In the last couple of years Tearfund have been working on the circular economy, and they have pioneered a couple of approaches that are neglected in most conversations about it. The first is how the circular economy works in developed countries. The second is how to make sure that the circular economy is fair.
The circular economy is a better approach to resources. The environmental benefits are clear, and it makes good business sense too. There’s a good chance that it might be good for equality too. One of the main reasons is that it’s “resource efficient but labour intensive”. It creates a variety of new jobs in recovery, recycling, repair and remanufacturing, and that makes it a technological step forward that is economically inclusive.
That’s in contrast to other technological advances such as robots or computerization, which replace people and thus mainly serve the owners of the machines.
Tearfund’s latest report, Going Full Circle, also points out that many poorer people in developing countries may already be involved in informal circular activities. Where people don’t have the money to buy new things, possessions are valued and repaired, and local businesses build up considerable skill in repair. Others may be involved in what the circular economy would recognise as materials recovery, but may currently be described as scavenging – bringing in plastic bottles or fabric scraps for recycling. These sorts of practices are easily lost as countries develop, and rightly so when they are dangerous or dirty. But if they can be formalised and retained as part of a deliberate circular economy strategy, then many more people will have a stake in that strategy from the start. The best of both worlds may emerge – people involved in repair and recovery, but doing so out of choice, and with decent pay and working conditions.
Tearfund’s work is focused on developing countries, but studies suggest that the circular economy could have similar effects in Britain too. In 2015 WRAP found that the circular economy could create half a million jobs by 2030, and most of them would be in places where there is higher unemployment, such as the North-East.
It’s hard to know at this stage whether the circular economy inevitably benefits more people, but it certainly could. After all, the circular economy aims to treat waste as a resource. And we could arguably see unemployment and poverty as a form of waste – a waste of human energy and potential. Rather than seeing labour as a cost to be minimalised in pursuit of profit, maybe the circular economy could open up a more holistic view of the economy, where people and materials are both valued better.
- Feature image by Hermes Rivera