The report looks at whether the circular economy can create good jobs, finds bias

A new joint report by the global organization Circle Economy, the International Labor Organization (ILO) and the Solutions for Youth Employment (S4YE) program at the World Bank addressed the question of whether the circular economy can create good jobs. According to estimates, increasing the reuse and recycling of products and materials could create a total of 7 to 8 million new jobs.

So, while the answer to this question is yes, the report Decent Work in the Circular Economy: A Review of the Existing Database identified knowledge gaps that can hinder the creation of new job opportunities. There was also a strong focus on the Global North and the need to significantly improve the quality of work.

What is a circular economy?

While there is no single definition of what exactly a circular economy is (yet), the Ellen McArthur Foundation defines it as “a framework of systemic solutions that transcends the current economy and its linear process of taking materials from the Earth, making products from them, and disposing of them as waste.”

Therefore, a transition to renewable energy sources is needed so that the circular model can operate on three principles: elimination of waste and pollution, circulation of products and materials, and regeneration of nature. Following this circular model instead of the current linear one would require a new way of thinking and therefore a new way of working.

What are “green” jobs?

The ILO defines “green jobs” as those that “contribute to preserving or restoring the environment, whether in traditional sectors such as manufacturing and construction or in emerging green sectors such as renewable energy and energy efficiency” .

The characteristic feature of green jobs is that they help improve energy and resource efficiency, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, minimize waste and pollution, protect and restore ecosystems and support adaptation to the effects of climate change.

Global Prejudice of the North

While the circular economy is gaining ground among both companies and policy makers as a way to meet climate goals, the study reveals that current research into circular economy jobs shows a strong bias about the Global North. “It does not address the impact circular economy interventions have on people in the Global South, atypical workers, women, migrants, youth and other vulnerable populations,” reads the verdict.

According to the report, 84 percent of current research is focused on the countries of the Global North. Sub-Saharan Africa, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa are the least represented regions, even though most circular economy activities are located in the Global South.

Poor working conditions in the Global South

While 73 percent of workers in low-income countries are employed in the informal economy, most research is in formal, regulated work. Moreover, existing research focuses disproportionately on job creation rather than job quality, including working conditions and wages. Currently, only a few studies address whether and how the circular economy can reduce poverty and benefit vulnerable communities in low-income countries.

“It is not so much the concept of circularity that needs to be introduced in these economies, but rather a focus on addressing low-quality, low-paying jobs in the informal sector with unsafe working conditions and exposure to toxic materials that are associated with circular activities such as such as waste management, recycling, repair and reuse,” explains S4YE Program Manager Namita Datta.

Taking into account the social dimensions of the circular economy

Ultimately, the new report calls for more in-depth and inclusive research on decent work and the circular economy that puts the Global South, informal workers and global value chains at the center of attention. In particular, further research is needed on the impact of the circular economy on key actors and marginalized groups, and ensuring their involvement in the design and implementation of circular interventions.

There should be more local, quantitative city-level research on potential circular economy-related shortcomings and intervention opportunities, and a review and adaptation of current circular economy modeling methodologies. Globally relevant employment and decent work indicators in the circular economy also need to be identified and adapted.

The authors also reveal the need for joint advocacy and data partnerships to close knowledge gaps and build links with other important topics such as climate justice and women’s empowerment.

“There is no doubt that the circular economy can help us meet our climate goals. However, the links between circularity and achieving social and economic progress are still being overlooked. The transition to a more circular economy offers significant opportunities for the world of work, such as creating new jobs and sustainable businesses,” concludes Alette van Leur, Director of the ILO’s Sectoral Policy Department.

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