Save the Earth…Work Less

I have noticed there is little overlap between scholars studying organizations, occupations, and work and those studying environmental sociology.  Then I fortuitously received a paper in my email in-box from my WSU colleague, Gene Rosa, his graduate student Kyle Knight, and their collaborator, sociological economist Juliet Schor (the paper wasn’t intended for me, but an email address error landed it in my in-box!).  I read the paper with interest and think OOW members can benefit from knowing about it so we can build collaborations with environmental scholars and add more substance to the argument about the need for employers to redefine and redesign work.

The paper I speak of “Reducing growth to achieve environmental sustainability: The role of work hours” by Kyle Knight, Eugene A. Rosa, and Julie B. Schor will appear in Robert Pollin and Jeannette Wicks-Lin’s edited volume Capitalism on Trial: Explorations in the Tradition of Thomas Weisskopf later this year.

The paper focuses on working hours as a key variable of interest for reducing environmental impact.  In short, the authors argue that one solution to reducing the ecological footprint and global carbon emissions is for nations to reduce the work hours of members of their labor force. After outlining the global ecological footprint of humanity (18 billion hectares of bio-productive land and water area, double what it was in 1966), the authors present two commonly discussed ways to achieve sustainability: economic growth and technological efficiency.  Both solutions, however, have actually led to increased consumption levels.  They propose that reduced economic growth—at its core, reduced working hours in high-income countries like the U.S.—is a promising solution to reduce environmental degradation.

Why reduce work hours?  Reduced hours reduce the “work and spend cycle” (see Schor The Overworked American ) and with it, consumption.  Reduced work hours reduce the need for fast transportation and time-saving activities and products, all of which are associated with higher energy costs. Third, reduced work hours make people feel happier and when they do, they lower their consumption desires and with it, their environmental impact.  They also note that countries with longer work hours consume more energy and that ultimately, the effect of work hours is larger than that of changes in either a country’s labor productivity or labor force participation rate.

To test their ideas, the authors draw on data from 29 high-income OECD member nations.  Specifically, they look at a country’s total ecological footprint (consumption-based pressure on the environment from food, housing, transportation, consumer goods, and services), a nation’s carbon footprint, and a nation’s total carbon (CO2 ) emissions from 1970-2007.   The predict these three outcomes as a function of annual work hours per employee, labor productivity, labor force participation, population size, percent urban population, and both service and manufacturing as a percent of GDP.

They conclude that working time is a significant contributor to environmental problems; the effect of work hours on the three outcomes, net of labor productivity, labor force participation, and other controls (but not GDP per capita), is significant.  Specifically, for a 10% reduction in work hours, the ecological footprint would decline by about 12%, the carbon footprint would reduce by about 15%, and CO2 emissions would decline by about 4%.  In models controlling for GDP per capita and other controls, reduced work hours is associated with a reduction in the ecological footprint and the carbon footprint.

The authors conclude that working time is a significant predictor of environmental problems and that policy ought to focus on work hours as a way to achieve global environmental sustainability.

How can businesses and policy makers promote shorter working hours?  OOW scholars can provide some insight.  The most obvious solution is for employers to make part-time work a viable option, especially in professional jobs.  Key to the success of making reduced work hours through increased use of part-time work a reality, however, is to remove the cultural bias associated with part-time work–that anything less than full-time means lower commitment to work.   UC-Hastings law professor, Joan Williams, has argued many times that part-time work and other flexible work arrangements are stigmatized. They are especially stigmatizing for women.

I see a lot of promise in collaborating with environmental scholars to push for reduced working hours and viable part-time work options, especially for professional workers.  If employers and policy makers are unwilling to create part-time jobs that so often benefit mothers, perhaps they would be willing to change the structure of work for the good of the environment…

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