 2,300 feet of ocean has increased 0.302 degrees Fahrenheit since 1969)
  • Decreasing ice sheets, particularly in Greenland and Antarctica
  • Rapid declining of Arctic sea ice
  • Glacial retreat almost across the world, including in the Alps, Himalayas, Andes, Rockies, Alaska, and Africa
  • An increase in the number of record high temperature events in the US, as well as a decrease in the number of record low temperature events and increase in significant rainfall events
  • Ocean acidification
  • Decrease in spring snow cover in the Northern Hemisphere, which suggests that snow is melting earlier than previous years
Energy

The bad news is that nonrenewable energy sources are bad for the environment and will eventually run out. The good news is that 95 percent of global energy needs can be met by renewable sources by 2050.

Human Health

Anyone looking for a good reason to consider a green career should look no further than their own health and that of their children: According to the World Health Organization, “Green technologies that protect or enhance worker health will achieve sustainability not only at the community level but down to the level of families.”

National Defense

Students interested in defending their country may want to consider a green college degree program. According to the White House, “Climate change is an urgent and growing threat to U.S. national security.”

Reducing Poverty

Although global poverty has declined remarkably over the last few decades, it remains a significant problem. Green growth is a requirement for sustainable poverty reduction and shared prosperity.

Water

Enough water exists on the planet to meet the world’s expanding needs, but only if there is a dramatic change in the way it is used, managed and shared.

Women

The estimated median earnings for women in full-time, year-round work are higher in the green economy than in the overall economy, and the wage gap between men and women is smaller.

Your Wallet

A green career can mean a fatter paycheck, depending on the specific field. Generally speaking, green jobs pay 10 to 20 percent more than other jobs.

Most Popular Green Degrees

Many students recognize that saving the planet will be the primary concern of their generation and that it’s going to take a solid education to create positive and lasting change.

It is no big surprise that a list of the best paying green careers in many ways mirrors a list of the top paying careers overall. For example, prospective college students today know that the market for graduates with science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) degrees is hot and employers are paying well for their services. The same can be said for STEM graduates educated in sustainability-related majors. However, a hot job market and high starting salary are not the biggest concerns of many students. Moreover, not everyone interested in a green career wants to be a mathematician, engineer or scientist. Fortunately, there are many non-STEM degree choices for green students as well.

Below is a list of 10 of the top green degree subjects offered by colleges and universities throughout the country:

Top 10 Green Degrees
  • 1

    Environmental architecture and environmental design

  • 2

    Environmental engineering

  • 3

    Environmental health sciences

  • 4

    Environmental law

  • 5

    Environmental science and sustainability

  • 6

    Horticulture

  • 7

    Marine sciences

  • 8

    Renewable energy

  • 9

    Sustainable agriculture

  • 10

    Wildlife ecology

Green Degree to Career Map

Earning a degree is a very important step on the path to a green-collar career, but it is only the first step. And it is one that must be thought out as clearly as possible before a student begins his or her studies. That doesn’t mean a student must plot out in detail exactly what he or she plans to do throughout their entire working life. There’s nothing wrong with changing majors once a student gets a taste of a particular subject. What is important is to remain conscious of one’s career goals throughout the postsecondary academic process.

The following is a list of popular green career paths, beginning with potential degree subjects and levels, and ending with common job titles for specific degree holders:

Environmental Architecture and Environmental Design

This degree may also be called sustainable architecture, sustainable design, or sustainable environmental design. Bachelor degree programs with this title can be found at architectural schools and departments everywhere. The career path of the environmental architecture or design student often includes completion of both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree program before securing state licensure and various specialization certifications.

  • Green Architect

    Designs homes, factories, offices and other commercial buildings employing sustainable design and building principles and efficiencies. Incorporates the use of ecologically friendly materials that minimize harm to the environment and maximize human health.

