28 August 2006

Thoughts on Workplace Sustainability

My sister-in-law is involved in a project to help her company become a sustainable workplace. This seems to be the new trend in the business world: the concept that a working environment should encourage good environmental practices; should support employees so that their talents can be valuable to a company for a long time; and should solicit ideas from employees to maintain a more efficient and comfortable environment where they can be more productive and more satisfied. We talked about her project over lunch and I gave her my two-cents on why I think workplace sustainability is a good thing.

As a historian, I take the long view on the sustainability concept. In agriculture-centered societies (ones in the past, such as pre-industrial Europe and also ones in some developing countries today), it is often necessary for community survival and success for everyone in the community work in sustainable ways. Of course some agrarian communities aren't sustainable, but for the ones that are it makes sense that having a high turn-over rate of workers or depleting local resources is very poor policy if you desire the long-term stability.

I found one article on the workplace stability concept on the website of American Institute of Architects. I once worked in a building that had a high degree of people getting cancer due to poor ventilation. The building was overhauled while I was there, but it was alarming to hear stories about all of the past employees who had died of cancer and the current cancer rate was high. I was actually a representative on the committee that was lobbying the management for correcting the "sick building" issue. Even if a building's environment is not that bad, there are still many offices that have poor environmental systems or run through vast amount of waste in a year.

A quick Google search on the topic revealed that Australia seems very progressive about workplace sustainability. But given Australia's isolated location and finite resources it doesn't surprise me that they are ahead of the U.S. They seem to have university programs centered around the concept. Some of the E.U. countries seem also very keen on the idea to a lesser degree. I'm encouraged to learn that the international company where my sister-in-law works [I leave out the name intentionally] is actually exploring the sustainability concept. I have been avoiding the corporate sector in my choice of career and choice of lifestyle, but inevitably in a large consumer culture like mine the culture of corporations has a huge impact on my life--on everyone's life, too, unless they go off and live in cave somewhere.

Do you have any experience with or thoughts on workplace sustainability? Leave a comment.

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