Updated: Nov 14
Last time we tried to define sustainable work and found that increases in worker productivity and labor-saving technology justify significant decreases to the average workweek. This means more time with family and friends, leisure activities and the rest needed for an emotionally sustainable lifestyle. I concluded with the thought that the meaning of work itself is due for reevaluation. We tend to accept work as a fact of life, without questioning why we do the work we do - but what purpose does it really serve?
I suggested that work worth doing is work that increases human flourishing, today and for future generations. In other words, sustainable work - not just environmentally, but emotionally and socially. When all humans are weighed equally, the soul crushing or backbreaking toil of the many for the comfort of the few is not sustainable work because it decreases human flourishing overall.
Now, we turn to the production process. How can we judge whether supply chains, as whole systems that bring us goods and services, are sustainable? The Lowell Center at UMass offers a expansive definition:
“Sustainable Production is the creation of goods and services using processes and systems that are:
Conserving of energy and natural resources
Safe and healthful for workers, communities, and consumers
Socially and creatively rewarding for all working people.”
Let’s take a look at how to put this into practice with the areas we looked at first from the consumer side: food and clothing. In those earlier articles, we saw that food and clothing production arguably are the top two aspects of our lifestyle with the greatest impact on sustainability. We looked then at how to make sustainable purchasing decisions, so let’s look know at how to produce food and clothes sustainably - and of course, the two are interconnected.
The World Wildlife Fund embraces a diversity of approaches to making food production sustainable: for example, regenerative agriculture (focusing on soil health), traceability and transparency in fishing and aquafarming (to distinguish sustainable practices from those that aren’t), and land use conservation to protect biodiversity and prevent desertification (especially in the overlooked grasslands and savannahs that produce 60% of our food). These examples illustrate how complex and wide-ranging the challenge of sustainable production can be. To make production sustainable, we have to look at the entire lifecycle and everything that is affected — directly and indirectly.
For those of us called to it, this is very important and meaningful work. But even if we aren’t working directly to change food production systems, the WWF recommends we each take some simple steps to support their work:
Know where your food is from – ask grocers, butchers and fishmongers how they source their products
Support businesses transparent about their ingredients and where they are from
If a company refuses to use sustainable ingredients, buy a different brand
When eating fish or meat, try to know what the animal was fed
Buy certified sustainable food
Support small and local farmers – and make sure you’re paying a fair price
A similar challenge exists in the clothing production process, where each step has its own impact on human sustainability. As consumers, we have limited knowledge of how sustainable our favorite brands are. Most of what we know comes from what the brand itself chooses to tell us. Initiatives like Follow Our Fibre seek to change that, using blockchain technology to show consumers sustainability metrics on each step of the production process in a piece of clothing, before they choose to buy it. We need this level of transparency in everything we buy and use, and we can start by pushing the companies we work for to provide it.
Wherever we work, there are opportunities to improve our organization’s impact on sustainability. According to the World Economic Forum, industry as a whole accounts for more than 25% of global CO2 emissions. And the International Energy Agency claims that “a sharp pick-up in efficiency improvements is the single most important element that brings the world towards the Sustainable Development Scenario."
In your job, can you take lessons from these examples to push for sustainability improvements? How sustainable are the suppliers you use? Could you transition to less energy-intensive methods or use more renewable energy? Where there are gaps in your knowledge, can you push for more transparency?
To make your voices heard, connect with other coworkers who care and amplify each other. We should have the choice to give our labor to organizations that operate sustainably and promote overall human flourishing. I know that is not yet the reality for most of us, but it is certainly one worth working towards.
About the author:
Recovering lawyer, training to be a meditation teacher. Anxiety used to define me. Now I am devoted to bringing peace to the people and communities that continue to suffer from it.