  • Sustainable Landscape Designer

    Is concerned with the planning and design of eco-friendly outdoor spaces. Creates design concepts that include the use of indigenous flora and building materials, sustainable water supplies for irrigation and efficient heating and cooling systems. May work on designs of all sizes, from minor residential commissions and small green areas to large commercial, institutional and industrial projects.

  • Urban Designer

    Develops designs for the efficient use of public or private lands to create communities, accommodate populations and population growth, and revitalize existing communities and physical facilities in urban areas. Most often requires a graduate degree in urban planning.

Environmental Engineering

Becoming an environmental engineer requires a bachelor’s degree in environmental science or a closely related subject, although entry-level technician positions can be found with just an associate degree. Academic requirements include coursework in subjects such as chemistry, biology, math, general physics, thermodynamics and fluid mechanics. Career advancement into managerial positions almost always requires a master’s degree.

  • Environmental Engineering Technician

    Considered an entry-level position in the field. Commonly works with a team of technicians under the supervision of engineers to conduct tests, collect and analyze samples of air and ground water, and record and keep records of test results.

  • Environmental Project Manager

    Works closely with project managers performing a variety of tasks, including conducting site studies, evaluating field data and performing calculations for reports and work plans. Provides field operations support and oversees construction quality assurance. Specific jobs may require a solid background in environmental regulation and/or experience with AutoCad systems.

  • Hydrologist and Hydrogeologist

    Concerned with locating and controlling water resources. Studies how precipitation affects groundwater levels, how surface water and groundwater travels on (hydrologist) and under (hydrogeologist) the earth and how water evaporates back into the atmosphere. Uses equipment to collect and analyze water and soil samples, as well as researches ways of minimizing the impacts of erosion, sedimentation and pollution on the environment.

Environmental Health Sciences

Environmental health is a specialization of public health that focuses on how the environment influences human health and disease. Environmental health degrees or specializations are offered for all degree levels, although bachelor’s and master’s programs are most prevalent. Subjects include fundamentals of chemistry, toxicology, environmental microbiology, risk assessment and standard setting, and applied ecology. Jobs can be obtained with a bachelor’s degree, but most professional environmental health positions require a master’s degree.

  • Environmental Epidemiologist

    Concerned with understanding how human health is affected by social, economic, chemical, physical and biological factors. Conducts research, investigates disease outbreaks and exposures to environmental hazards, educates the public on avoiding epidemics, and advocates for government regulations and policies to protect the public. Often offered as a master’s in public health specialization.

  • Environmental Health and Safety Specialist

    Protects the health and well-being of the environment and the public by creating public safety regulations and ensuring they are met in a variety of settings, including workplaces. Entry-level positions demand completion of a bachelor’s degree program in environmental or occupational health and may require state or local licensure.

  • Industrial Hygienist

    Responsible for keeping workers and workplaces, particularly industrial facilities and manufacturing plants, free from health and safety problems. Assesses environmental, chemical, biological and physical hazards; develops and implements health and safety programs and systems; and assures on-site compliance with health and safety regulations.

Environmental Law

Environmental law broadly refers to the bundle of state, federal and international laws intended to protect the environment from misuse. As with any area of law in the United States, becoming an environmental lawyer requires earning a law degree and passing a state’s bar examination. In most cases, a student must earn a bachelor’s degree and score high enough on the JSAT exam in order to be accepted into an accredited law school. Although there is no additional educational requirement for practicing environmental law, prospective environmental lawyers should strongly consider earning an environmental law certificate (offered at many law schools) and joining their state bar’s environmental law section.

  • Environmental Lawyer – Government

    Develops policies, assists in drafting legislation and regulations, represents government agencies before courts and administrative law judges, and monitors compliance with environmental statutes and regulations. Employed by agencies at all government levels.

  • Environmental Lawyer – Nonprofit

    Litigates cases on behalf of nonprofit environmental groups in state and federal courts. Involved in policy development, lobbying, research and public and political campaigns. Collaborates directly with corporations and industry leaders in the protection of environmental concerns specific to the nonprofit’s mission and goals.

