by Rachel LeWitt
In an era where even Walmart has pushed attempts to “go green”, the average consumer has been faced with the sustainability movement and its efforts in many different forms by 2011. Most if not all of these initiatives by companies large and small are geared toward the consumer, and in an arguably increasingly capitalistic society, this design is not altogether a surprise. However, when so much emphasis is put on the buyer, many of these companies’ workers are overlooked.
For many years, the labor that service, maintenance’ and security workers have done has been taken for granted. Those who are accustomed to the products of the work of these individuals expect a clean floor, a well-guarded building to work or live in, and someone to ring up their salad bar salad at the company cafeteria. Workers who are frequently underpaid, overworked, and underappreciated make these conveniences possible.
“a more sustainable system of employment will sprout out of the growing need for more local products of a higher quality and more ethical treatment not only of workers, but of people in general”
Similar to the decrease in familiarity in where our food comes from, there is a recent trend in the decrease in familiarity of our partners in enterprise: the workers. So, in addition to the malcontent of the working class due to poor conditions and salary, there is no interaction between the community and the workplace. Gone are the days when you knew your butcher’s, pharmacist’s, or security guard’s name. This general lack of a relationship with the world around us contributes to a rising sense of alienation.
In the workplace, this may mean a disconnection with other workers who feel that they are similarly underpaid, overworked, and underappreciated. There is also little opportunity for positive changes, because of large, pseudo-efficient company policies that prevent grassroots change.
That is exactly the mentality that unions capitalize on: a desire for change and better rights that seem impossible for individuals laymen to achieve by themselves. Unions advocate on behalf of both the individual and the collective, acting as an educator, judicial authority, and delegate on the workers’ behalf. Many laborers do not know their rights as workers, and are undermined because of this. What unions can help do is “empower the disenfranchised.” This begs the question of why should workers be empowered?
A simple answer is that we live in America: a country founded on the ideals of truth and equality, where people have dignity and deserve to be treated fairly, and where being treated fairly means being compensated fairly.
However, that answer belies what was previously alluded to: the notion of alienation. What this model of enterprise perpetuates is a siphoning off of one part of the economy and of society as the “other.”
There seems to be a fundamental problem with this pattern. It is not simply that this business model supposes that it is morally correct to commodify people. What this model puts into perpetuity is the idea that the other is not like me. That the other is barely human. Many people can go through their daily routine without even acknowledging that there are real people on the other side of the counter, people with histories and fears and aspirations. We have all seen it, and many of us have experienced it ourselves.
This is an especially bizarre phenomenon considering that many of our transactions and interactions now occur over the Internet. Surely we should value more highly face-to-face interactions than we do interactions via Facebook or email. Are we that removed already?
One should hope that we are not.
Interacting with others is something that is extremely human, and fortunately unavoidable. I believe that though society is currently upholding a standard that promotes remoteness and discontent, ultimately this mode of behavior within business will not persevere.
Instead, society can expect that a more sustainable system of employment will sprout out of the growing need for more local products of a higher quality and more ethical treatment not only of workers, but of people in general. It’s an idea steeped in an appreciation for humanity and environmentalism, which after all, is a marketable trend. Thankfully, it is one that is catching on.
Rachel is a sophomore at Lafayette College [class of 2013], where she is a Psychology and English double major. She also works as a Writing Associate and as a Resident Advisor on campus.
(Essays express the ideas of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Alliance.)
(Published in the 2011 edition of Sustainable Lehigh Valley)