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Green Transition

‘Make Do and Mend’: Industrial Conversions and Sustainability Transitions

By Jonathan Essex , Molly Scott Cato

The current economic strategy proposed to restart economies across Europe is reflected in two largely disparate policy debates: one around the nature of investment to kickstart growth, and another concerning whether or not there is a need for austerity measures to cut public sector deficits in many European states. Both of these mainstream approaches are failing: not just economically, but socially and environmentally too. In this article we offer a framework that enables both of these challenges to be addressed together. Such a single green economic approach has been considered under the banner of a Green New Deal, but this is often viewed as a specific green employment and energy efficiency investment programme, rather than a wider strategy to transition our economy to a sustainable future. We argue that a real Green New Deal would encompass fundamental structural change to our economy, and we seek inspiration in the particular experience of the LIP and Lucas factories in the 1970s to develop this idea of a ‘green conversion’ that might be extended to Europe’s industries today.

The original New Deal that has provided inspiration in this time of crisis was a wholesale coordinated approach that created employment, built new infrastructure and new industries (through the United States’ 1933 National Industrial Recovery Act), alongside reforms to the banking system. While not focused on environmental issues, it did have a coordinated approach to address all the issues of its time together. In contrast, the UK’s current economic strategy could be summarised in two words: ‘build more’. It aims to restart the existing (unsustainable) economy through a combination of state-funded building[1] and relaxation of planning laws to support a private sector housing boom[2]. This has represented a partial recovery with the benefits skewed to the richest 1%, while underemployment and unemployment persist and inequality between the property-owning and working-classes have increased markedly.

In the wider European context the urgent need to respond to climate change has been recognised, but the structural changes to an outmoded economic model that an adequate response requires are slower in coming to fruition. At the cultural and community level the transition to sustainability expresses itself in the form of community farms, renewable energy co-operatives and some green micro-businesses. At the industrial scale what we urgently need is a conversion programme to shift the focus of production away from energy-intensive decadent consumption and towards the products that will facilitate a resilient future.

Industrial Conversion

In Britain the word ‘conversion’ evokes the memory of a brave attempt to challenge the power and priorities of capital and replace them with the social priorities of citizens.[3] This was the Lucas Aerospace conversion project.[4] What began as a defence of threatened jobs became a beacon to those who would see industrial policy and industrial organisation beginning from the workers themselves. In the early 1970s the UK defence industry was faced with significant job cuts; Lucas Aerospace, one of the country’s largest arms manufacturers, announced plans for 13,000 redundancies across its 17 factories.

The union organisers responded by asking the two obvious questions facing any productive plant: what can we make? And what do people need? They formed the Lucas Shop Stewards Combine Committee[5] and sought suggestions from the workforce. Its engineers came forward with a vast number of creative and imaginative suggestions for what the factory might produce. Meanwhile the Committee undertook an audit of the company’s skills and assets. They skilfully kept white-collar and blue-collar workers united and gained overwhelming support for their plan.

In the wider European context the urgent need to respond to climate change has been recognised, but the structural changes to an outmoded economic model that an adequate response requires are slower in coming to fruition.

As might be expected from such an open process the proposals were wild and varied, ranging from kidney machines and other improvements to medical equipment; renewable energy products including solar collectors and wind generators that were years ahead of their time; electric vehicles. The suggestions for economic and social innovation were equally radical: work organisation would be along democratic lines and social and environmental usefulness was to predominate over profit maximisation.[6] Sadly, the creative and innovative thinking on the part of the workers was not matched in the boardroom or the government offices that also became part of negotiations. There are important lessons for the transition to sustainability here, since workplace innovation, however inspiring, will not be sufficient to enable the conversion that industry must urgently undergo.

