Unemployment: Brought to You by Sustainability?

>by Derrick Mains

One thing is certain. The economy sucks and neither side seems to be offering any real long term (place tongue in cheek and say “shovel ready”) solutions.

So the question arises – are our economic challenges a result of big business greed, big government spending, lax regulations or could it be that there is another issue holding back the growth of the economy?

Over the past few months, I have been thinking more and more about this problem particularly because it has hit hard at home (as it has for most of us) and I started wondering if sustainability might be contributing to the problem.

As an environmentalist and corporate sustainability evangelist I have been pushing companies to consider variables outside of a pure profit motive for years, asking them to calculate the risks associated with a changing environment be they regulatory, environmental or in the court of public opinion.

Embedding sustainability in corporate values creates companies focused on improving processes, thinking cradle to cradle, measuring everything and building culture and workplaces that bring products to market faster and increase employee engagement. All good stuff, all stuff that improves profits, processes, people and the planet – hence the reason companies are embracing it.

We have had success; we have made companies more resourceful, more profitable and more able to operate with fewer hands on deck. Could this be the reason they aren’t hiring?

Is sustainability one of the roots of our economic problems? I think it could be. What evidence do I have? Well first, productivity in the U.S. economy is up 6.5 percent since the start of the Great Recession. Companies are thriftier and, because of the job market, employees are working harder and smarter than they used to. Second, big- and mid-market companies are doing pretty well. Profits are strong and many companies have cash stockpiles they are sitting on – a good indicator of health in a capitalist economy.

Companies are doing more with less. They are thinking more about the future. They are mitigating market risks by bumping cash on hand and they aren’t consuming or spending like drunken sailors – drunken sailors who in the past fueled growth.  These companies are thinking more sustainably.

It’s a catch-22; sustainability means increased efficiency, reduced costs and reduced impact, which also translates into more efficient employees, fewer employees, extended use of machinery and physical assets and more analysis of spending.

Instead of focusing on the top line revenues, companies have evolved (with our help) to think more about the bottom line and how savings always trump added revenues in growing EBITDA. This is a big win for sustainability but not so exciting if you are one of the millions of unemployed. We can either push sustainability forward and leave the unemployed behind or promote unsustainable growth in an effort to create jobs like the White House has been doing i.e. Keystone XL, hundreds of thousands of NEPA exemptions for big business, and suspending and rolling back EPA regulations.

So what do we do? How do we get everyone back to work, get the economy rolling again, and continue growing? Well maybe, we don’t.

Maybe what we really need to do is alter the way we think about things; life, our economy and our expectations for the future, essentially do the same thing we have been telling big business to do.

The truth at its core is that perpetual growth is the enemy of sustainability and nothing grows in perpetuity. In the past few years, my family’s income sure hasn’t! It has been far less than what it was when the economy was cooking, but oddly with a smaller house, only one car, less spending on entertainment, vacations and non-essentials we are happier. We found that working 70+ hours a week wasn’t worth the toll it took on us. We now enjoy more time together, we are in much better shape (I lost 90lbs), we took up hobbies that cost nothing other than a small initial investment (hiking and backpacking), we actually have more economic security because we pay closer attention to our money and our health and when we do buy stuff we go to Craigslist first or even (I can’t believe I am admitting it) Goodwill.

I’ve altered my life and expectations, big business has altered theirs, so maybe it’s time we all altered ours. Don’t worry, you’ll be in good company, last time I looked there were loads of late model German engineered executive sedans in the parking lot at Goodwill.

Derrick Mains is a 2010 Business Journal Green Pioneer award winner and currently serves as Executive Vice President of youchange (YCNG) an electronic waste collection and re-commerce company. Previously Derrick has served as the Vice President of Energy Reclamation Initiatives with Your Triple Bottom Line Radio and is an Entrepreneur in Residence for Arizona State University.

 image: Daquella Manera via Flickr

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3 responses

  1. I never considered this angle, and I have to say I think I agree with you – sustainability, for business, is often about trimming the fat, as it were, and excess employees (the fat) are being washed away in the wake of comprable, affordable technologies and efficiency improvements . I haven’t personally been “trimmed” but I suspect this trend will translate into a greater need for improvements in our education system to account for the increased need for professionals with modern day trade skills. To me its a paradox – to deal with current and future sustainability issues we need to move further technologically, but socially we may need to move backward (as it pertains to the strength of the family core, which I believe is the crux of society, and essential to sustainable living). I can’t say in thrilled to agree with you in this one, but it’s important that we look at the principles of sustainability not only as solutions but also as possible catalysts for other social and economic problems.

  2. You are absolutely right that we need to “alter the way we think about things; life, our economy and our expectations for the future.” I just wish you’d taken the logic a bit further to include sustainability of employees.

    One person constantly working 50, 60, 70 hour weeks and having no time totally off (because email, etc. keeps people plugged in) is not nearly as good at the job as two people each working 30-40 hours/week and taking real time off. Furthermore, their personal health and well-being, as well as those of their family and community suffer. We can consider those more costs that companies have been externalizing onto society.

    As you are now living, working fewer hours makes you, your family, and your community happier and healthier–and more sustainable. While the people left at companies are working longer and harder for fear of being laid off–becoming more unsustainable. So why don’t we expand the conversation a bit?
    -Anecdotal evidence shows that job-sharers do a better job and are easier to manage than one person working too many hours (and are generally happier and more satisfied with work).
    – In the past few years, several companies have found that people are willing to cut back hours/job share in order to save colleagues’ jobs.
    – The ill health-effects (and increased healthcare costs) of too much work for too long are also well documented.

    Clearly there is a need and social desire to reconsider what “full-time employment” is and how it can be redesigned to better serve the needs of companies, individuals, and society as a whole.

    Rather than causing unemployment, thinking sustainably can lead to more employment—and a healthier version of employment.

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