A Breakdown of the Growing Environmental Industry within our Workforce and What It Entails

The federal governments of the United States and Canada (amongst other countries), promise an increase in
“green-collar work”… but what does this really mean? A lot of ambiguity exists when the term is used, as a green job may include numerous different traits and employment positions from environmental consultants to farmers.

Every governmental definition of ‘green jobs’ differs slightly because it reflects different political and economic interests;  however, emphasis always remains on the environment and sustainability.

The original “green” jobs were in farming and forestry.  However, due to technological advancements, many machines have taken over individual green labour jobs in this area.  High-tech machines have increased efficiency and decreased the amount of farming and forestry labour positions that the industry once needed.

Greenwashing: misinformation provided by an organization to display an environmentally responsible image.

Various institutions often classify green jobs differently.  NGOs often define them with more detailed criteria.  For example, “it has to pay decent wages and benefits that can support a family. It has to be part of a real career path, with upward mobility. And it needs to reduce waste and pollution and benefit the environment…you don’t want to greenwash, you don’t want to call something a green collar job that doesn’t have the wages or background to support it” (Apollo Alliance – an association of labor, business and environmental groups advocating green employment).

Similarly, David Thompson of the Sierra Club proclaims that ‘green jobs’ must include the following criteria: ‘good jobs’; safe, healthy, equitable; traditional occupations; new occupations, community-based; training programs; and greening the economy. One can argue that these NGO positions are using the lack of clarity on the green jobs definition as an opening to promote a much broader social agenda.

The question of what can be considered a ‘green job’ can only be answered individually or within the organization that is using this terminology. At this moment, there is no universally agreed upon definition of ‘green jobs’ nor are there guidance criteria to classify a job as ‘green’. That being said, most governments—especially those that are trying to promote green jobs and a green economy—do provide a vague definition of ‘green jobs’. It is important to note that when a government, NGO or the industry defines the term ‘green jobs’, that definition will reflect the political, economic and environmental interests of that organization. Thus, careful consideration must be given before that same definition is applied elsewhere.

In 2013 the United States Government Accountability Office’s federal audit claimed that almost a half-billion U.S. taxpayer dollars were allocated towards training workers for “green jobs,” but only 55% of the people that were trained were placed in new jobs that were linked directly or indirectly towards “beneficial environmental outcome.”

A Green Economy

While having broad definitions of what green jobs are can give institutions flexibility in what characteristics of sustainability they want to imply by being “green,” the vagueness can also lead to governments and industries claiming they are creating “green jobs” when they may barely or not at all reduce environmental impacts.  Meanwhile, NGOs that promote sustainability, conservation, and other various environmental issues tend to have very complex definitions of ‘green jobs’ that bring in other social agendas which further contribute to confusing what a green job really is.  Achieving a universal definition of what a green job is might help society more accurately gauge green job creation—but this will require agreement among key stakeholders.  Given the differing perspectives, this is not likely to be attained in the near future.