Overline: Sustainable Development Goals
Headline: "Small tweaks are not enough – We need a transformation towards sustainability in the world of work!"

The Science Platform Sustainability 2030 (wpn2030) has published a report with recommendations for the Federal Government on fostering sustainable work. In the report, the authors call for a new understanding of what constitutes "good work" and urge policymakers to use the German Sustainable Development Strategy as a framework to promote sustainable work.

In the age of globalization and digitalization, we need to rethink conventional notions of "good work".
In the age of globalization and digitalization, we need to rethink conventional notions of "good work". Shutterstock/Andrey_Popov

"We face enormous challenges in terms of re-imagining and changing the world of work so that it contributes to sustainable development – the coronavirus crisis only highlights the urgency of this challenge," explain Marion A. Weissenberger-Eibl (Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research (ISI) & Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT)) and Stephan Lessenich (Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich), who led the transdisciplinary working group behind the paper. "It will be particularly important to look beyond individual reforms in the world of work and instead to aim for a comprehensive transformation towards sustainability that will enable us to adopt an integrative approach to social, economic, and environmental aspects in the future".

A transformation towards a more sustainable world of work is urgently needed to counteract social, economic, and environmental imbalances and the over-exploitation of labour and nature over the longer term and globally, the authors argue.However, there is a long way to go to achieve this goal: "Numerous isolated initiatives exist and some of these are successful. What is lacking is a comprehensive concept and vision for sustainable work that could help to bring about change on a broader front," says Marion A. Weissenberger-Eibl.

The leaders of the working group: Marion A. Weissenberger-Eibl and Stephan Lessenich.
The leaders of the working group: Marion A. Weissenberger-Eibl and Stephan Lessenich. Wissenschaftsplattform Nachhaltigkeit

Among other things, the paper considers the changing status of work and long-term trends in the world of work. "In some respects, we are still living in the nineteenth century", says Stephan Lessenich, "our ideas and concepts of what constitutes 'good work' are still very much tied to traditional industrial working conditions and do not sufficiently reflect the realities, trends and demands of working life in the twenty-first century." New forms of work and trends such as self-employment, sub-contracting and click- and crowd-working are rarely considered. Similarly, the exploitation of cheap labour in other global regions, with its often destructive social and ecological impacts, and the increasingly unsustainable use of natural resources are largely neglected in discussions around the future of work. Lessenich: "These are very powerful, lasting and interrelated aspects of the modern working world that must be taken into account if we wish to develop a contemporary vision of good - and indeed sustainable - work. And we need this vision in order to guide policy decisions and shape the development of our society". In the absence of this vision, we run the risk of worsening social, economic and environmental imbalances.

The impulse paper outlines a number of preliminary proposals for quality criteria for sustainable work and suggests that these be developed further in a broader public dialogue. The proposed criteria aim to align the world of work with the goal of putting Germany on a sustainable development path: "Innovations will play a central role in all this. Their contributions to sustainable development and their sustainable use will be decisive in this context", said Weissenberger-Eibl. On the one hand, digital technologies can blur the boundaries between work and private life, but they also harbour tremendous opportunities for social innovations that can help to create more sustainable workplaces and practices.

In addition to these changes in thinking, structural changes are also needed. "Sustainable work must become a cross-cutting political issue with the active involvement of more governments departments than in the past," says Lessenich. The German Sustainable Development Strategy offers a framework in for a more concerted approach to policy development and government departments should engage with this framework more intensively, the paper urges.

"We also need to engage in a more intensive public dialogue on work and sustainability," says Weissenberger-Eibl. "Making work more sustainable is an enormous challenge that will affect us all – and each of us in different ways. So we have to get down to it and get talking. We simply can't afford to let the window of opportunity created by the coronavirus crisis to go unused".