Canadians report mixed feelings about working from home – but is it good for the environment? for workers?

The Angus Reid Institute is a Canadian non-profit public opinion research foundation Their recent survey of Covid-related experiences is summarized at their June 11 press release, with the full 11-page report was released under the title  So long, office space? Two-thirds of Canadians who work from home expect it to continue after pandemic  .

Of the 30% of Canadians who have been working from home during the Covid-19 pandemic, only 36 % expect to return full-time to their workplace after the pandemic subsides – others expect to split working time between workplace and home, and 20% expect to work primarily from home.  The survey measured productivity and mental health impacts of working from home, showing mixed results re mental health: 15% said it had been “terrible”, 16% said it had been “great”, and 68% ranking it as “okay” – notably, 20% of women 18 to 34 years old rank it as “awful”.  The survey also reports on the job loss experiences of respondents since the March beginning of lockdown, with a high of 31% experiencing job loss in May, and 28% in June. Responses concerning job loss, economic outlook, and incidence and attitudes to government financial assistance are available by age, gender, region, education, and other demographics.

Is working from home good for the planet? or for workers?

An earlier WCR post in May, “Working from home may not save as much energy as we think” summarizes an article from Environmental Research Letters which found little empirical evidence that working from home benefits the environment or climate change. Initially some environmentalists saw a possible (though temporary) upside in a reduction of GHG emissions from commuting, and the concept is being embraced by corporate management – for its own reasons.  The complexity of the issue is discussed in  “Office work will never be the same” in Vox (May 27), which argues that flexibility may benefit the privileged white collar workers who can work from home, but also opens the door to increased workplace surveillance with its greater dependence on technology (not to mention the equity question for those who don’t have the option).   In “Working from Home: Post-Coronavirus Will Give Bosses Greater Control of Workers’ Lives” ( June 4) in Jacobin, author Luke Savage cites examples of Canadian workplace policies from the Bank of Montreal and Shopify, and quotes an unnamed Canadian unionist . Savage concludes with this warning:

“With every home an office and every office a home, the residual boundaries between work and private life will be gone for good. Still worse, the whole or even partial demise of the physical office space could become a catalyst for a deeper precarization of work wherein many workers are effectively remote contractors, their homes operating like quasi-franchises over which employers can exercise discretionary control with minimal restriction.

Socialists have long argued that bosses and markets exert far too much power and control over our time, our private lives, and our individual autonomy. Unless we resist the burgeoning shift to remote work, both are about to devour an even bigger share of all three.”

 

Working from home may not save as much energy as we think

“A systematic review of the energy and climate impacts of teleworking”  appeared as an “accepted manuscript” for Environmental Research Letters in April.  Written by four academics from the University of Sussex, the article aims to identify the conditions under which teleworking can lead to a net reduction in overall energy consumption, and the circumstances where the benefits from teleworking are outweighed by the unintended impacts” (rebound effects)-  such as greater private travel or increased non-work energy consumption by home workers.  It does not consider the large research about other impacts of telecommuting or homework – such as gender effects, or health and mental health impacts.

The authors identified and examined the results of 39 academic studies from around the world, some dating back to the 1990’s. Of those, 26 suggest that teleworking reduces energy use, and 8  suggest that teleworking  has a neutral impact, or even possibly causes an increase  in energy use.  The authors provide a thorough discussion of the topic, and note great variation in methodology and scope. They also note that most research focusses on the U.S., with some from the EU and only three from the Global South. From Canada, only 2 studies were included:  (1.  Bussière and Lewis (2002) . “Impact of telework and flexitime on reducing future urban travel demand: the case of Montreal and Quebec (Canada), 1996-2016, and 2.  Lachapelle, Tanguay, and Neumark-Gaudet. (2018). “Telecommuting and sustainable travel: Reduction of overall travel time, increases in non-motorised travel and congestion relief?”) .

Both Canadian studies were part of the group which was ranked as average or poor in methodology, and which found neutral or mixed impacts. Relying on the  “more rigorous studies that include a wider range of impacts”  the authors conclude that, despite a widely-held positive verdict on teleworking as an energy-saving practice, “the available evidence suggests that economy-wide energy savings are typically modest, and in many circumstances could be negative or non-existent.”

How Green are Solar Jobs? Solar Scorecard Ranks Manufacturers on Working Conditions and Health and Safety

The Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition Annual Scorecard measures and ranks how solar manufacturing companies around the world perform on sustainability and social justice benchmarks, including extended producer responsibility, emissions transparency, chemical reduction policies, use of prison labour and conflict minerals, water policies, and the presence of internal policies for worker health and safety. In 2013, despite low survey response levels, the Scorecard ranked 40 companies, representing over 80% of the market share in the photovoltaic industry.  Of those 40, only 7 have comprehensive internal policies that address worker rights and health and safety. These were: Astronergy (China), Sharp (Japan), SolarWorld (U.S.), SunPower (U.S.), Suntech (Japan), Trina (China), and Yingli (China). Solar Valley Toxics Coalition is a San Francisco-based advocacy group with the stated goals of reducing the use of toxic chemicals in the photovoltaic solar manufacturing industry, developing responsible recycling systems, and protecting workers throughout the global PV supply chain.     

Another source of information may soon be available. In May 2013, the U.S.-based Solar Energy Industry Association finalized a Solar Commitment – a voluntary agreement which sets out “solar-specific and general best practice provisions regarding the environment, labor, ethics, health and safety, and management practices of the company.” Labour guidelines include freedom of association, hours and wages, and protection from sexual harassment. Health and safety standards include machine protection, training, protection from toxic substances, and protection from discipline for raising safety concerns. Companies that sign on to the Solar Commitment must provide an annual report on key performance indicators – no reports have been released yet. Signatories to date are: Dow Solar, Gerhlicher Solar America, PV Recycling, SunEdison, SunPower, Suntech, Trina, and Yingli Solar. 

LINKS

Solar Valley Toxics Coalition Solar Scorecard is available athttp://www.solarscorecard.com/2013/2013-SVTC-Solar-Scorecard.pdf

 Background  discussion, and links to solar companies featured in  the SVTC Scorecard is at CleanTechnica at: http://cleantechnica.com/2013/08/13/silicon-valley-toxics-coalitions-2013-solar-scorecard-just-release/

SEIA Solar Commitment Factsheet is at:http://www.seia.org/sites/default/files/Solar%20Commitment%20factsheet_2013.pdf