Are there too many shades of Green?



‘Green Collar’ is the new buzzword floating around business these days. As environmental values move down the supply chain, the definition of what constitutes a green job is expanding to include everyone from sales persons to steelworkers. Many now question whether the ‘green’ mantle being used too leniently?

At one time a ‘green’ job indicated a direct affiliation to the environment such as carrying out field research on contaminated sites, providing sustainability consulting services, or developing renewable energy technology.

Statistic Canada views the environment industry as consisting of activities which produce goods and services to measure, prevent, limit, minimize or correct environmental damage to water, air and soil, as well as problems of waste, noise and eco-systems. The industry may also include clean technologies and products and services that reduce environmental risk or which minimizes pollution and resource use.

Historically, environmental businesses were firms established to help industry meet the requirements of environmental regulations (mainly so called ‘end of pipe’ techniques and ‘clean up’). With the drive towards cleaner and more resource efficient processes, products and materials, and with a growing emphasis on life-cycle thinking (‘sustainable production and consumption’), the definition of the environment sector has expanded to embrace ‘resource management’.

This traditional definition of 'green' industry and 'green jobs' now may be too narrow for the rapidly changing global market place and may not reflect changing societal values on the importance of environmental responsibility and accountability.

A 'green-collar job' now has expanded to include the provider or marketer of environmentally friendly products or services, and could be extended to include such trades as construction work on a green building, organic farming, or manufacturing of alternate fuel vehicles. Including this more liberal perspective as well as the renewable energy and clean technology industry, 'green' is now the fifth largest market sector in the United States.

And the pace of ‘green job’ creation is likely to accelerate in the future, reflecting the global transition toward a lower-carbon and more sustainable economy. Indeed, ‘green’ has become in some people’s mind the new ‘engine’ of economic development in both developed and developing economies.

In a 2007 report, ECO Canada predicted environment related employment in Canada would rise by 1.6% annually from 2006 to 2011, compared to growth in other industries of 1.4%. The report noted companies were creating new positions or even whole new departments to deal with environment issues.

In its most recent report on the Canadian Environment Industry, Statistics Canada estimated environmental revenues across 30 sectors including mining and oil and gas extraction, construction and computer and electronic product manufacturing. In 2004 Canada’s environmental sector took in over $18 billion in revenue from 8,500 businesses. The StatsCan reports skirt the issue of estimating total employment in the environmental sector due to the elasticity of what constitutes environmental employment.

The Eco-Canada assessment of the environmental industry concluded that in 2007, 530,414 people were working either full time or part time on environmental jobs and they represented 3.2 percent of Canada’s total economy.

In Germany there are 1.6 million green collar jobs which outnumber the jobs in its large auto industry. Germany’s wind energy sector directly employs over 40,000 people.

The American Solar Energy Society estimates that 8.5 million people worked in the renewable energy and energy efficiency industries in 2006 in the United States and that there is the potential for 5 million more such jobs.

It is very clear that business is becoming greener and new opportunities for employment related to the environment are emerging. This shift towards green products, services and business operations is now having a direct impact on the level of collaboration and innovation found throughout the entire product value-chain, including marketing, human resources, research and development processes, manufacturing, and supply chains.

A new definition of a green job is being written, one which incorporates any job that successfully reduces the environmental impact of a product or service.

However in its 2008 Background Paper on Green Jobs, the United Nations Environmental Program suggests defining green jobs in such an increasingly broad manner only inflates the number of jobs labeled ‘green’, and may impede companies from actually improving their environmental performance.

For example, a product and associated jobs may be more environmentally friendly, thus ‘greener’, but may still produce cumulative environmentally negative impacts, i.e. a hybrid automobile is still dependent on fossil fuels and still emits greenhouse gases.

Throughout a company’s entire production chain, if one component is not environmentally sound, then technically the product overall is not sustainable. A product must have no net impact on the environment or produce a benefit for the environment to be ‘sustainable’.

According to UNEP, ‘the successful path to green the economy involves environmental and social full-cost pricing of energy and materials inputs, in order to discourage unsustainable patterns of production and consumption. A green economy is an economy that values nature and people and creates decent, well-paying jobs’.

This may be correct, but it may be asking for too much too soon. According to UNEP, green activities reverberate across all sectors of the economy, so even a small green gesture can contribute significantly to improving overall environmental quality. Put differently, creating green employment in key parts of the economy has the potential to 'radiate' across larger sections of the economy, thus ‘greening’ larger sections of the total workforce.

For example, even with strong growth in renewable energy, the energy industry itself will always remain a relatively small employer. But clean energy means that any business could have a lower environmental impact by avoiding fuels and electricity that are produced largely from ‘dirty’ sources.

Likewise, greening vehicles (that is, producing cars, trucks, and buses that run on cleaner fuels and which are more fuel efficient) means that the many millions of jobs in transportation services are also ‘greener’.

Despite warnings that applying the 'green' title too freely may create the illusion of progress, the UNEP report also notes that given the current rate environmental technological progress and the urgent need for environmental improvement, the dividing line between sustainable and unsustainable must arise gradually. Hence, the term 'green jobs' is a relative and highly dynamic concept - in other words, until truly sustainable technologies and processes are universally developed, there will be 'shades of green' in employment.

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