In similar vein, the experience of the LIP factory in Besancon, eastern France is remembered as an example of enterprise and innovation on the part of workers rather than managers, under the banner of ‘auto-gestion’ or ‘self-management’. Using the slogan ‘We make, we sell, we pay!’ the workers of the watch factory took control of their workplace, supported by the citizenry of  Besançon, more than 100,000 of whom joined a demonstration in support in September 1973.[7]If this sort of support for popular capitalism could be focused in the direction of a sustainable, low-energy economy, how much more rapidly the necessary structural changes to our economy could be achieved.

In the French context, former Green MEP Alain Lipietz has called for a green conversion in an era of high and growing unemployment, especially amongst Europe’s young people:

“Trade unions have understood that the conversion will bring more green jobs than maintaining the old system. According to the ETUC, if you replace intensive farming with organic agriculture it will increase employment by 40%. If you expand the public transport to reduce carbon emissions by 30% by 2020, you destroy 4.5 million jobs in the European automotive industry individually, but you create 8 million in the transport sector through construction and operation. In short, when you reduce pollution you create jobs and increase tax revenue because when you resume activity you can afford to pay for this green conversion.

As long ago as 2008 Britain’s Trade Unions Congress produced a blueprint for A Just Transition, inviting the government to become involved in reversing the decline of UK manufacturing by actively supporting the green sectors that need to flourish within a sustainable economy. Such support, they argued, had already created as many as 249,000 new renewable energy jobs in Germany. As employment in the five-energy intensive sectors decline, anticipated losses across Europe could be as high as 50,000 and 8,000 in steel and concrete production respectively.

Clusters of Eco-Social Enterprises

This is an optimistic view of what the conversion of systems can achieve, but what about the energy invested in making these changes, whether we think about building tram systems or redesigning and resiting factories? Shortening supply chains could massively reduce the CO2 emissions associated with unnecessary transport of components, but we will need to undertake the development of production facilities in communities where they do not currently exist, and that in itself is an energy-intensive process. It is unclear how the aims for a sustainable and resilient economy can be delivered by these measures as an aside, acting alongside continued business-as-usual production and development.

If this sort of support for popular capitalism could be focused in the direction of a sustainable, low-energy economy, how much more rapidly the necessary structural changes to our economy could be achieved.

Hence our suggestion of the need to revive the slogan ‘Make do and mend’, which described the approach to an economy based on thrift that characterised Britain during the war years and immediately afterwards. From the European level we already have a range of policies aiming to undermine the throwaway culture in the ELV (end-of-life-vehicle) and WEEE (waste electrical and electronic equipment) directives. Both ensure that the cost of disposal of automotive and electronic goods remains with the producer, but both involve throwing away the ’embodied energy’ to manufacture the existing product rather than refurbishing it – so only giving a very limited incentive to end the process of built-in obsolescence. Likewise, while in theory the Packaging (Essential Requirements) Regulations that followed the Directive only allows packaging that meets EU eco-design requirements such as in terms of packaging weight and volume not beyond the minimum needed for safety, hygiene and acceptability of the packaged product – it has had only limited impact as the scale and prevalence of plastic packaging has increased across the continent. An alternative approach might mean the reduction in the number of jobs in manufacturing (and wrapping!) new products, while increasing the number of skilled jobs mending and revitalising existing products.

Ecological Enterprise Zones

To really accelerate the conversion of European industry we need to focus government investment in this direction. In the context of a UK parliamentary inquiry into the green economy we proposed the idea of a system of Ecological Enterprise Zones in some of Britain’s post-industrial areas: ‘These EEZs would be supported by government grants to become hot-houses for the innovation of green technologies and sustainable lifestyles. In return, they would be expected to achieve significant cuts in carbon emissions, resource usage, and levels of waste production. Government should enable local authorities in such areas to experiment with policy tools, such as carbon taxation and import and export duties. The aim would be for the EEZ to become a prototype of the self-reliant local economy that a green economy requires.’[8]

Combining consumer pressure for lower-impact lifestyles and producer pressure for decent high-quality jobs could help create the rapid industrial conversion that the ecological crisis demands.