  • Environmental Lawyer – Private

    Employed by private firms or directly by industries or corporations as in-house counsel. Represents clients such as oil and gas companies, electric and natural gas utilities, construction companies, mining companies, lumber companies and paper manufacturers.

Environmental Science and Sustainability

An environmental science and sustainability curriculum covers a broad range of issues concerning the protection of natural and man-made environments, as well as human health. The environmental science degree, particularly at the bachelor’s level, is a generalist degree that is usually coupled with a specialization, concentration or minor subject such as physics, biology, chemistry, ecology or geography. Degree programs may also emphasize any number of variants, including environmental studies, environmental management and environmental policy. Most entry-level jobs for this major require a bachelor’s degree, but a master’s may be necessary for career advancement.

  • Climatologist and Climate Change Analyst

    Studies long-term climate conditions. Employs the use of climate models to better understand the dynamics of climate systems and weather and to predict future climate. Collects and analyzes climate data to develop conclusions regarding human influences on climate.

  • Environmental Chemist

    Studies the relationships between chemicals and the natural environment through the integration of several disciplines, including chemistry, biology and environmental science. Determines how chemicals enter and integrate into different environmental settings like groundwater and the atmosphere. Requires a bachelor’s degree at minimum, although a master’s may be necessary for advancement into research.

  • Industrial Ecologist

    Works with scientists, engineers and others on complex issues related to environmental hazards and public health. Performs field tests and lab work to monitor the environment and prepares reports summarizing findings. Inspects businesses and public facilities to ensure compliance with environmental regulations and safety standards.

Horticulture

Horticulture is a branch of agriculture concerned with gardening that generally deals with the cultivation of fruits, nuts, berries, vegetables, flowers and trees. Horticulturalists are involved in creative breeding of plants to produce new varieties that are healthier, tastier, more resilient to weather and less susceptible to disease. Degrees in horticulture can be obtained at all academic levels. Entry-level jobs such as landscaper or nursery worker may require only an associate degree. Advancement in the field, however, requires a more advanced degree, with top research and educational positions often requiring a doctorate.

  • Horticulture Therapist

    Uses gardening and plant-based activities to facilitate specific treatment goals for patients, usually in conjunction with larger rehabilitation programs. Works in hospitals and recovery centers as part of a rehabilitation team of doctors, psychologists, psychiatrists, occupational therapists and others.

  • Plant Scientist

    Researches plants and crops to develop and improve food sources for a variety of health and environmental purposes. Conducts field studies and laboratory experiments to fight hunger and create more nutritious food sources, particularly for underserved populations.

  • Vineyard Manager

    Also known as a viticulturist. Supervises the daily activities and operations at vineyards and wineries. Oversees the grape-production and winemaking processes, understands the differences in varieties of grapes in order to create quality wines that are marketable. Manages vineyard and winery budgets, staff, facilities and equipment.

Marine Sciences

Marine sciences is an interdisciplinary field concerning the biology, physics and chemistry of the oceans. Students gain an understanding of numerous aspects of the marine environment, including organisms such as marine mammals, fish, invertebrates, algae and microorganisms, and habitats such as estuaries, salt marshes, barrier islands and open oceans. Bachelor’s degree holders often go on to earn graduate degrees in more specialized subjects such as marine biodiversity or marine science and conservation.

  • Fisheries Management Specialist

    Enforces rules and regulations concerning the protection of renewable fish and marine resources against degradation and overharvesting. Determines limitations on catches, fishing areas and fishing seasons. Balances the need for environmental protection against maintenance of a healthy fishing industry.

  • Marine Biologist

    Studies all forms of marine life, from microorganisms to the largest ocean creatures. Conducts ocean research, collects marine samples, compiles data and prepares reports summarizing the findings. Entry-level jobs can be found with a bachelor’s degree, but research positions normally require a master’s or even doctoral degree.

