In the early 1990s, a new market trend called “ethical consumerism” was just starting to lay its roots. Over the last two decades, consumers have increasingly sought and purchased products with labels such as “fair trade,” “green,” “locally sourced,” and “organic.” More recent market trends from Nielsen and Stanford University have confirmed that consumers value, and therefore either pay more or demonstrate greater buying preference, for those products and services they view as ethically and sustainably produced. If you don’t think it’s already happening, check out this article just published on REI’s new sustainability standards.
So why can’t we extend this trend to include ergonomics? The article by Neumann et al, published in Ergonomics, explores just that and inspired me to write the points below.
We can trace the roots of good working conditions back to the workers’ rights movement of the early twentieth century, but today’s consumer is not judging companies on a 40-hour work week and reasonable living wages. Today’s consumer wants to know if companies are on the cutting edge of good working practices and positive work environments, from the physical designs of workspaces to labor organization to psychosocial factors. Research coming out of Harvard Law School also shows that investors feel that having solid management practices that support employee well-being (for example, good ergonomics) is material to company financial performance.
Having good working conditions is not simply a product differentiator for your company, but can and should be a competitive advantage. Based on research published by Neumann et al, good working conditions now rank as one of the top three considerations of a purchase, just behind quality and price; increasingly, products are seen as commodities, with quality essentially equivalent and price very comparable, with a preference to “buy goods made under good working conditions” (Neumann, 2014) ranking third. And of course, if good working conditions and applied ergonomics reduce injuries, increase productivity, and improve product quality, it’s a trifecta win-win-win strategy for businesses.
The rationale is there and we can see many parallel examples. One such example would be in buildings that proudly boast LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification of silver, gold, and platinum. If you choose to rent space in a LEED building, you would benefit from energy and cost savings, better indoor air quality, more natural light (which also results in increased employee productivity and retention), all of which contribute to overall profitability. And while there is an initial increased cost to establishing a LEED building, numerous studies have shown these costs are more than offset by increased productivity and worker health. Likewise, a sound ergonomics process has been shown to increase productivity, improve quality, and decrease costs.*
Just as household appliances now sport the Energy Star® seal (ranking the energy efficiency of equivalent products), might we see a future in which an “Ergo Star” rating evaluates how well a certain company maintains a good working environment? Those companies with exceptional safety records, ergonomically-designed workstations, and employee-centric working conditions would be highlighted and rewarded. Food for thought.