The sustainable impact of a reduced working week
Would a shorter working week lead to less production? Reframing of our consumption/production mindset is already occurring with the popularisation of economic models like the circular economy. UN Sustainable Development Goal 12 is to ‘ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns’, by doing more and better, with less.³ Sustainable consumption and production aims to apply life cycle thinking to achieve resource efficiency and the sustainable management of resources, as well as decoupling environmental degradation from economic growth and helping developing countries ‘leapfrog’ the inefficient and polluting phases of economic progress that we have seen historically.⁴
The concept of the reduced working week is that a reduction in working hours should reduce individual carbon emissions, as people with more leisure time will adopt less carbon consumptive habits. Ultimately, the less time employees spend working, the less they are forced to rely on quick and convenient solutions to everyday tasks. For example, workers would have more time to plan and cook meals, growing their own food or taking the time to buy locally, instead of stopping at supermarkets to buy preprepared meals or convenience foods, which incorporate multiple layers of plastic and are imported from different continents.
There will be less pressure to take convenient weekend flights to squeeze in a holiday, or to drive everywhere to meet tighter and tighter schedule demands. Instead, alternative forms of transport and active travel can be enjoyed. Studies have already shown that high income countries with shorter working hours are associated with lower carbon footprints and carbon dioxide emissions.⁵
However, such a shift would not be available or even desirable for all parts of the economy. While it may be feasible for sectors like finance, retail, and hospitality to reduce working hours in the near future, there is still a question for industries like healthcare, education, childcare and agriculture where service provision is likely to still follow more full-time requirements. Considering ways in which to make reduced working weeks work means thinking outside the box and employers being open to alternative ideas such as job-sharing.
Alternatively, the introduction of a reduced working week could create opportunities to promote initiatives in re-skilling and further education, for a return to basic homesteading skills, like gardening, sewing, and mending, but also on skills like growing crops and looking after livestock, updating and fixing tech, and developing community hospitals, childcare, and eldercare facilities. This would promote sustainable production and consumption models as workers would develop the skills required to fix or replace goods themselves and provide their own services, instead of purchasing the goods and services externally and creating excess waste.