The pandemic has put our priorities right where they should be: with people, as well as the planet. In addressing sustainable development with this double bottom line, we are faced with what seems like an unsolvable dilemma: securing jobs around the world in supply chains premised on depleting the planet’s resources, or robbing millions of people of their livelihoods to achieve global environmental goals. The circular economy can be a solution to overcome this dilemma—if done right.
The debate around degrowth is linked to concerns about job losses and unemployment, whether or not linked to GDP. Indeed, the pandemic has shown the huge ramifications of shutting down demand for mass produced products overnight on labour markets in countries around the world.
In recognition of the negative impacts of humankind’s resource consumption, arguments have been made for absolute decoupling (where environmental impacts are reduced regardless of economic growth) in the wealthiest nations and relative decoupling (where environmental impacts are reduced relative to economic growth) in low and middle income countries as a way to maintain or increase economic growth.
However, there is no evidence (or here, or here) that it is possible to achieve economic growth while decreasing environmental pressures anywhere near the level of magnitude required to meet the Paris targets. Relying on resource and emission efficiency alone to achieve these targets assumes mitigation potential of current technologies and future innovation which is heroic at best.
The uncomfortable truth is that we are consuming too many things, and it's costing us the planet. Proposing green growth as a solution will not address the sheer volume of products we keep pushing to the market. Pursuing it shows a fixation on and seemingly relentless belief in GDP thinking.
And I can't help but wonder, am I the only one outraged by the argument that we should avoid job loss at all costs is used to perpetuate overproduction? All while a disproportionate amount of workers do not even earn minimum wage, do not enjoy social protection and face physical risks at work in exactly those supply chains?
So the dilemma we are faced with is this one:
We can’t stop overproduction overnight, as millions of people will suffer. But neither can we keep overproducing to protect jobs, as the planet - and eventually millions of people - are suffering.
The circular economy needs to address this dilemma, or it will inevitably fail to realise its environmental and social ambitions. In order to do so, we need to 1) rethink value (for real, this time), 2) pursue transparency (for workers, as well as materials) and 3) embed resilience (in all its dimensions).
The circular economy is about materials and value. Our current system values a chopped down tree more than a growing one, a dead cow more than a live one, and, perhaps more controversially, our economy values daycares more than families taking care of their children themselves at home. Rethinking materials, products and services without rethinking value is, as shown by the myth of green growth above, senseless.
The circular movement has gained traction amongst businesses. Some businesses in the fashion and capital equipment sectors have already pledged circular economy ambitions. 50 CEOs recently pledged the circular economy as a solution to build back better after the pandemic.
Yet, overwhelmingly, these plans address elements in the supply chain that can improve material efficiency and increase recycled and non-toxic content, rather than pursuing circular business models that would scrutinise their profit-making rationale. Producing less is, too often, considered taboo. Overconsumption—and -production—of a slightly better thing is still overconsumption. We have to address our business and value creation models with the same level of ambition as we are addressing the cycling of materials.
The circular economy is also about people. Current violations of workers' human rights in value chains are not the result of individual oversight or irresponsibility, but of a system we have designed to install increasing opaqueness in pursuit of lower prices and higher (private) profits.
With transparency comes accountability and leadership, and the lack thereof creates opportunities to steal from the commons. We have to install transparency in the supply chain and public spending with a view on human and workers’ rights and job creation with the same rigour as we are striving for transparency of material flows to improve recycling.
Lastly, the circular economy is about the future. Using the circular economy for short-term fixes will only mean future shocks will continue to exceed our capacity to recover and adapt. Resilience has acutely become a more salient design principle for the circular economy, and we should embrace it in all its social and ecological dimensions.
The transition to the circular economy needs to be a planned shift to degrowth, towards shorter, transparent and more resilient value creation systems serving the common good. We can't kid ourselves that this will be easy. But securing jobs in global supply chains that currently depend on mass, or rather, overconsumption is a challenge we need to address, not an excuse we can use to continue that same overconsumption and -production.
The Circular Jobs Initiative aims to ensure a transition to circularity that is positive for work and workers. To this end, we do not shy away from asking the difficult questions and harness the lessons learnt on the path to an economy that is resilient to shocks, values all its workers and promotes decent work and a healthy planet.
Read more about the aims and projects of the Circular Jobs Initiative here.