Addressing the Social and Gender aspects in Circular Economy

Ever since the initial days of industrialization, our industrial economy has been following the linear model of ‘take-make-waste’ pattern. This model is characterized as causing resource depletion, environmental degradation and pollution along with rising inequalities. In the pursuit of a substantial improvement in resource consumption and reducing inequalities – there was an urgent call for a new economic model.

The “Doughnut”: The green ring represents a sweet-spot where our socio-economic systems should be placed, such that they respect (external) planetary boundaries, and fulfil (internal) societal needs.

In comparison to the linear model, the circular economy revolves around the concept of responsible manufacturing – comprising of products that are either fully or partially biodegradable and/or recyclable, rather than disposing of the entire product in a landfill. The current circular economy approaches focus on environment and economy while it is felt that it leaves out the third pillar: society. It is widely critiqued on the grounds that socio-cultural and gender components are not sufficiently considered in this model. For reducing the existing inequalities, it is necessary to adopt approaches for gender-societal inclusiveness in a circular economy model.

Social Inclusiveness: For an inclusive circular economy, creating positive social externalities is a step forward to making a social impact. Stringent rules and regulations can be imposed that make businesses empower informal workers and small players are involved and accounted for across various sectors. Collaborations between small businesses and companies or amongst small start-ups can help create new products and generate meaningful jobs.

An NGO in Lisbon, Cais runs Cais Recicla with a beverage company named Super Bock. These micro-businesses then involve people that create eco-design products from materials treated as waste by different companies. The products are then sold commercially. Hence, such an example is also adopted by Indian start-ups where plastic waste is collected by an enterprise which further turns the waste into recyclable products. If adopted at a larger scale this will certainly help in eliminating waste as well as generate new employment opportunities in the country.

Addressing the Issue of Poverty: In order to be truly inclusive, the circular economy should aim to address all the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The informal sector of the emerging economies especially, the waste pickers, are affected the most. A proper waste management technique can be implemented which includes ragpickers in the process. Efficient recycling processes can help generate employment which is necessary in poor countries. “Repair” is considered as an important element of CE, especially in the electronics domain. Companies can provide “right to repair” authorization to independent repair shops providing the same services to the customers of tools and spare parts can further help in generating jobs.

In India, a social enterprise named ‘Kabadiwalla Connect’ provides waste management and technological solutions in cities which is powered by the informal sector of waste pickers. The informal actors have been integrated into the formal waste management system to deliver cost-effective and low carbon waste management solutions to the cities in Global South. Goonj another social organisation in India promotes circular economy by ensuring the use of each material to the fullest. The clothes are sent to villages in need across 25 states and the clothing material that cannot be saved are transformed into products in accordance with the rural need. This way Goonj is not only saving the environment but generating jobs for the lower-income households. An example of remanufacturing is seen in Suame in Ghana. There are various microenterprises that have been working on recycling, remanufacture and repair of cars since the past 30 years. There are 2,00,000 people employed and 12,00 small business have been operating.

Segregating Job Roles: Segregating job roles for people who have physical and psychological difficulties is another effective way of making CE more socially inclusive. Often these vulnerable are not thought of which indirectly aims at excluding them from the “society”. These people can be provided with the opportunity to gain new circular skills if they find traditional jobs as challenging. An example of this can be seen at Roberdrijf, based in Rotterdam, the Netherlands where people are connected from distant labour markets to company employers through the services that are outsourced in assembling, packaging and repairing of products. These services are then delivered by people working in Roberdrijf mainly, who have physical and mental difficulties.

In a similar way, India can adopt this example by having organizations that are involved in circular economy training connect with institutes or schools which provide learning and knowledge to the physically and mentally handicapped. The tasks can be split up into different workstreams so that each task is suited to a person having different ability levels.

Multidimensional Perspectives: There needs to be a shift in the perspectives of measuring a country’s economic growth through GDP or other economic indicators. There is a dire need to develop new ways to assess a country’s economic growth with the adoption of the circular model. Gross National Happiness in Bhutan is considered as a step forward to effectively measure CE multi-dimensionally. Padilla-Rivera et al, (2020) aimed to compile all the social aspects that have been integrated into CE so far.

