To shift to a sustainable world, we need to work less, and differently

Nearly one hundred years ago Maynard-Keynes made the famous assessment that the grandchildren of then would be working 15 hours a week with the rest spent on leisure time. His prediction has of course turned out to be astoundingly incorrect.

Many of us don’t want to be working this much (at least not on the businesses that aren’t our own, without time for side projects, or passions that aren’t ours). We’re often stuck in a system that has us working five days a week in order to pay for accommodation and food. Even with significantly lower consumption rates, mortgages/rent and bills push many of us to the edge of a cliff without savings. But whilst many of us are working 40+ hour work weeks, we’re also contributing to the constant degradation of the world around us.

We can however change this. Quickly. We have skyrocketing “productivity” and yet we’re stuck in the same cycle not using any creative thinking for how we shift away from the modern system. We’re increasingly unsatisfied with the way our world works and work isn’t working for us. Here’s what we can do first up.

Reduce work hours

4 day working weeks, of no more than 8 hours per day, should be standard in nearly all office jobs (with the same salaries). Shifts can be rotated better when needed. Nobody is effective in their chair for 37 – 42+ hours per week. Time after time it’s proven we can work one fewer day without negative impact to the company (and often the reverse). This action simply takes a brave step by the CEO or founder and could be implemented across a whole lot of departments next week (rolling out to others with careful planning).

Four days per week removes a whole lot of cars off the road. It’s also helps to decrease the millions of deaths each year attributable to pollution. That also helps to decrease health care visits, medication and hospital usage. And it helps all the children. Not only that, but it would often mean that buildings use less power too. We’ll likely print less and use our computers and internet less (a surprising source of our emissions due to data centres). Cleaners wouldn’t be required as much, and we can wash our clothes less on average. In fact, a study found that if we cut the hours we work by 25% our carbon footprint would decline by 36.6%.

One of my favorite parts of fewer working days, or less hours, is the time we’ll free up to do the things we need to do that currently cost our Earth a lot of precious resources. That might be repairing our clothes instead of discarding them and buying new. It could be preparing our own meals far more reducing the processing and delivery of these, or many of us baking healthy, fresh bread. It might mean learning new skills to fix household goods. Perhaps we’ll have more time for vertical gardens on our city balconies or permaculture in our yards to grow our own herbs, fruits and vegetables. Growing our own food is one of the biggest rebellions in this world and the food system is one of the most messed up you’ll find. Any move away from it, including the monopolies that might control your access, greatly helps our environment.

Note: this isn’t of course possible for all jobs, but wherever it is, it should be considered (get creative!). We should also be encouraging ‘green’ three day weekends so that the net benefits aren’t absorbed by jet-setting mini holidays. Investing in public infrastructure helps this enormously and proves wonderful for our communities. A focus on relocalizing would be of huge benefit.

Bonus: this generally makes employees more loyal, more productive, more motivated, feel more satisfied, reduces stress (linked to decreasing heart attacks and the likes too) and offers more time for friends and family to spend together

Offer far more flexibility (in space and time)

Being able to work from home in many corporate jobs is completely feasible. Unfortunately we still seem nearly entirely stuck in a mentality that bums-in-seats in the office is the best way to gauge work. It’s a terrible notion of it. The more we can work from home and even the cafes, libraries and co-work spaces that are a short walk or bike-ride away, the more we reduce our individual footprints (and it tends to increase our happiness). There’s also still quite a pressure to look a certain way in offices. That pressure doesn’t exist at home and we can wear our casual clothes in most other spaces. This helps reduce the “work clothes” and shoes we buy and the washing and dry cleaning that is required for these (culminating in resource use and the shedding of micro-plastics). The fashion industry emits more than the aviation and shipping sector combined and is massively exploitative so where we can buy less, but better and purposed for numerous situations, the more we’re helping to protect human lives also.

Flexible hours also furnish us with more time to spend conserving the world around us. It is absurd that we believe it’s best for most office workers to be in their seats at 8, and out at 5. It barely makes sense for anyone and ultimately it’s simply a very odd notion to handcuff adults like this. Flexible hours give us more time for doing things a little slower, for meal planning on a budget and shopping with intention like being able to head to the farmers markets or bulk-food store, organize a food swap in your neighborhood, go foraging, head to the community pantry and advocate for food waste composting. It also allows us to work out appropriately improving our physical and mental wellbeing thus reducing those healthcare visits, medication packets and costs. In fact, if US health care were a country, it would rank seventh in the world in total emissions.

If you can’t trust your people with this, you’re hiring the wrong people.

End bullshit jobs

We live in a wonderful world of bullshit jobs (coined by David Graeber, an anthropologist and a professor at the London School of Economics). If your job disappeared tomorrow would it make a meaningful difference to our world? Conversely, might it even make the world better if it did? So many of our jobs are wrapped up in emails, data entry, phone calls, administration, useless meetings and back-and-forthing. Sometimes we might even take some action – but for what? Is what we are doing contributing positively to the world as the end outcome?

