…by Meg White
The place Meg puts the stuff she wrote
Green Sweatshops and Sustainable Outsourcing: Creating a New Economy in the U.S. Is Harder Than It Looks
Categories: Commentary, Environment

by Meg White

i'm ready for green jobsThe woman in the picture to the left is ready for a green job. But she’s in Vancouver.

This image begs the question: If the U.S. isn’t ready for green jobs, what’s stopping Vancouver — or Xinjiang or Kedah for that matter — from stepping up to the plate?

We’re not the only country looking to advances in green technology to save ourselves from the economic morass we find ourselves in. For that reason, the idea that green jobs cannot be outsourced may turn out to be a dangerous myth.

The Center for American Progress asserts that green jobs will stay in the country, but offers little proof to back up the claim:

Green jobs are inherently local and difficult to outsource. Green jobs involve transforming today’s homes, offices and factories and investing in new, low-carbon infrastructure. This work is impossible to push offshore because it must be preformed [sic] on site. Making buildings more energy efficient, constructing mass transit lines, installing solar panels and wind turbines, expanding public green space, and growing and refining advanced biofuels all must take place right here in America.

Looking closer at this statement, a few holes can be poked in the argument.

Indeed, buildings will need to be made more energy efficient. However, that doesn’t mean that the materials with which those homes, offices, and factories are upgraded will be made here. Of course, people doing such upgrades will need to be on the ground and that will produce some jobs. But those jobs are unsustainable in the long term, because eventually all the buildings in a given locality will be retrofitted.

We will undoubtably start building new buildings that are already environmentally friendly, which is a potential source of green jobs. But we need to make sure we have the infrastructure to manufacture the materials necessary to construct them, or someone else will step up. Solar panels and mass transit rails can be shipped across the ocean as easily as just about anything else.

We also need to be sure that we are funding universities and other research institutions from which new innovations will come. Just because local buildings and landscapes will need to be transformed doesn’t mean we have a monopoly on the ideas of how that transformation will be best achieved.

The biofuel argument relies on a reality that may soon disappear. Although the U.S. currently leads the world in the production of ethanol, Brazil’s sugar-based biofuel industry is considered more sustainable. Many doubt that U.S. corn ethanol is actually better for the environment than regular gas and it has been criticized by the World Bank as wasteful and irresponsible in terms of its effect on food prices. If we don’t find a better biofuel than corn ethanol, we could be easily surpassed in the alternative fuel market.

According to a story in Epoch Times, “the wind and solar industry is also notorious for outsourcing American jobs abroad.” The article also sites numerous reports about union busting within green companies.

A recent report released by Good Jobs First reveals that green sector jobs offer lower wages on average than comparable jobs in environmentally unfriendly industries. The study also found several examples of offshoring and “aggressive anti-union campaigns.”

A study released in 2008 by Policy Matters Ohio revealed a joint partnership between GE and a Chinese company produced energy-efficient compact light bulbs in a sweatshop in Fujian Province that violated Chinese labor laws.

This year’s Green Outsourcing Report, an annual study compiled from surveys of outsourcing vendors around the world, concludes that not only are green jobs already being outsourced, but also that India is already creating more green jobs at a faster pace than the United States. And it’s not just overseas factory jobs for those making energy-saving windows; some of the employment being created includes high-paying careers, according to the report:

India’s new green jobs include higher dollar engineers, strategic business management and support technicians charged with designing innovative environmental-friendly solutions, as opposed to the lower wage installation and construction jobs associated with the American green stimulus.

The report also notes that companies overwhelmingly self-report that they’re pursuing green technology in order to save money on energy costs, not out of any altruistic motive. If the environment has to pay dividends to be protected, what about labor? What is stopping companies (especially as they are financially stretched by the recession) from going abroad for cheaper workers?

We can have sustainable green industry in this country. No wait, strike that: We must have sustainable green industry. But it’s not going to just happen. We need to nurture it by giving companies, as well as nonprofit research and development organizations, a good reason to do their work here. At the same time, we need to make sure those jobs are worth having by protecting them with union representation and stringent government oversight. Finally, we need to incorporate green technology into our educational curriculum so that we’ll have a crop of knowledgeable young people ready to fill those jobs.

The conclusion the Center for American Progress comes to, that “the most productive jobs of the future will be green jobs,” is correct. However, there is no guarantee that those productive jobs will be here. The U.S. needs to embrace this emerging economy as it has done in the past with previous economic innovations. We need to show that we’re ready for green jobs.


Photo credit: Graham Girard of Canadian Youth Climate Coalition, Vancouver

Originally published at BuzzFlash.com.

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