Will Green Jobs Become the New Greenwash?

Two Steps Forward

Will Green Jobs Become the New Greenwash?

If you were to believe the hype -- from politicos, the mainstream media, the blogosphere, academics, activists, and countless green gurus -- you'd think that President Obama and Congress are readying to unleash small armies of green workers across the USA. "Green jobs" has become a rallying cry for activists and politicians alike. They're soon to arrive, and in big numbers -- right?

Well, maybe. The fact is, we don't really know what a green job is, let alone how to count them and measure their growth. In some cases, a new green job isn't even a new job but rather a "retained" job -- one that might have otherwise disappeared if not for its greenness. In the coming weeks and months -- and maybe years -- we'll be hearing a growing chorus of green-job claims made by companies, industries, states, politicians, and others interested in showcasing the job-creation potential of the green economy (a phrase that similarly has no definition, despite its broad use -- including in the title of my recent book).

In a relatively short period of time, "green jobs" has become part of the national discourse. (We ran a session on the topic at our recent State of Green Business Forum. In late January, I moderated an event on the topic at the Commonwealth Club of California, podcast here.) A broad coalition of big business, labor, investors, mayors, and nonprofits have seized the green jobs message to lobby Congress and the new administration that green jobs are a pathway out of the recession. Labor unions such as the United Steel Workers, Communications Workers of America, and Service Employees International Union have teamed up with environmental activist groups like the Sierra Club to promote a green jobs agenda. Venture capitalists have been using the lure of green jobs as they lobby Congress to grant subsidies to spur cleantech investments. Last week, more than 2,000 labor, environmental, and business leaders convened in Washington, D.C. at the Good Jobs, Green Jobs National Conference to share ideas and solutions for forging a green-centric economic agenda.

Everyone, it seems, is getting worked up over green jobs.

Many of these advocates have brandished recent studies by think tanks and research groups extolling the virtues of green investments that will, they say, produce copious employment opportunities. A sampling:

  • The Apollo Alliance's New Apollo Program proposes an investment of $500 billion over 10 years to create 5 million green-collar jobs in a range of industries including renewable energy; energy efficiency; transit and transportation; and research, development, and deployment of cutting-edge clean-energy technologies.
  • The Center for American Progress and the Political Economy Research Institute call for spending $100 billion over 2 years to create 2 million jobs in building retrofitting, expansion of the transit and freight rail grids, construction of a "smart" electrical grid, wind and solar power, and next-gen biofuels.
  • A report prepared by Global Insight for the U.S. Conference of Mayors forecasts that renewable power generation, building retrofitting, and renewable transportation fuels will together generate 1.7 million new jobs by 2018 and another 846,000 related engineering, legal, research, and consulting positions. That total jumps to 3.5 million jobs by 2028 and 4.2 million by 2038.
  • A study by the American Solar Energy Society asserts that the renewable energy and energy-efficiency industries represented more than 9 million jobs and $1.04 billion in U.S. revenue in 2007, 95% in private industry, and could mushroom to as many as 37 million jobs by 2030 -- more than 17% of all anticipated U.S. employment.
  • A report from the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation predicts that a $50 billion investment in the smart grid over 5 years "would create approximately 239,000 new or retained U.S. jobs for each of the 5 years on average."

This last claim -- in particular the phrase "approximately 239,000 new or retained" jobs -- underscores one of the problems with green-job claims, and is a source of concern: We don't really know how to define a green job, let alone measure when one is created or "retained."

The ambiguity of language has long dogged the environmental movement. So many vague words and terms have been tossed around as if they have specific meaning and shared understanding, even within serious business, political, and academic circles. When such words are used commercially, they can lead, rightly or wrongly, to charges of greenwash. Along the way, well-intentioned organizations and activities can become tarred with the brush intended for the relatively egregious few.

I fear that the fervor over green jobs could lead to the same kind of misuse and malignment, engendering cynicism and dampening Americans' enthusiasm for the whole subject.

