Training the Sustainability Trainers

Arizona State University Offers Programs for Midcareer Sustainability Officers and Others to Help Companies Advance Circularity Efforts

Training the Sustainability Trainers
Digital Exclusive

As companies add sustainability personnel to meet customer, brand owner, and regulatory expectations, they might not know exactly how to integrate new policies into their organizations. That situation could be a reason to reach out to Ryan M. Johnson, executive director of executive and professional education at the Arizona State University (ASU) College of Global Futures.

“We believe that there is a need and a demand for sustainability programming for midcareer professionals who did not have the chance to study sustainability when they were in college,” says Johnson, who was in college in the late 1980s and early 1990s. “Back then, there wasn’t sustainability programming in college. It wasn’t a field.”

About eight years ago, he was hired to meet that demand, as companies, municipalities, and government agencies sought to “upskill midcareer professionals in sustainability,” he says, adding that his responsibilities are for the noncredit/nondegree programs at ASU. “It is for people who are in their 40s or 50s and suddenly have this word ‘sustainability’ in their job title but had never taken a class in sustainability. That is who we are serving.”

Customized Training

Johnson works to customize programs to meet the goals of an organization. That might involve a few hours of training or ASU personnel going to a work site for a day, week, or longer. Organizations also will send personnel to the campus for events and programming.

“If a company calls and says, ‘We have a need, and we want to do a company retreat in Tempe in February when it is snowing here in Iowa,’ we can say, ‘Sure thing. We can do that,’” he says.

Options also include online programs that could be conducted live or asynchronously, which would allow participants to join at a time convenient for them and then stop and start the training as their schedules allow. Organizations often are familiar with that format because they might use such platforms for annual sexual harassment education or other training.

Although Johnson works in the noncredit/nondegree programming at ASU, he has access to more than 500 faculty members who teach sustainability and circularity topics at the university. They can assist in customized programs, depending on what an organization requires—a fossil-fuel company might want to hear from different experts than a packaging company.

“I am always looking for a way to say, ‘Yes,’” Johnson says. At times, companies don’t require customization and ASU can offer “off-the-shelf” training. ASU also offers free online training for the public because university officials—starting with University President Michael M. Crow—are on a mission to spread the word about the benefits of a sustainable future, he adds. “We really are trying to be entrepreneurial and trying to live up to ASU’s reputation for innovation.”

ASU continually ranks as No. 1 in innovation by the U.S. News and World Report, ranking ahead of Stanford and MIT, Johnson says. “For almost a decade now, we have been No. 1 in innovation so it really is a point of pride for us,” Johnson says. The College of Global Futures, which is part of the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory, also includes the School of Sustainability, the School for the Future of Innovation in Society, and the School of Complex Adaptive Systems.

Setting Up Programs

There is no typical way that Johnson finds people interested in tapping the resources at ASU, which is known internationally for its sustainability and circularity programs.

“We get inbound inquiries all the time, and there is no typical route,” Johnson says. “Often the approach is that the new sustainability officer must upskill the C-suite.”

That approach is common because the sustainability officer becomes responsible for reporting back to top leaders what they should be thinking about. The opposite can be true, too, where the sustainability officer and top executives are clear on their mission but must ensure that rank-and-file workers are trained on sustainability efforts and how their jobs fit in.

ASU conducted a two-week program for another university that wanted to develop its own sustainability program, he says as an example.

Another example was a “Climate Change and Investment” workshop and retreat organized by the World Bank Group, IFC International Finance Corporation, and the ASU Global Institute of Sustainability. Over two days two years ago, about 11 ASU faculty members gave presentations. Participants were educated on climate change and sustainability “so that they can be more effective in climate change related discussions with in-country political and business leaders,” according to information about the event.

Earlier this year, packaging consultant PTIS, LLC held one of its meetings there for its study called the “Future of Packaging: Navigating New Horizons.” Over two days this spring, participants from about 15 companies met to get an overview of sustainability and circularity innovations. ASU faculty gave various talks and introduced the participants to cutting edge technologies and concepts.

The group also toured the new building that houses ASU sustainability programs. The Rob and Melani Walton Center for Planetary Health is a 281,000-square-foot research facility that is LEED Gold certified, the second highest certification available, and the building is poised for eventually receiving the highest certification of LEED Platinum.

“The $192 million building features 70,000 square feet of lab space. There is a 26% reduction in global warming potential, water-based climate control to reduce energy use, and the capacity to capture 100% of rain falling on it and direct it to landscape and aquifer recharge,” according to an ASU webpage about the building, also known as ASU ISTB7.

Just touring that building alone is an education in sustainability, Johnson suggests.

For more information about programs, contact Johnson at 480-965-2976 or at

Editor’s note: This article was updated with the corrected email for Ryan Johnson on December 13, 2022.

Thomas A. Barstow is the senior editor at FlexPack VOICE®.