  • Ocean Engineer

    Designs and develops equipment used by marine biologists and oceanographers for use in research and exploration projects. Develops blueprints and schematics for equipment such as oil rigs for oil companies, vessels for ship manufacturers, and radar, underwater communications and missile systems for government and the military.

Renewable Energy

Renewable energy degree programs can be found at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, and cover a number of subject areas, including wind, solar, geothermal and other less common forms of renewable energy. There are a number of associate degree programs for this major that lead to entry-level technician jobs. Anyone considering a career beyond an entry-level job, however, should complete a bachelor’s or master’s degree program. Course topics include general chemistry, engineering, calculus and technical report writing.

  • Civil Engineer

    Designs, develops and oversees large construction projects, including those for renewable energy facilities and systems. Inspects work sites to insure proper operation and maintenance of equipment. Determines the adequacy and strength of building materials as determined by soils and materials testing, stress factors and water flow rates.

  • Geologist

    Studies the nature, structure and composition of the earth for a wide range of purposes. Applies knowledge from the fields of physics, chemistry, biology and other sciences to practices such as mining, oil extraction and geothermal energy production. Conducts research and experiments to better understand natural occurrences like earthquakes, tsunamis, storms and volcanic activity.

  • Materials Scientist

    Studies the atomic and molecular structure and properties of a number of natural and man-made materials such as glass, ceramics, rubber, polymers, metals and alloys. Develops ways to improve material strengths and efficiencies for the manufacture of higher-quality and more environmentally friendly products.

Sustainable Agriculture

Sustainable agriculture relates to the development of food production methods that are sustainable, protect the environment and avoid causing irreparable harm to soils and other natural systems. This area of study has gained significantly in popularity over the last decade, resulting in degree programs at every level. Curricula in sustainable agriculture are broad and include the fields of biology, forestry, chemistry, soil science and animal science. Instruction in government policies and regulations, as well as small business management, is included in most degree programs.

  • Food Scientist

    Conducts research and analysis on the nutritional content of food. Develops and improves methods for selecting, processing, preserving, packaging and distributing food products. Food scientists working for government agencies enforce regulations and inspect food processing facilities to ensure they meet waste management and sanitation standards.

  • Organic Farmer

    Grows fruits and vegetables, typically without the aid of synthetic pesticides or fertilizers, plant growth regulators or genetically modified organisms, and raises livestock and poultry without using hormones, antibiotics or feed additives. Employs sustainable methods such as crop rotation, biological pest control, green manure, composting and mechanical cultivation to control pests and maintain soil productivity.

  • Sustainable Food Systems Manager

    Studies and develops systems for collaborative and efficient production of sustainable food products while maintaining a community’s environmental, economic and social well-being. Protects biodiversity and adopts regionally appropriate crop choices and agricultural practices. Educates others on related food and agricultural issues and practices.

Wildlife Ecology

Another popular and widely offered choice for green degree seekers, wildlife ecology degrees are offered at both the undergraduate and graduate levels and provide a solid, multidisciplinary science-based foundation for ecological research and practice. The study of wildlife ecology is focused on balancing the interests of wildlife as it relates to human cohabitation. Bachelor’s degree curricula include courses in chemistry, genetics, microbiology, statistical methods, plant physiology, animal behavior and forestry.

  • Park Ranger

    Also referred to as a park warden, forest ranger or conservation scientist. Protects and oversees activities at designated outdoor areas. Patrols park property to ensure campers, hikers and other visitors are obeying park rules and that they are safe. May be called upon to conduct search-and-rescue efforts, fight fires or act in the capacity of a law enforcement officer.

  • Wildlife Biologist

    Studies the biology, behavior and habitats of wild animals. Analyzes the effect of human activity on wildlife and its habitats. Performs a wide variety of field tests and experiments, such as drawing blood, to assess animal health and nutrition needs. Checks for diseases and parasites and tags animals for tracking purposes.

