June 20, 2022

Sustainability policy can worsen global inequalities. Here's what we should do differently

Laxmi Adrianna Haigh
Laxmi Adrianna Haigh
Editoral and Writing Lead
Laxmi Adrianna Haigh
Joel Marsden
Senior Researcher

This article was first published by the World Economic Forum.

National policies and commitments in higher-income countries to cap greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and reduce waste, among other aims, are absolutely vital—but overwhelmingly short-sighted in practice. They’re often formed to reach local targets, with no thought of the impact they may have beyond borders. Especially the case in higher-income countries, such policies may deliver environmental—and sometimes socioeconomic—benefits at home—but they can exacerbate global power imbalances in lower-income countries, such as exploitative labour practices.

New research published by Amsterdam-based impact organisation Circle Economy at the Stockholm+50 conference—Thinking beyond borders to achieve social justice in a global circular economy: actions for government and multilateral bodies—presents a clear roadmap of action as sustainability policy rightly continues to be a prime governmental focus and national climate commitments are revised ahead of COP27 in November. Unless the world rallies around a socially responsible model of sustainability that reaches beyond local borders, we will not achieve a healthy planet for the prosperity of all. 

‘The circular economy will not be socially just by default: we need to make it so,’ write the authors.

This visual from the report shows the risks that come with a circular economy that is rooted in linear ideology, versus the opportunity for a socially just circular economy. See more in the report.

Reuse and recycling policies to tackle the world’s waste

Global waste is shipped across the world, primarily ending up in lower-income countries: often clogging drains, polluting water, causing respiratory infections and harming wildlife. Efforts to meet well-intentioned higher recycling targets in the US, for example, have resulted in increased shipments of plastic waste to Latin American countries, such as Ecuador, that lack recycling infrastructure. Lower-income countries now routinely receive shipments of waste they have not consented to; illicit waste generates US$10–12 billion annually in profits. Aside from the problems the local communities are exposed to, the imported waste is also tied to informal work: poorly-paid waste picking, for example, often taken up by children.

Thrown-out clothes and other second-hand goods that are collected in higher-income nations also often end up on the shores of lower-income countries. The textile market in Kantamanto, Accra, Ghana, sees 15 million items of textiles a week, for example. Many items don't directly go to waste, but they do stifle many local industries: traditional, artisanal manufacturing and local repair sectors. 

How we can do it differently

Higher-income countries should create more localised and closed-loop supply chains to encourage big exporters to deal with their own waste and improving the working conditions for informal waste collectors, dismantlers and recyclers, in countries that receive waste, would encourage a more socially just exchange. Cross-border partnerships, such as Rethinking Recycling, both promote decent work and encourage recycling.

A reliance on ‘one-size-fits-all’ high-tech innovations

Many sustainability narratives tend to prioritise highly technical solutions that require equipment that is expensive to purchase and maintain. Many European governments, for example, frame their circular economy ambitions and policies on new technologies and business models as avenues to achieve ‘green growth’: more efficient tumble dryers—rather than promoting air-drying clothes—lab-grown meat— rather than promoting eating less meat and more veggies—and lower-carbon jet fuels—rather than improving public transport. Yet an over-reliance on high-tech—and high-cost—solutions makes many sustainability approaches inaccessible for many, and overlooks the changes in social practices needed to prevent GHG emissions and waste.

There are multiple risks for lower-income nations: firstly, many technologies may have unintended consequences when they go mainstream: solar panels, for example, will continuously demand mined raw materials, which can only be partly offset by secondary materials. Similarly, biofuels—an alternative to fossil fuels—can impact food systems, driving up food prices, degrading land and pressuring water sources. Likewise, some technologies may displace jobs, such as 3D printing for textiles. Secondly, technology developed in higher-income parts of the world, such as Europe or the US, may fail to translate to other parts of the world where the margin of error in choosing appropriate technologies is extremely narrow

How we can do it differently

Technologies are appropriate when they are compatible with local cultural and economic conditions, utilise locally available materials and energy resources, and can be easily installed and maintained by local populations. This requires skilling and training to encourage decent work. They must also enable, rather than displace jobs and Indigenous practices. A great example of how technology should be driven by community needs and designed in collaboration—not imposition—was in introducing less polluting cookstoves in India. This was only successful when the primary users—women—were engaged and their needs evaluated. First attempts with the more expensive high-efficiency cookstoves failed to take into account local traditions and available cooking space. Ultimately, the successful model turned out to be a more traditional model (Mewar Angithi)—it also reduces wood use and smoke to levels comparable with the initial option.

Responsible trade practices to limit overconsumption 

The global economy consumed 100 billion tonnes of materials in 2019, the lion's share of which took place in higher-income nations. Policy that limits overconsumption—as in the EU Green Deal—is welcome. This, in turn, is expected to significantly impact the quality and quantity of the global trade of primary materials, as well as increasing rates of reuse, repair and high-value recycling. How this will impact global trade remains unclear, write the authors. Regardless, ‘lower-income countries currently stand to lose more.‘ This is because workers in extractive industries exporting mined raw materials highly rely on trade coming from higher-income nations. Further, despite the controversies surrounding the exports of waste and second-hand goods from high-income nations to lower-income ones, the process does support millions of workers. So, if policy would lead to an abrupt halt in the flow of this trade, without taking into account the impact it could have overseas, many workers could lose income stability and work.

How we can do it differently

To encourage responsible trade, countries need to take responsibility for their own waste, avoid an abrupt halt on exports and support the decent work of informal workers abroad. But higher-income nations’ policies must also consider ‘eco-reparations and equitable investments in communities that have disproportionately been affected by current global value chain practices. Enforcing Extended Producer Responsibility schemes and carrying out checks prior to the export of waste can support these actions,’ write the authors.

Social justice won’t be an ‘inevitable byproduct’: the warning signs are already here

The authors quote Liz Ricketts’ open letter to the fashion industry: ‘​​Justice will not be the inevitable byproduct of take-back programmes, clothing donations or recycling technology,’—a message that is just as relevant to other global value chains. Failing to take the impacts of local policies across borders will not challenge the current power structures that uphold social injustices between countries. It also undermines development in lower-income countries, as well as their circular economy ambitions. 

To build a sustainable future for all, the report details a range of approaches policymakers can consider, from considering people beyond your borders, trading responsibly and exchanging know-how and means. There is truly no environmental justice without social justice: and it's a must for all nations seeking to secure a safe future for the next generations. 

Learn more

The Circular Jobs Initiative at Circle Economy works to maximise the employment opportunities offered by the circular economy. It does this by measuring circular jobs, analysing the environment needed to create them and providing practical support to businesses and governments that want to adopt circular strategies that have a positive social impact, with support from the Goldschmeding Foundation.

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