I’m not the biggest advocate of technology you’ll find (an app certainly isn’t the solution to everything, and geoengineering is absolutely not what I’d like the world to pursue) but I know thousands of jobs that could be replaced by a fit-for-purpose, currently existing piece of technology if a company simply decided to implement it. It is very odd that capitalist companies and inefficient not-for-profits desperate to save money (and seemingly, accounting firms), end up spending more to keep workers they don’t actually need.

Rutger Bregman, the Dutch historian, pointed out a number of years ago that we value jobs all wrong. There would be anarchy if garbage collectors decided not to turn up at work for a month and yet we value them so little. There would be no such issue if corporate lawyers, marketers, human resources, public relation officers, lobbyists, brand managers and consultants decided the same. Even a lot of jobs that currently exist to meet some kind of need (all night food delivery for example) are only needed because we’re so busy working constantly. Without needing to spend all our hours working and running between jobs, study and kids, we don’t need that job either.

If we can eliminate everything that isn’t needed, and automate the other bullshit that we decide is, we’re going to be better off as world. 

Institute a universal basic income (or something to this effect)

To that end we’re going to need some kind of universal income that allows us to live at a decent standard in the country we’re in. Whatever it ends up being called, if it’s designed to eliminate the huge administrative burden across welfare services, free us up to not be on a constant roundabout of wage stress, and allow us to automate where it works and isn’t environmentally more degrading, it makes sense. Let’s do that. The bonus of course is that other than healthcare prevention rather than cure through lowering stress and upping happiness and health, we can spend more time volunteering, pursuing ideas and being creative. We’re also not so reliant on destructive jobs in order to live.

Bonus:we might also have time to effectively protest the things governments implement that are horrific for our environment and society. That’s a terrifying proposition for those in power of course, and a barrier to having a living income, but it is a democratic benefit.

Switch away from extractive & destructive jobs (and address that little issue of capitalism)

We need to move away from destructive jobs that are hurting our environment. This needs large scale government and industry intervention; there is only so much consumers can do. Yes, most of us need jobs as part of the system we’re in; it’s the system needs changing and the above helps to kickstart this. But we also need to move away from these jobs which means shifting from a capitalist system circling entirely around the economic metric of GDP, to a system that accounts for our planetary boundaries and wellbeing. That is, where we have jobs, these should exist largely in places that bring us value and don’t destroy the world that we want to thrive in, alongside other species.

We need a just transition. What can you do? Consume less. Way less of the unnecessary (most of it is). The less we buy, the less we need to extract. Importantly, influence, protest and vote. Write to companies. Call your local politicians. Rally your friends and neighborhood. Vote for positions that will move us toward a system that takes in wellbeing and understands wealth goes far beyond an economic indicator. We all intrinsically know this because those who only measure the success of their lives on their monetary value, are the most miserable amongst us. Money helps but only up to a point. We need a whole lot of other stimulation to feel truly happy and wealthy.

Help small to medium businesses reject destructive clients

If you’re running your own business, you’re working hard. We should have different – and better – tax laws for this but in addition we can also help these businesses make better decisions about the clients they take on. Without the constant pressure of money, businesses can reject clients that don’t meet certain environmental standards or seem intent on sidestepping responsibility for their impact. When we can reject these clients we can either cause them to change or help them to fail. Depriving destructive clients of the ability to access talent and capital hurts. SMEs help power our world and are often making decisions they don’t want to be making, but by choosing to only work with sustainable and ethical clients you’re eliminating most of the marketplace. Read that again because it’s insane.If we can help businesses, we can propel this drive to change much faster.

Sustainable business practices

Corporate conglomerates and large businesses with purchasing power have a real obligation in this space to demand better from their vendors. If they can shift the needle here it will ripple across the system. We’re not pressing on this lever enough. For large organizations a tiny team isn’t going to cut this. You need champions in every department who are informed on topics such as sustainable procurement, the logistics of recycling and the circular economy. And this can’t be a decision based only on economics. Time and time again I see companies who will only shift to the better alternative if it’s at least cost neutral and doesn’t increase labor. Every presentation seems to need to pitch to management that they’re going to save money with the added benefit of having done the right thing. This isn’t always feasible, it’s not practical (particularly in smaller markets) and if we keep doing business this way, we’re not going to get to a healthy planet. That’s business as usual, and look where that got us.

Change our built environment

Other things we should be doing related to our work include designing our cities to be sustainable, working with the sun & shade, planting office grounds full of native greenery and local fruit trees, ensuring we’ve used renewable energy wherever possible as a rule, actioning food waste in every office space, and building far more environmentally friendly buildings that are designed to last hundreds of years with sustainable materials (demolition is a factor rarely taken into account when we talk the climate crisis). Approximately 11 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions come from building materials and construction. Product design and marketing departments at most big businesses also need to see some serious changes.

Anything else?

Support this writing

We spend a lot of time researching and writing explainers, guides and stories on important environmental topics. We do this without funding, sponsorship or advertising revenue. We would love to continue to expand this work and support experts in their fields to contribute. If you've learned something new here, have joined us on Instagram, or support what we're doing, please consider tipping in a little. Thank you so much.