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Charlotte Bonner shares her experience of learning as you go, and the benefits of being thrown in at the deep end

Charlotte Bonner (she/her) 

Chief Executive Officer, EAUC (The Alliance for Sustainability Leadership in Education)

Photo of the sides of lots of books and pages
How did you start out in the world of work?

I was brought up in a family that encouraged me to work – so I had lots of jobs as a teenager and student, from being a library assistant to making books and shampooing sheep! My first graduate job was in an energy consultancy where I delivered training, developed staff engagement programmes and undertook anything related to sustainability that wasn’t the domain of my colleagues. It was a baptism of fire. I undertook waste audits for manufacturers, developed travel plans for major employers and was a carbon management advisor for early adopters in the universities sector. I found the variation exciting but daunting.

What did you study?

I didn’t study a traditional sustainability subject, instead focusing on the humanities. I have a BA in English Language and Linguistics, which has helped me to understand how critical effective communication is. I became an activist while at university, campaigning for better sustainability provision on campus, supporting the city’s Fairtrade movement, and working on international solidarity campaigns. That’s where I caught the sustainability bug.

In that first job for the energy consultancy, I doubted my capabilities given I had a linguistics degree and little formal training. I’ve since gained an MSc in Energy and Environment Technology and Economics, which I studied part-time while working, to ensure I had the technical knowledge to support my passion for the subject, but most of my professional development has been through learning by doing.

With hindsight, that first graduate role was the best springboard as I got heaps of experience working in multiple sectors. Ultimately the private sector wasn’t for me, and I went to work at the National Union of Students [NUS] on a fixed term externally funded project.

What did the NUS role entail?

One of my initial KPIs was to establish a self-funded model for the project. I’m delighted to say it was successful. Green Impact, a programme that provides bespoke support to engage people in environmentally and socially sustainable practices in their workplace, is still going strong today.’ I oversaw the programme for nearly ten years while also supporting the expansion of the NUS’s sustainability work. Again, that gave me experience in different sectors, as well as honing my partnership work both internationally and in the UK.

When the team forged SOS-UK [Students Organising for Sustainability UK], I decided to flex my professional muscles and, after a stint providing maternity cover for a colleague in students’ union development, I joined the Education and Training Foundation and immersed myself in the world of further education. It’s a sector close to my heart and I’m really proud of how open the organisation and its audience were to sustainability action, and particularly education for sustainable development (ESD). We made some great impacts. Then my dream job was advertised here at EAUC. I had to make the leap!

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“You don’t need to be an engineer or scientist to progress sustainability action – there’s demand for educators, communicators, project managers and sustainability specialists in every sector.”

Charlotte Bonner
Chief Executive Officer, EAUC (The Alliance for Sustainability Leadership in Education)
What are the key responsibilities of your EAUC role, day-to-day?

I’m still relatively new in my current post, so there’s a lot of listening and learning! I’m responsible for the strategic leadership of the organisation and this year I am leading the development of our next long-term strategic plan. A big part of this is liaising with our members and partners to understand and maximise the value and impact of our activities and relationships. We’re developing ideas for new projects.

I line manage our Senior Management Team, lead our team meetings, and am championing equity and inclusion throughout the organisation and our activities. That’s all complemented with writing reports, articles, concept notes for new ideas, and funding bids.

Occasionally I find myself somewhere unusual; in a historic building to present an award, or at a waste disposal site. One of the best things about my job is that no two days are the same. I visit our members, attend sector events and take part in external stakeholder meetings – various government and sector body working groups – where I act as an ambassador for the organisation, represent our members, and work to create a more enabling environment for education providers to progress their sustainability work.

What challenges does your role present?

Our membership is very diverse, from small specialist further education organisations to some of the most prominent universities in the world. Developing tools, resources, support and communications that are well suited to their needs is a challenge, but one that we continue to rise to. We also know the sustainability profession is currently failing in its duty to be accessible to all. We need to do more to centre equity, diversity and inclusion in our work as an organisation and across the sector we serve.

Photo of someone presenting on a stage in front of an audience
What future opportunities do you envision?

There is a real boom in sustainability roles across the country in multiple sectors. I think this will eventually plateau. We’ll always need sustainability specialists and practitioners, but fundamentally there will be sustainability elements to all jobs in future. In the same way digital is now a part of so many careers, so too will sustainability be. You don’t need to be an engineer or scientist to progress sustainability action – there’s demand for educators, communicators, project managers and sustainability specialists in every sector.

What impacts are you having across your industry?

One of the most powerful things we do at EAUC is bring together experts and practitioners from across the education sector to develop solutions to shared challenges. We’ve been co-developing tools to help create responsible procurement practices and engage supply chains in carbon reporting and broader sustainability reporting, as we know scope 3 emissions are the biggest piece of the pie for our sector.

Of course, the education space is also the home of skills and training so our work can support the workforce pipeline for sectors such as manufacturing and construction, both in terms of the next generation but also lifelong learning. There’s been much work already undertaken (for example by the CCC, Green Jobs Taskforce) to understand what’s needed. Now it’s about implementation by education providers, employers and government.

What advice would you share with someone pursuing a career in sustainability and education?

Connect with those who are working in fields you’d like to move into – people are generous with their time and often happy to share their experiences and provide advice. You can make a sustainability impact in any job if you’re lucky enough to work for empowering people and organisations. Seek out those whose values align with yours.

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