Closing the Corporate Sustainability Skills Gap

Leyla Acaroglu
Disruptive Design
Published in
9 min readFeb 15, 2023


For 20 years I’ve worked to help advance sustainability through design and innovation. I’ve had the pleasure of working with governments, not-for-profits and companies — small, large and massive across all industries. I’ve keynoted at the world’s biggest conferences and run workshops for CEOs, managers, educators, peak industry groups, activists, teenagers, government officials and everyone in between.

Through these encounters, a recurring experience started playing out. I would go into meetings or have conversations with top-level executives (including the senior Sustainability team members) and find myself surprised by the gaps in both knowledge and technical skills when discussing climate change, sustainability sciences, and implementing the circular economy. Alarm bells would ring in my head as I asked questions about technical impact assessments to provide transparency or proof that stated climate actions were in line with international guidelines, or to ensure their environmental performance claims were valid so that they didn’t wade into greenwashing territory.

I would ask questions like: What data collection methods are being used? Do you have a life cycle assessment to back up that claim?

Slightly befuddled looks, vague responses, or a promise of, “I’ll look into that,” were more common than not, and I started to realize: there’s a massive knowledge and skills gap here — and given the global shift to a circular and sustainable economy currently underway, businesses need some tangible training support so they can fill the knowledge gap and scale-up their sustainability skills ASAP.

Sustainability is not just about “doing good” or reducing negative impacts; it’s a technical skill set that requires a transparent and science-based approach to assessing the global impacts of a company’s activities and then taking action to eliminate these, whilst moving toward a more regenerative position. This is even more critical now given that the European Union has implemented its Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD), which affects 50,000 companies; similarly, countries around the world are adopting the circular economy along with a host of new regulations under the Green Deal.

“The largest perceived challenges to companies are a lack of organisational skills and processes to understand all of the implications of the Green Deal, quantify the costs of Green Deal levies, benefit from available incentives, and maximise the opportunities arising from the transition to more sustainable economies”. - Business Readiness for the EU Green Deal Survey by PWC, 2021

I’ve also seen that when people get access to the tools, concepts and actions that enable practical application of sustainability and circularity, there is an unleashing of potential and innovation that benefits the company and society. But, without the skills and technical training to do it well, employees and leaders tasked with corporate sustainability actions often become overwhelmed and engulfed by the growing pressure to have a strong climate action plan or increased sustainability standards (or worse still, accidentally wade into the greenwashing territory). The lack of resources, time and tangible skills makes it very challenging to move from basic compliance to an actual long term strategy that has validity and therefore creates positive impact, which is the goal.

Sustainability in Business

Sustainability in business is about understanding impacts and taking action to reduce and transform them from negative to net positive; it’s the overarching concept that all the different approaches fit within, such as climate action, ESG and the circular economy.

Social and environmental aspects of business activities have historically been ignored or neglected; sustainability sets to course correct that through accountability and transparency, bringing social and environmental impacts inline with the economic aspects within the company. The CSRD is about ensuring there is an account of the non-fiscal aspects of a business, as well as reporting on the social and environmental risks that the company is exposed to.

There are many layers to this, but the starting point is understanding where your impacts are, then changing them through better business, supply chain and product design. Once this foundation is established, a grander set of actions can be taken to move the company to being circular and even regenerative.

But in order to take these steps or expand the journey, there must be a company-wide comprehension of the what, why and how of sustainability — not just for a specific sustainability team, but company-wide literacy and competency across the full spectrum of the organization so that it is integrated across all functions of the business.

The Skills Gap

“75% of workers say they want to work for an organisation that will make a positive contribution to society.” — PWC Global Survey of 32,500 workers, 2021

The increasing need for technical sustainability has exposed a significant skills gap, which is becoming a concern to many leaders. Not only is there an insufficient number of skilled people to fill roles, but there’s also a lack of accessible resources available. Linkedin’s Green Skills Gap Report explains, “Green skills are the building blocks of the green transition and the key to unlocking the human capital that will power it… We have to upskill workers who currently lack those skills. And we need to ensure green skills are hardwired into the skillset of future generations.”

Aside from the many new legislations coming into effect in the EU and the Asian Pacific region, as well as states across the US and Australia, bans on certain types of plastics have been enacted, and of course, the economy is experiencing a massive overhaul to meet The Paris Agreement’s climate targets. Pressure for companies to change is also coming from consumers and workers, with highly-skilled people quitting companies that they don’t feel are doing enough on climate (read more about the “climate quitters” here).