  • Wildlife Veterinarian

    Captures and handles wildlife for the purpose of research, diagnosis and treatment of injuries and diseases. Anesthetizes animals and provides veterinary care such as monitoring vital signs, performing surgery and administering medications. Develops meal plans for and monitors eating habits of wild animals in captivity.

The Business of Being Green

According a survey conducted by McKinsey & Company, more companies are integrating sustainability principles into the way they do business. Current data on green business and jobs is hard to come by because the biggest source of that data, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, ceased keeping statistics on the subject in 2013. Nevertheless, here’s what we do know.

Green Construction

40 to 48 percent of new nonresidential construction is predicted to be green in 2015

Green Agriculture

The market for organic food products in the U.S. is projected to pass $45 billion in 2015.

Sustainable Healthcare

“An increasing number of healthcare organizations are implementing sustainability programs. These programs have increasingly become a competitive necessity for and financially beneficial to the institutions that have adopted them as part of their core vision and important organizational value.”

Environmental Science

15% Projected growth for environmental scientists and specialists, 2012-2022

11% Projected job growth for all occupations, 2012-2022

Green Career Highlight: Urban Farming

One of the hottest trends in green business is urban farming. Urban farming, or urban agriculture, is the practice of growing, harvesting and distributing food in a city or town environment. It takes many forms, the most common being community gardens in vacant lots and parks, balcony and rooftop gardens, roadside gardens and even livestock grazing in open spaces. Often confused with community gardening, which is typically noncommercial, urban farming is concerned with the production of food for local sale and distribution.

Urban farming is relatively new, but its positive impact is beginning to emerge in areas such as energy efficiency, noise and air pollution, soil decontamination, food quality and nutrition. As more urban consumers discover the health benefits of fresh, locally grown food products, more entrepreneurs are expected to consider urban farming as a career alternative with real potential.

Top Paying Green Careers

Not all green careers are equal, especially in terms of salaries. While some green occupations are already outpacing their “mainstream” counterparts in pay, others are lagging behind. The potential for higher salaries in the green economy, however, remains encouraging. Here’s a look at some of the current top-paying green careers, according to PayScale.com:

Environmental Engineer Salary Potential: $97,009

Environmental engineers apply principles of engineering and other disciplines, such as biology, chemistry, physics and soil science, to develop and implement solutions to a variety of environmental problems. Environmental engineers often address issues such as waste disposal and management, hazardous materials, recycling, water and air pollution, climate change and sustainability. Practice as a professional in the field normally requires some form of state licensure or certification.

Environmental Lawyer Salary Potential: $170,000+

Environmental lawyers work in all sectors of the economy, representing clients in litigation and trial, contract preparation, regulation development and adherence, issue advocacy and other legal activities. Environmental lawyers must graduate from law school and pass their respective state’s bar examination in order to practice. Salary potential is high but depends heavily on which economic sector one chooses to practice in.

Senior Hydrogeologist Salary Potential: $127,183

Hydrogeologists study how groundwater moves through the earth’s soil and rock. Hydrogeology differs from hydrology in that the latter is more concerned with the study of how water moves above the earth’s surface. Senior hydrogeologists oversee field projects to ensure accurate collection of data, supervise the analysis of that data and write reports summarizing their findings.

Solar Energy/Solar Power Project Developer Salary Potential: $149,000

With the rising cost of nonrenewable energy sources and the declining costs of producing energy from renewable sources, demand for highly skilled professionals in the solar energy field is increasing both in the United States and in emerging markets in Asia, Latin America and the Middle East. Solar energy project developers oversee projects through all phases of design, development and installation. They are also called upon to address issues of operational efficiency throughout a facility’s or system’s lifespan.

