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Eco-I-O Psychology? 
Expanding Our Goals to Include Sustainability

J. Elliott Campbell
University of Iowa

David E. Campbell
Humboldt State University

Scientists report that global climate change is in motion, and we are only beginning to comprehend the disruption this will cause to our lives and the health of the planet. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, we can expect global temperatures to increase between 1.6 and 8.1F by 2100 (IPCC, 2001). Evidence points to human emissions of greenhouse gases as the primary cause, a consequence of the burning of fossil fuels and clearing of land. In some locales, the warming trend is already well-advanced. In Alaska and western Canada, for example, annual winter temperatures have increased 47F in just 50 years (ACIA, 2004). Already, the reduction in sea ice has led to an increase in the rate of coastal erosion forcing recent evacuation of homes in Shishmaref, Alaska, and Tuktoyaktuk, Canada. Somewhat related to global temperature change is the increase in ultraviolet radiation reaching the earths surface. The cause of this UV increase is a depletion of stratospheric ozone brought about by release of chlorinated chemicalsanother consequence of human activity. It is only a matter of time until climate-driven changes begin to threaten the modern lifestyles of people in the major cities of the developed world. Midrange climate change scenarios are associated with predictions that 15% to 37% of existing species will become extinct by 2050 (Parmesan & Galbraith, 2004). The likely effects on agriculture, water resources, and ecosystem-related goods and services are enormously difficult to predict. At the simplest level, a rise in sea levels (due to melting of polar ice) will result in relocation of factories and homes to inland locations on higher ground. At a more complex level, climate and habitat changes will shift the timing for hatching of insect eggs and germination of crop seeds. As developmental processes for plant and animal life get out of sync, we may find that crops are not getting pollinated, the changed growing season is interfering with normal maturation, and predatorprey imbalance threatens crop health. Implications for feeding a growing human population should be obvious.

Why should this be an issue for I-O psychologists? Consider the goals of our specialty. We engage in a broad spectrum of activitiesemployee selection and placement, industrial training, performance appraisal, team building, management development, job design, and so on. The ultimate objective of these activities, whether stated or implied, can be reduced to a short list: optimize performance, improve satisfaction and morale, maintain safety and health, and, more generally, enhance the quality of work life. (One could argue that such concepts as appreciation of cultural diversity and organizational justice represent value-based goals, but even these can be tied to the ultimate behavioral and attitudinal objectives of job performance and employee satisfaction.) The global environmental changes now discussed in scientific circles are already beginning to affect worker behavior and organizational performance. I-O psychologists should play a key role in working with management to measure these effects and address the required adjustments. Requirements to carry on work in a more energy-efficient manner will result in job behaviors associated with changes in comfort and convenience, which will lead to changes (both positive and negative) in satisfaction and performance. A shift to mass transportation and alternative modes of travel may enhance health and productivity and may change the stress of the commute, which is a factor in quality of the work environment. 

Perhaps more importantly, I-O psychologists are needed for research and consulting into the design of proposed changes in organizations and technology that will meet environmental challenges. Engineers in universities and industry are working hard to create new designs that will mitigate global climate change. I-O psychologists should be active in the research community so that such designs, from the earliest conceptual stages, will be optimized for worker productivity and stress. Newly designed green buildings were originally conceived for energy and cost savings but unexpected benefits have been found due to their enhancement of worker productivity and well being. The aerospace firm Lockheed Martin found that absenteeism fell by 15% after it moved 2,500 employees into a new green building, which paid for the buildings higher construction costs within a year (Economist, 2004). I-O psychologists should be at the forefront of the design process so such worker-related benefits are achieved with all environmentally motivated projects.

Given that ecological trends will require adjustments in the workplace (that we can only begin to imagine at this point), psychologists have good reason to keep abreast of findings from the environmental sciences. After all, these individuals will play a key role in working with management to address the required adjustments. Changes associated with environmental change will impact recruitment, training and development, organizational communication, incentive systems, and all the other areas of I-O expertise. How to accommodate lifestyle change while maintaining performance, positive attitudes, safety and health, and quality of work life (QWL) will be a major challenge to I-O practitioners in the decades ahead.

A second reason for I-O attention to environmental trends has to do with energy consumption. As mentioned above, use of fossil fuels for energy is a major contributor to global climate change. Individual and domestic use accounts for only 32% of total energy consumption in the U.S.; industrial and commercial/service use are responsible for 68% (Gardner & Stern, 2002; see comparable data at Energy Information Administration, 2004). Although it seems reasonable that individuals should be mindful of their energy consumption when at home or engaged in private activities, the greater opportunity for energy savings and conservation is in the workplace. Organizations of all kindsmanufacturing, government services, educational institutions, retail establishments, entertainment venues, military organizationsall account for far more fossil fuel consumption than does private activity. And it is within these varied organizations and institutions that 58% of I-O psychologists make a living (Landy & Conte, 2004). Because of where they work, I-O psychologists are in position to encourage optimal environmental decisions where the greatest gains are to be made.

Psychologists working in organizations are not assigned responsibility for environmental advocacy, and the intent here is not to suggest that they become radical activists within their agencies. We are making a different argument, an argument based on scientific observations and predictions that are too compelling to ignore. Data are accumulating that have already persuaded most environmental scientists that changes now in process in ecological systems will have far-reaching impacts on the human condition. Some of these changes are being felt now and others will be felt in the not-too-distant future. Someextinction of species, loss of topsoil, exhaustion of nonrenewable energy sourcesare essentially irreversible and permanent. Others may be mitigated and possibly reversed through concerted efforts to influence contemporary values, attitudes, and actionsthough the cultural-economic juggernaut is a mighty one and will not easily slow or change direction. It will not be enough to leave the looming environmental problems to scientists and environmental educators. Soon, those in positions of influence and responsibility at all levels of society will have to make environmental concerns a part of their work. And those who work with training, motivation, leadership, and organizational change in the workplace will find themselves involved in environmental issues. We are suggesting that I-O psychologists appraise the coming ecological challenges and begin to adjust their strategies now rather than wait until impossible-to-ignore problems suddenly demand their attention.