These changes shouldn’t result in people feeling overwhelmed and thus avoiding sustainability skills development; nor should they have to go get a Master’s degree in sustainability or the circular economy to be able to apply the technical aspects of these much-needed business approaches. Whilst MBAs and other leadership programs certainly need to teach the core skills of sustainability, circularity and climate literacy, there is an immediate need for the entire global workforce to be upskilled — not just to meet the needs of consumer demands, resource constraints and regulatory requirements, but because it’s the future of business.

Here’s how I see it: if you want to build a bridge, then you need an engineer; if you want to open a restaurant, then you need a chef. But some companies seem to think that sustainability can be actioned by people who have not been trained in the technical tools like environmental and social impact assessments or data and benchmarking methods. Specific skills are needed for aligning with global standards, going beyond regulatory requirements, and feeling competent enough to engage in a big dose of creative thinking to redesign products, services and business models to meet the growing circular economy and climate-positive landscape.

I put myself in the shoes of business leaders facing this transformation and explored what kind of information would be available online. A snapshot analysis of what google would provide was not encouraging. Much of the advice is vague or not specific to business, and there are a lot of new terms and concepts that people need to become literate in; even those of us who have been doing this for a long time need to constantly check in with new approaches and methods.

I wanted to remedy this gap between knowledge and action, so in late 2021, I decided to build a solution that would help rapidly level up the business landscape. I wrote the guidebook Swivel to Sustainability (released last year) and started to build with my team a new online training platform to fill the sustainability skills gap. It’s called Swivel Skills, and it’s a full-spectrum, in-house asynchronous training platform designed to seamlessly integrate professional development programs into companies to ensure that all staff, yes all of them, are trained in the literacy of sustainability, climate action and the circular economy.

The OH&S Effect

I went looking for an example of another time when all companies had to change quickly as a result of external and internal pressures and found the Occupational Health and Safety movement that started in the 70s but really picked up in the 80s/90s.

In order to create a safe working environment, every employee had to be trained on the why, what and how of the organization’s OH&S policy. Without everyone being trained, there was a chance that safety protocols wouldn’t be carried out properly, which carried fiscal and cultural risks, not to mention people’s lives and potential lawsuits. The way most countries got their companies up to speed was through training that was easy to digest and follow, which demonstrated knowledge retention and ensured that all new staff were also onboarded into the safety culture of the organization.

This is exactly what needs to happen if we are to address the massive challenges of our time: global, all-hands training and up-skilling in the core literacy of climate, circularity and sustainability, creating a sincere culture of sustainability action that is integrated into the DNA of an organization. And this is exactly what our new platform Swivel Skills does, and much more.

Swivel Skills Sustainability Training

​​Swivel Skills is the capacity-building training platform for companies and industry, designed to equip the global workforce at scale with actionable sustainability skills for our changing business landscape.

In building this new platform, I took all the core concepts, knowledge, frameworks and approaches that I usually teach companies and broke it down into manageable chunks of information across these three main skill sets. From there, we developed a comprehensive learning system that can be adapted to any industry.

Beautiful and easy to engage with, the Swivel Skills courses are run as short modules that have written, audio and animated content in digestible chapters that can be done independently or in teams. There are interactive quizzes at the end of each module and deeper 5-part quizzes that test knowledge retention at the end of each course. Managers get access to the backend to check on their team’s progress, and we issue certificates of completion not only to each individual, but also to departments and companies that have successfully trained their entire workforce so that they can show how they are investing in sustainability skills for everyone.

We’ve worked so hard to make Swivel Skills super engaging, easy to understand and enjoyable to work through. Whilst the main course is for everyone, the learning system will have an extensive library of action learning modules that team members can take based on their function within the company.

These include: ESG, Design for the Circular Economy, Environmental and Social Impact Assessment, Packaging Regulations, Building Design, Reporting Standards — you name it, we will have it covered as we’ll roll out more action learning modules over time. For our larger corporate clients, we can custom-build any modules needed to ensure they have everything needed to move their company into the circular economy.

To move the needle on safety, it took solid policy and wide-scale training. To move the needle on climate action, we need to rapidly upskill the global workforce to be literate and action-orientated when it comes to sustainability. The Swivel Skills approach will enable this.

To find out more, reach out to our team for a product demo or get the Swivel to Sustainability companion guidebook.



Leyla Acaroglu
Disruptive Design

UNEP Earth Champ, Designer, Sociologist, Sustainability & Circular Provocateur, TED Speaker, Founder:, &