Sustainability Director Salary Potential: $158,590

Also known as chief sustainability officers, sustainability directors are a new breed of corporate executive. Sustainability directors’ job tasks are diverse and vary from institution to institution. Nevertheless, job responsibilities are likely to include creating strategies to make an institution more environmentally friendly, developing education and training programs for employees, designing more energy-efficient manufacturing processes, and designing sustainable facilities and workspaces.

Understanding the Sustainability Industry

Interview

with Nurit Katz
What are the most popular/fastest growing green degrees and why?

Sustainable management programs and certificate programs are growing in popularity because of the breadth of content and skills they offer. Many professionals are pursuing continuing education in sustainability with an interest in applying sustainability in their current field or transitioning into the field of sustainability.

Why is a green degree a good choice for students?

Sustainability is a rapidly growing field. Students are drawn towards green careers because they want to be able to “do well while doing good”- to have a positive social impact and help solve tough global problems, while also having a successful career. They are drawn to meaningful careers and interesting challenges. A green career allows them to connect their passion and their skills, and is also a good choice because there is increasing opportunities in sustainability and related fields.

What jobs can students pursue with a green degree?

Sustainability is an incredibly broad field with a myriad of opportunities. Students can pursue jobs in all sectors – private, public, and civil/non-profit sector, and in a variety of roles – from broad sustainability management roles to more specialized roles. As an example, students from our sustainability certificate program have gone on to work in social responsibility roles at major corporations, solar and renewable energy development, environmental policy in an elected official’s office, and have also started their own social innovation businesses and organizations.

What is the growth potential for green careers?

There is huge growth potential in the field of sustainability and green careers. Even during the recession many green jobs continued to grow. Furthermore, there are many new emerging industries and innovative technologies, for example, taking waste from one area and turning into to something new and valuable. There are also growing opportunities in policy as local, state and national governments tackle climate change and other critical issues. There is a growing demand for sustainability positions and sustainability consulting as companies of all sizes race to demonstrate their achievements to a customer base that is increasingly focused on these issues, and to realize the operational savings and efficiencies from applying smarter, greener business practices.

Green Job Resources

There are many useful websites to help potential green students and career seekers. The following are some of the best:

  • Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE)

    The AASHE is a nonprofit organization that seeks to “inspire and catalyze higher education to lead the global sustainability transformation.” Its site offers a wide range of information and resources for green educators, students and anyone else interested in sustainability and higher education.

  • Business for Social Responsibility (BSR)

    BSR is a nonprofit organization that promotes social responsibility in businesses. BSR works with a network of over 250 businesses to develop sustainable business strategies and solutions through consulting, research and cross-sector collaboration.

  • Clean Edge, Inc.

    Clean Edge, Inc. is a research and advisory firm that provides “timely data, expert analysis, and comprehensive insights to key industry stakeholders” in the clean-tech sector.

  • Green Jobs Network

    The Green Jobs Network provides resources for people seeking careers in the fields of sustainability and social responsibility. It features a comprehensive jobs board.

  • Greenjobs

    The Greenjobs website focuses specifically on employment in the renewable energy field. It offers services for employers and job recruiters, including job listings, analysis of employment in renewable energy industries and full recruitment services.

  • Grist

    This clearinghouse website is dedicated to environmental news, commentary and advise.

  • Idealist.org

    Idealist.org is a destination website designed to connect “idealists” with opportunities to contribute to organizations and issues they are interested in.

  • Solar Today Job Board

    This website, which is sponsored by the American Solar Energy Society, features a comprehensive list of private and nonprofit employers in the solar energy field.

  • Sustainablebusiness.com

    The website provides a number of services addressing the needs of green businesses. Included is a job service that connects business-skilled individuals with environmentally conscious government agencies, businesses and nonprofits.

  • Treehugger

    Treehugger is a media outlet “dedicated to driving sustainability mainstream.” Its goal is to be a clearinghouse for green news, solutions and product information.