Some of the coming societal adjustments go beyond the expertise of applied psychology. Clearly, an economic system based on continuous growth and material wealth cannot be sustained forever. Even if global climate change, ozone depletion, and environmental pollution were not of concern, the human population cannot continue to expand and extract nonrenewable resources from a finite earth indefinitely. Already, shortages of food and clean drinking water are responsible for preventable deaths of children at alarming rates in developing countries. These deaths are attributed to a combination of environmental factors and an economic system that encourages a wide gap between rich and poor (Miller, 1998; UN Statistics Division, 2004). Other economic systems will have to be developed and implemented that are appropriate for our current ecological mess. Efforts have been underway to determine how economic growth can coincide with sustainable environmental practices (Carley & Christie, 2000; Desta, 1999). Clearly psychologists are not positioned to grapple with changes in socioeconomic systems. But because of their work with organizational decision makers, I-O psychologists are well placed to encourage environmentally friendly practices that fit under the general concept of environmental sustainability.

Sustainability refers to the ability of a system to survive for some specified time (Miller, 1998). This concept has been applied to a variety of human activities as is suggested by the phrases sustainable agriculture, sustainable development, sustainable living, and sustainable society. In each case, the system involved is considered stable and able to sustain if it takes in no more resources than can be replenished and gives off no more pollution than can be naturally absorbed without harm to the environment. The relevance of sustainability to I-O psychologists becomes apparent if we consider the psychologists ability to influence sustainable practices within organizations. In recruitment and hiring, preference can be given to applicants who express attitudes and values compatible with sustainable living. Training programs can include environmental impact as one of the curriculum objectives. Performance appraisal and incentive systems can include environmentally responsible behaviors among their criteria. Management development programs can draw attention to sustainable practices and environmental ethics. Although the decision to include sustainable practices as a strategic goal is a management responsibility, full and successful implementation involves the full repertoire of I-O tools.

There is no fully accepted list of organizationally sustainable practices. However a reasonable starting place for I-O psychologists is to become familiar with the environmental standards developed by the International Organization for Standardization, the latest version of which is ISO 14001 (ISO, 2004). These are general standards intended to be part of an environmental management system and to guide the organization in minimizing harmful effects on the environment. (I-O psychologists might think of this as akin to keeping up with the well-known OSHA standards for employee safety and health.)

The literature on sustainable systems applied to organizations is still fairly new. To some extent, it is an extension of the traditional concern with corporate responsibilitybalancing profitability goals with social responsibility and environmental concerns. Leadership organizations in this arena focus on a triple bottom line including financial, social, and environmental value (Hayward, 2003; Norman & McDonald, 2004). The environmental ideal for these organizations is the cradle-to-cradle notion, where companies guide the use of their products from production line through use and maintenance and back to the production line via recycling and reuse (McDonough & Braungart, 2002). Similar to cradle-to-cradle is life cycle analysis, a precursor to green design (Environmental Literacy Council, 2004). How these product-related concerns relate to the I-O psychologists sphere of influence is yet to be worked out. Similarly, we do not yet know how environmental issues based in behavioral science concepts (see Gardner & Stern, 2002) will mesh with environmental engineering and green design perspectives. The opportunity exists now to address this interface; it may shift from possibility to imperative in the future.

The push for sustainable organizational practices is being spearheaded to a large extent by student groups. Among these is Net Impact, a national network of MBA students who host an annual conference and design competition that focuses on sustainable solutions (Net Impact, n.d.). Engineers for a Sustainable World is a national association of students that held its second national conference on the Stanford campus this fall in which students, professors, and practicing engineers shared experiences with sustainable practices (Stanford ESW, 2004). The ESW Web site lists 49 campus chapters, an indicator of widespread student support for study and discussion of the sustainability concept (ESW, 2004). During preparation of this article, a Web search failed to indicate comparable interest in sustainability issues on the part of students and faculty in I-O psychology programs. This may be an excellent opportunity for a group of I-O students and faculty to connect with their counterparts in business and engineering programs and discuss ways to develop environmental awareness in I-O psychology.

Environmental issues are not new to psychology. Kurt Lewin placed ecological issues on the psychological research agenda at the University of Iowa in the 1940s and Roger Barker developed an ecological psychology program at the University of Kansas in the 1950s. Environmental psychology developed an identity of its own with new courses and textbooks during the 1970s. But despite the proenvironmental research efforts of Scott Geller and other social psychologists in recent years, psychological interest in sustainability as a response to global environmental trends has never enjoyed widespread interest in psychology. Perhaps now is the time for this to change. Given the role of organizations in environmental degradation and resource depletion, I-O psychology should become a part of this change.

Summing up, we have argued that I-O psychologists should include environmental sustainability practices as a QWL objective because (a) environmental trends such as global climate change and nonrenewable resource use will impact worker performance, satisfaction, and health, and (b) the organizations within which most workers are employed account for the lions share of energy consumption and pollution. The move towards sustainable design and green buildings is gaining momentum. I-O psychologists need to take part in this design process, not only to quantify the effects on workers but also to optimize environmentally motivated organizational designs for quality of work life. Readers who follow the research on global environmental trends may feel pessimistic as we enter what James Speth has called the endgame in our relationship with the natural world (Speth, 2004). We prefer to summon up optimism as we identify and grapple with the changes around us. There is work to do. I-O psychologists should join in.


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