The table highlights all the social aspects in the domain of the circular economy and the importance they hold in a CE model. The following can be converted into indicators o to be measured qualitative or quantitatively.

Education in CE: Using education and training to transfer knowledge and skills that are required to transit from liner to circular economy should be the most initial and beneficial step. Education in CE should be provided at early stages, especially to the young adults in developing countries as they may end up missing out opportunities that the circular model has to provide. This could be done by including courses or modules on CE under different study domains in college curricula and through online learning platforms.

Gender Equality: The circular economy is the perfect opportunity to systematically incorporate the gender lens by understanding consumption and productions patterns and its social effects, along with some behavioural insights. This will help in ensuring a ‘just transition’ creating a positive social and environmental impact. Studies in developing countries have shown major differences between men’s and women’s consumption preferences. While women are more conscious about using their income on food, education and health for their family; men use the money for their personal benefits such as on alcohol and other luxuries. Therefore, women are seen to play a vital role in moving consumption towards a more sustainable pattern.

From a gender perspective, the cost of the linear economy is borne more by women than men. Women are more likely to experience the negative impacts of unsustainable work conditions especially in waste and fashion industry. Due to a cultural norm in many societies, women are in charge of the waste sector, especially in developing countries. According to a study in Pune, India, 90% of women in the city are involved in waste picking from the streets. Women are also the victims of hazardous products used in the textile and footwear industries. The toxic substances not only affect the health of the women labour but also, the people wearing the products. Thus in developing countries, women have low-paid jobs, with the bad working condition and zero social protection – making them more prone to health risks.

Microfinancing is helping women around the world as female entrepreneurs are being more receptive towards circular behaviour. BeeUrban in Sweden is considered to be one such example. It is a venture run by women, providing services of beehives for pollination, biodiversity gardens and roof gardens to fight against climate change and gender disparities.

If properly incorporated, the gender dimension will help in reaching us towards successfully achieving SDG 5 and SDG 12 on gender equality and responsible consumption, respectively. According to the International Labour organization (2015), engaging women in CE by raising their awareness in sustainable consumption and production patterns will help in creating better working conditions, and more security that will encourage gender equality and create a good circular system.

Coming back to the initial point, a circular economy can be more inclusive based on social and gender dimensions, than the linear economy. This change will not happen automatically or in a single go, but rather will require additional efforts to be put in continuously. Since the concept is still evolving, it is the right time to include “people” on a par with profit and planet. The mainstream organizations working towards CE and sustainability can collaborate with social organizations to create skill development opportunities through training workshops and decent employment opportunities for men as well as women, making circular economy model socially inclusive.

About the Author

Nehmat Singh (LinkedIn) is a geographer and urbanist with interest areas in an urban environment, ecosystem services and sustainability. She pursued her master's in urban management and development from IHS, Erasmus University Rotterdam. Along with being an urban enthusiast, she is constantly trying to improve her baking skills.

Links Cited

Brown, E.G, Sosa, L., Schröder, A., Bachus, K., Bozkurt, O., 2020. The social economy: A means for inclusive & decent work in the circular economy? Circle Economy.

Brown, E.G. 2020. Learning social enterprises creating an inclusive circular economy. GreenBiz.

Gutberlet, J., Carenzo, S., 2020. Waste pickers at the heart of the circular economy: a perspective of inclusive recycling from the global south. Worldwide Waste: Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies, 3(1), pp. 1–14.

ILO, 2015. Gender Equality and Green Jobs, Green Jobs Programme, International Labour Organization.

Lemille, A., 2017. 5 guiding principles for an inclusive circular economy. Medium.

OECD, 2020. Gender-specific consumption patterns, behavioural insights, and circular economy. 2020 Global Forum on Environment.

Padilla-Rivera, A., Russo-Garrido, S., Merveille, N., (2020). Addressing the social aspects of a circular economy: a systematic literature review. Sustainability, 2, pp. 1-17.

Schröder, P., 2018. Can the circular economy design out inequality as well as waste? Institute of Development Studies

World News, 2019. How circular economies fight poverty? Borgen Magazine.

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