Yes We Can (Have a Green Economy)…Can We?

26 Feb

Two recent news items caught my eye, especially in light of the continuing meltdown of the economy and President Obama’s call to action at last night’s” not so” State of the Union address. First, according to a recent survey (, an overwhelming majority of Americans believe that safer, cleaner and more energy-efficient production are the most important manufacturing issues in today’s economy. Americans chose product and employee safety, and environmental issues as the most important attributes. Among the top answers chosen include:

· Provide safe, quality products (86%)

· Provide a safe workplace (84%)

· Use natural resources efficiently (80%)

· Produce minimal waste (71%)

· Keep current prices or reduce prices (59%)

Americans also believe U.S. manufacturers need to invest in automating and modernizing their factories to improve environmental sustainability, competitive position and product quality.

· Use energy, raw materials or natural resources more efficiently (92%)

· Continue to remain competitive and grow (89%)

· Minimize waste and other environmental impacts (86%)

· Provide safer, high quality products (85%)

· Respond more quickly to customer demands (85%)

· Provide a safer workplace (83%)

A striking statistic in the survey found that only 18 percent believe U.S. manufacturing technology is more advanced than other countries and only about a third (34%) noted the U.S. has become more competitive in the past ten years. This downward competitive trend tracks well with president Obama’s statements last night.  This is becoming apparent even in the growing “clean tech” sector, where China and other nations are producing far more at a substantially lower per unit price.  So is government stimulus the answer?  Many believe that government incentives to modernize manufacturing will help create highly-skilled, higher-paying jobs, while upgrading automation at U.S. factories for many years to come.

In contract, a study released on the eve of the recent Washington DC national conference on green jobs says that emerging eco-friendly work must provide adequate pay and benefits — or risk damaging efforts to restore the economy and strive for environmental sustainability.  The study, “High Road or Low Road? Job Quality in the New Green Economy,”  (, was conducted by the nonprofit resource center Good Jobs First. Researchers looked at pay and labor conditions for existing jobs in eco-friendly business sectors, including the manufacturing of components for wind and solar energy projects, green construction and recycling.

Researchers found that low pay, often just slightly above minimum wage, was prevalent in many green job sectors.  There were many notable exceptions, those being where unique public-private partnerships or established labor agreements were forged.  The researchers went on to state that “ care needs to be taken in creating those positions….One of the greatest risks is that, in our haste to create a large quantity of new green jobs, we pay too little attention to their quality”..

“Environmental sustainability will be difficult or impossible to achieve if it does not go in hand with economic sustainability for workers and their families,” the researchers wrote. “The fact that an employer is engaged in a business that benefits the environment does not necessarily mean that the employees of that enterprise are going to be treated well.”

In my last entry on this site, I discussed the important of having not just a well-trained green workforce, but a credentialed one.  The Good Jobs First report discussed many ways in which job quality standards could be integrated while developing the infrastructure for the green workforce of the future. Some of the more novel ways that (at least to me) stood out included:  strengthening prevailing wage requirements, adopting best value contracting, adding labor criteria to LEED standards and using “clawbacks” to enforce job quality standards (in other word, requiring a company that fails to fulfill its project commitment to repay a subsidy, tax break or any other related financial assistance received).

So what will it take to get a trained and credentialed green workforce integrated into a strong manufacturing sector that will yield sustained upward productivity and growth?  Is it up to our state and federal governments?  Is organized labor the key?  Would public-private partnerships or apprenticeships be the answer?

What are your thoughts?

One Response to “Yes We Can (Have a Green Economy)…Can We?”

  1. progressivetimes February 26, 2009 at 5:56 am #

    Great topic. It strikes me as a chicken/egg dilemma when there really are a lot of options and many paths. I think my view would have a couple of highlighted directions.

    I agree with raising building standards and codes to demand efficiency. In the end, it is just smart design whether or not all developers and homeowners realize it yet. People are getting on board, but we could all use a push in the right direction every once in a while.

    Education is another. I think that most people confuse apathy with ignorance. We do not fully realize how much information there is to get to over 200 million people. And I am not only talking about the products that are out there but that sustainability is not a feature, it’s a lifestyle change. It is not just buying a more efficient car, it’s figuring out how to drive less. It is not only putting in CFLs, it is living in a 3,000 SF home instead of a 4,000 SF home.

    Capitalism is fueled by demand. Help foster the demand and the sales will come. Sales bring revenue, revenue brings expansion, expansion brings more workers.

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