What, after all, is a green job? People stereotypically point to manufacturers and installers of solar panels and wind turbines, and those jobs certainly qualify. Others have focused on sectors -- renewable energy, for example. Still others have tried, with varying degrees of success, to circumscribe a basket of sectors and job types.

Example: The aforementioned report by the economic forecasting firm Global Insight claims to have "identified to the finest precision possible the number of workers employed in green activities."

We define these as: any activity that generates electricity using renewable or nuclear fuels, agriculture jobs supplying corn or soy for transportation fuel, manufacturing jobs producing goods used in renewable power generation, equipment dealers and wholesalers specializing in renewable energy or energy-efficiency products, construction and installation of energy and pollution management systems, government administration of environmental programs, and supporting jobs in the engineering, legal, research, and consulting fields.

That's a start, but hardly complete. Aside from some potentially too-narrow definitions (what about jobs creating transportation fuel from agricultural waste or municipal trash?) there are other job types worth considering. Should the truck driver who delivers wind turbine parts to a wind farm qualify as a green job? What about an architect or developer of green buildings? Or an auto worker who last year was making SUVs and this year is making hybrids or electric cars? I could go on.

A United Nations Environment Programme report offers a different, broader and arguably more complete definition:

We define green jobs as work in agricultural, manufacturing, research and development (R&D), administrative, and service activities that contribute substantially to preserving or restoring environmental quality. Specifically, but not exclusively, this includes jobs that help to protect ecosystems and biodiversity; reduce energy, materials, and water consumption through high-efficiency strategies; de-carbonize the economy; and minimize or altogether avoid generation of all forms of waste and pollution.

Of course, figuring out exactly which jobs fit into this broad definition won't necessarily be easy. And some would point to an even broader range of jobs, particularly those that strengthen the social fabric of a community, such as builders or restorers of low-cost housing, or green grocers in traditionally underserved urban neighborhoods, among many others.

Meanwhile, how do you measure a "retained" job -- one that would have been lost but was saved due to some kind of shift into more environmentally friendly work? I'm guessing it's not easy or clear-cut -- there can be a myriad of circumstances why a job was kept or cut. But I'm also guessing that won't stop a lot of souls from trying to measure these workers.

All of this may seem like splitting hairs, but it's not without purpose. The squishiness of green job definitions is troubling, reminiscent of so many other poorly defined aspects of the green vocabulary -- words and terms like "natural," "nontoxic," and "environmentally friendly" -- whose use and misuse in the marketplace ultimately led to public skepticism over all green product claims. The use of these words -- none of which has a legal definition -- is discouraged by green marketing specialists, and by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission in its Green Marketing Guidelines. As the FTC states:

Unqualified general claims of environmental benefit are difficult to interpret, and depending on their context, may convey a wide range of meanings to consumers. In many cases, such claims may convey that the product, package or service has specific and far-reaching environmental benefits. . . . Unless [substantiation] can be met, broad environmental claims should either be avoided or qualified, as necessary, to prevent deception about the specific nature of the environmental benefit being asserted.

Will the broad, unsubstantiated phrase "green jobs" similarly be problematic? Will it lead to a public backlash as people come to assume that green jobs are just another meaningless marketing claim bandied about by corporations and politicians seeking to green up their images? Will green jobs be seen as greenwash?

Should it matter? That's an open question. Some, including me, have argued that the intense scrutiny of greenwashing has needlessly dampened the appetite of companies to talk publicly about their environmental goals and achievements for fear that doing so will open them up to unwanted (and often unwarranted) scrutiny and criticism. Still others (such as Hunter Lovins) have suggested that greenwashing isn't inherently a bad thing, as it indicates that companies are engaged in ways they previously hadn't been. By extension, exaggerated employment claims may be less problematic if they indicate that companies now view green jobs as a benchmark of corporate leadership.

Could it be deemed a good thing that everyone is talking about green jobs, even though they don't necessarily know what that means? Or do we need standards and definitions that help us gauge how well we're really doing?

I'd be grateful for your thoughts.

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