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Making production sustainable: The Danish experience

Making production sustainable: The Danish experience

| Text: Anders Jakobsen

When Danes talked about 'sustainable' production in the past, they were most likely thinking of organic farming products. During the 1980s and l990s the expression was given a wider meaning. Today it is associated with production, economy and working life.

Sustainability has also been given a new status, since the term has been gradually integrated into the daily running of many businesses, and not least integrated into their marketing and profile. There is talk about the 'double bottom line` - one for the economy and one for the environment. But that is not only the result of idealism and people being environmentally aware - it is also the result of a demand from the people, the consumers. Polluting businesses have been punished by consumers. They have been forced to change the way they work and re-market themselves as sustainable businesses. Over the years there has been a slow change in attitude.

This development has also had its influence on trade unions, not least in Denmark. Simultaneously there has been a marked increase in the standard of living, and unemployment has fallen dramatically Young people no longer join trade unions, others change membership to cheaper ones. There are more and more individual work contracts, and if you're not happy, you simply find a different job.

This has become a challenge for Denmark's trade unions. The question now is whether the unions can continue to just deal with nothing but their members’ wages and working conditions. And should they fight to keep jobs which are not sustainable simply to secure the continued employment and income for their members?

In Denmark several research projects are underway to find answers to these questions, and to find out how best to create a sustainable production while pinpointing the future role of the unions.

The Mudspringer

The First project attempting to take on the task in a very hands-on way took place in Esbjerg. Researchers from the Roskilde University (RUC), and the Technical University of Denmark (DTU) started an alternative production of fish products. Kurt Aagaard Nielsen, professor of sociology at the Institute for Environment Technology, was central in the project’s development.

The project, which began in 1990, was to run over three years with support from the then Ministry of Fisheries. They also got support from labour unions, like the then Danish Women's Workers’ Union (KAD) and the General Workers’ Union (SiD) (both are now incorporated into the trade union 3F). Kurt Aagaard Nielsen told the story to NLJ:

“We tried to build the ideal workplace, and wanted to incorporate sustainability in all parts of production. We wanted to protect endangered species of fish, avoid transporting the product too far, to produce in as gentle a manner as possible both in terms of the product and our workers - all with an aim to create more stable production conditions for the fish industry. An important element was to democratise the working life and increase the involvement of the workers - their wishes for good working conditions should be crucial.

“We trained the 20 workers for a week, and together we created the ideal image of the 'dream factory'. We went through how they were to relate to the entire process; production, technology, education, labour organisation, marine biology transport, waste, products, sales and so on. We knew that over-fishing and employment is linked - how do you solve that problem? Everything we had to relate to was anchored in one thing; a sustainable fishery production.

“The education was very practical, it took place on the business premises and in the middle of the working day. We sorted out the pecking order - and worked out rights for each worker in order to help solve conflicts. The workers agreed on choosing an external arbitrator.

“We simply created a co-operative fish factory in Esbjerg called 'Dyndspringeren ('The Mudspringer'), and we hired premises and production tools. The fisheries ministry paid for one year at a time.

Susanne Larsen

Susanne Larsen with the fish rissole.

“We developed two fish dishes, one new fish rissole and one fish soup. Both were based on sustainable production, and both tasted good.

“All stages of the production were run on the principle of sustainability - for instance by never using species which were threatened by over-fishing. We conducted tasting tests with different groups of people. These tests were meant to be a continuing process involving the local population, in order to get continuous feedback”, says Kurt Aagaard Nielsen.

Sudden shutdown

But after only one year catastrophe struck. The rest of the fishery industry starts a boycott, arguing the trial factory represents unfair competition. The wider industry convinces the fisheries ministry. The yearly ministry support stops, and the project must close down.

"I believe that if we had been allowed to carry the project through, we would have had a far more sustainable fisheries production today as well as a more sustainable agricultural sector. The fisheries industry's problem is that they are operating on a two year time scale, at the most. Overfishing and EU quotas make this industry very fragile. But I believe we could have created a new and much more sustainable way; if we had been given the chance", says Kurt Aagaard Nielsen, and adds; “We developed two very tasty products, and the company Thor Fisk more or less stole our recipe for fish rissoles!"

The sustainable workplace

In 2001 another RUC-project on The Sustainable Workplace (DBA) was initiated with support from the Danish Confederation of Trade Unions: 'A trade union for sustainability - heading for a sustainable workplace'. Focus here was more directly on the role of the trade union in a future society. The goal was to set the pace for creating sustainable, socially responsible workplaces and workplace democracies. For more than two years, a network of 15 workplaces and six educational institutions, as well as many researchers and union representatives, discussed how you can work to incorporate sustainability in a workplace scenario.

In April 2004 a report and blueprint for debate was ready which underlined the need for trade unions to re-define their role. It is no longer enough to stick to the traditional role of safeguarding income and working conditions for your members. It is necessary to get far more involved in production and social issues.

At the same time the report warns against trade unions taking on the role as the employers' business partners. There is a danger that members will no longer regard the trade union as an allied, and it will turn into an irrelevant accessory. 

Amazing possibilities

The report points out that trade unions must re-vitalise in order to emerge as a social movement with the power to change society. They have an amazing possibility to use sustainability as a springboard to create a strong professional profile in a future society based on knowledge and information.

But trade unions must decide whether they want to be professionalized service organisations or a social movement anchored in society. Trade unions must rise above the old social democratic welfare model, characterised by traditional thinking in terms of growth - which sometimes simply hinders new thinking in more sustainable directions, with their positive side effects of involvement and sympathy the report says.

The report has also looked closely at the importance of creating networks to safeguard the sustainability process. You cannot create more sustainability through simple change - it requires a wide mobilisation of people in networks, with all of them working with sustainability as a theme.

The Danish Federation of Trade Unions (LO) tried through their DBA project to create networks on different levels. On a local level, project teams have functioned as networks between educational institutions, external consultants, top and middle management, labour representatives and other workers. The work of the LO focus groups has functioned as network activities centrally for the DPA-project as a whole. 

Exciting ideas and initiatives

Henrik L. Lund is one of the main authors of the report and the blueprint for debate. He is a labour market researcher at the Institute for Environment, Technology and Social studies atRUC. We asked him to explain why so few businesses have begun to create a sustainable production:

“It is my hope that this is only the beginning - and l hope it is not only seen as a fashionable thing to do. The thing is - the longer you wait before creating a sustainable production, the more difficult and expensive it will become to sort out afterwards, because it will play a greater role in the future", says Henrik L. Lund.

He mentions a few businesses which have carried through sustainable projects; The bank Middelfart Sparekasse has been awarded `Workplace of the year' after spending ten years seeing through a series of projects promoting self-leadership based on a very positive attitude to the individual. The cleaning Firm Esbjerg Rengøring has been working with improving working conditions for their cleaners by giving them more individual freedom in the way they carry out their job. The cable company NKT, the pump manufacturer Grundfoss and the wrapping business Brødrene Hartmann A/S have all been seeing through a string of projects involving both the workers and environmental questions in the process.

“It feels like we have a wheel-barrow full of exiting ideas and initiatives, but we haven't got someone to get it wheeling. We have the knowledge, but lack someone who can give industries a push. If the trade and social movements don’t do it, nothing will happen - and it must happen through alliances, not by force”, says Henrik L. Lund.

His colleague Henning Hvid is just finishing a PhD on how to make the daily work a dynamic factor in the development towards sustainability.


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