Academic journal article Sustainability : Science, Practice, & Policy

Sustainability as an Emerging Employment-Policy Issue? Perspectives from Finland

Academic journal article Sustainability : Science, Practice, & Policy

Sustainability as an Emerging Employment-Policy Issue? Perspectives from Finland

Article excerpt

Introduction

In recent years, the scientific community has approached environmental degradation and natural-resource depletion with increased urgency (e.g., Monastersky, 2009; Barnosky et al. 2012). Research suggests that human activities may have already pushed the Earth system beyond some of its biophysical thresholds and these developments could have dramatic consequences (Rockström et al. 2009). Current trends in greenhouse-gas emissions and biodiversity loss, for example, show that we are pushing ourselves against these "planetary boundaries" with accelerating speed, thereby increasing the likelihood of both incremental and rapid ecological disruption. It is thus becoming critical for modern societies to position themselves on more sustainable pathways, but also to enhance their resilience in terms of their capacities to withstand and recover from potential changes in the environment and the resulting economic and social distress (e.g., Parry et al. 2009; McKibben, 2010).

In the face of deteriorating global environmental conditions, the necessity for the "ecologization" of current work cultures has also become evident (Littig & Grießler, 2005). In recent years, various environmental strategies have been put forward with the aim of transforming work along the lines of green thinking, including, for example, green jobs programs (e.g., Jones, 2008; ILO, 2012), organizational changes (e.g., Zadek, 2001; Senge et al. 2008), and worker mobilization (e.g., UNEP, 2007; Mayer, 2008). There have also been specific discussions about "sustainable work systems," albeit mainly focused on the perspective of human and social sustainability (e.g., Docherty et al. 2009). Despite all these positive developments, it would be an exaggeration to suggest that making work "greener" has dominated recent discussions about the future of work in advanced industrial societies. More accurately, it has been just one theme among many, one that will nevertheless hopefully gain importance in coming years.

The Nordic countries (Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, and Iceland) have traditionally paid a great deal of attention to both the promotion of sustainable development and the modernization of their working-life institutions. In many cases, the concept of "sustainability" has been linked directly to working-life development, which makes it possible to consider these countries as benchmarks in the area of "sustainable working life" (e.g., Sørensen & Wathne, 2007). We know, for example, that the Nordic countries have fared relatively well in studies concerning different employment regimes and the quality of work (e.g., Green, 2006; Gallie, 2007). From the perspective of environmental sustainability, however, the situation is more complex because, although these nations usually excel in different environmental rankings, they also top the list for the largest ecological footprint per capita (e.g., WWF, 2012). For instance, UNEP's Green Economy report (2011) claims that for highly developed countries such as the Nordics, the central challenge in making a transition toward a greener economy is to reduce their per capita ecological footprint without greatly impairing their quality of life.

The first major objective of this article is to provide fresh perspectives from one of these benchmark countries by examining how key actors in Finnish working life view possibilities for promoting environmental sustainability. Normally, the extent to which it is possible to move toward more sustainable working life within the framework of individual workplaces (e.g., through corporate responsibility practices) is rather limited. It is, therefore, also important to address the issues regarding sustainability in working life at the level of larger organizations and entire branches of industry, where business leaders, employee representatives, sectoral organizations, and trade unions are all key actors. The building of more sustainable work systems can also be made a key objective at the level of national employment policies, where it is carried forward by an even larger variety of social actors (including political parties, government agencies, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs)) (Kasvio et al. …

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