This is similar to the idea of the clusters of eco-social enterprises that industrial ecologists argue are necessary to create a circular economy. If waste from one product or factory is to become the feedstock for the next industrial process it makes sense to have the factories positioned near each other. An example might be a food-processing plant passing its waste to an anaerobic digester which turns it into methane which then becomes the fuel for a factory manufacturing wind turbines. Rather than the economies of scale that drive the energy-intensive production systems of our current economies we would have economies of scope within these clusters of ecologically focused businesses. But to be truly green this also needs to focus at the top of the energy and carbon hierarchies – to link together repair, reuse, energy reduction and energy efficiency – or it is likely to become yet another driver for economic growth, and rebound to sustain rather than reduce our current society’s unsustainable levels of material and energy use.

Refocus the Cohesion Funding on Sustainability and Social Ownership

Such a strategy to support the transition to a circular economy could form a strategic underpinning for the investment of EU convergence funding. The focus on sustainability that is found in the criteria for EU investment in the Union’s poorer regions should be extended and criteria should also be included to encourage workplace innovations along the lines of the Lucas project. In the transition to a sustainable economy the ability to conduct such local experiments is of crucial importance. This would revitalise the link between cohesion policy and sustainable development that, while already present, tends to focus on carbon reduction and habitat conservations rather than the radical socio-economic changes that we need to be making.[9]

In the early days of capitalism trade unions fought hard for both environmental protection, opposing the pollution of their local environments, and global solidarity. The Manchester cotton workers, for example, famously refused to spin cotton grown by American slaves. Given the urgent need for a sustainable transition now is the time for those who work to improve the conditions within workplaces to recognise the need to adopt a broader vision. But this conversion from below must be matched by a framework at the European level that clearly prioritises the shift towards not only zero carbon (and low-energy) production but the sorts of goods and services that a sustainable economy requires.

It also requires us to raise questions about how our productive workplaces are owned and controlled. Because the corporate global economy is driven by the desire to increase speculative profit, and avoid sharing the proceeds, it needs to grow and to expand beyond the size that would enable comfortable lifestyles for all. The extreme incomes of the few drive this growth as well as facilitating the unsustainable lifestyles of the elite. Hence there is a relationship between the nature of ownership of our economy and the possibility of achieving a balanced economic without exponential growth.

Can we find a connection between decent self-managed work and ecological sustainability? Green House believes that we can, and that demonstrating the connection between corporate profit-driven work and environmental destruction is a crucial stage in the evolution to a sustainable economy. In a co-operative the employees are motivated that the business should succeed and should provide them with a lasting and reliable livelihood; this is a quite distinct motivation from the drive for expansion and profit that motivates the global corporate economy. As we have seen the examples of Lucas and Lipp, workers are adaptable to change and capable of creative innovation when they feel they have a stake in the process. Combining consumer pressure for lower-impact lifestyles and producer pressure for decent high-quality jobs could help create the rapid industrial conversion that the ecological crisis demands.



[1]   For example, see here.
[2]   For example, see here.
[3]   Räthzel, N., Uzzell, D. and Elliot, D. (2010) ‘Can trade unions become environmental innovators?’, Soundings, 46, 76 – 87
[4]   Hilary Wainwright and David Elliott, The Lucas Plan. A new trade unionism in the making?, Allison & Busby 1989
[5]   A ‘shop steward’ is a lay official of a trade union, elected by employees. The production site is the ‘shop’, hence the steward organises workers within that shop.
[6]   H. Wainwright & A. Bowman, ‘A real green deal’, Red Pepper, October/November 2009
[7]   ‘Lip Lip Lip hourra!’, Liberation, 20 Mar. 2007
[8]   House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee:  A Green Economy , Twelfth Report of Session 2010–12,  Volume I, evidence from Green House.
[9]  Institute for European Environmental Policy (2011), Cohesion Policy and Sustainable Development: Final Synthesis Report: European Environmental Bureau (2012), Greening the Cohesion