Sustainability, since the early conceptual frameworks of the 1970s and 1980s, has been based on the three pillars of economy, society, and the environment. It is therefore somewhat surprising that, although some have acknowledged the importance of social justice in relation to the circular economy, it has not become part of the broader debate.
Rather, discussions have almost exclusively focused on the economic and environmental gains that can be derived from improvements in resource productivity as we begin to adopt circular design principles and business models. Social impacts have barely been considered beyond the issue of job creation.
This is a significant shortcoming that needs to be addressed if the circular economy is to find a foothold in broader debates about sustainability and garner greater levels of public appeal. Social justice – defined as “justice in terms of distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society” – needs to be an integral part of the circular economy if the concept is to retain its relevance over the long-term and ultimately contribute to more sustainable outcomes.
Wheels of injustice
The missing link is evident in a number of companies that are successfully implementing circular economy principles. Consider Uber and Airbnb, whose business models improve resource efficiency, but have been challenged on the way that they treat employees and on their unintended impacts on society.
Uber, for example, offers a great example of how cars – which, on average, are parked 95% of the time – can be shared to maximise resource efficiency. The company, however, has been accused of paying their drivers less than the minimum wage and not treating them as legitimate employees. Another good example of circular economy practice is Airbnb, which capitalises on unused space in peoples’ homes. The downside is that the company has been widely criticised for pushing up rents in cities around the world and allowing tourists to avoid local taxes.
While a transition to a circular economy will undoubtedly require a shift in business models, it is critical that this shift does not occur at the expense of employees or the societies within which businesses operate. To avoid this, we need to broaden the debate around the circular economy.
Redrawing the circle
Unfortunately, there is little evidence of this happening in the circular economy literature. Julian Kirchherr and colleagues reviewed 114 circular economy definitions, and found in the available literature very limited recognition of the need for a systemic shift in the way we do business, and few explicit linkages to the concept of sustainable development.
Elsewhere, Murry and colleagues have also highlighted that the issue of social justice is largely absent from the circular economy debate. They do not mince their words when they say:
“Oversimplified goals, based on weak foundations, may pose significant risks to the usefulness of the circular economy.”
Following their extensive review, Julian Kirchherr and colleagues provide a more holistic definition of the circular economy, one that recognises the clear need to reduce overall levels of consumption and which makes explicit reference to the central tenets of sustainable development:
“…an economic system that replaces the ‘end-of-life’ concept with reducing, alternatively reusing, recycling and recovering materials in production/distribution and consumption processes. It operates at the micro level (products, companies, consumers), meso level (eco-industrial parks) and macro level (city, region, nation and beyond), with the aim to accomplish sustainable development, thus simultaneously creating environmental quality, economic prosperity and social equity, to the benefit of current and future generations.”
Following a similar line of thought, Kate Raworth’s concept of ‘Donut Economics’ provides a neat conceptual framework of how the world’s economy needs to operate within the confines of both environmental and social limits. Raworth’s donut is the “ecologically safe and socially just space” between an inner ring representing essential human requirements and an outer ring demarcating the Earth’s environmental limits.
It offers an alternative economic model in which the purpose of the economy is not to achieve growth regardless of the wider impacts but to:
“ensure that no one falls short on life’s essentials (from food and housing to healthcare and political voice), while ensuring that collectively we do not overshoot our pressure on Earth’s life-supporting systems, on which we fundamentally depend – such as a stable climate, fertile soils, and a protective ozone layer.”
The diagram below seeks to show how the circular economy fits into this picture.
Raworth’s work in this area brings together seminal research on planetary boundaries described by academics working at the Stockholm Resilience Centre with the concepts of social limits developed as part of the UN Millennium Development Goals and the superseding Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Her recent book eloquently sets out how the circular economy can provide a means of helping humanity live within the bounds of the ‘donut’.
Defining the environmental limits of development is far from straightforward, but we can turn to scientific data and analysis to help identify what the Earth can or cannot sustain. Setting social limits is far harder, as they are determined by the norms and values of society, which can vary markedly depending upon one’s cultural experience and political persuasion. Donald Trump’s views on acceptable minimum standards on social justice would probably differ from those of Bernie Sanders, for example.
Perhaps the SDGs can form the foundation of a consensus: after all, they were agreed by 193 countries as recently as 2015. Developed as part of the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, they cover 17 priority areas including: zero hunger, gender equality, affordable and clean energy, responsible consumption and production, climate action, and peace, justice and strong institutions. Any conception of international social justice is likely to need to cover much of the same ground, though the question may still remain as to how well integrated efforts are to achieve all the SDGs.
Closing the circle
Governments, businesses, financial institutions and consumers need to start taking the necessary steps to ensure that environmental and social costs are internalised by the economy upon which we are all dependent. The challenge now is to move from conceptual frameworks and overarching visions to implementing the circular economy in practice. This need is starting to be recognised through a range of justice-related initiatives that have emerged (e.g. Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, Ethical Trading Initiative, and Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition), which provide an indication of how businesses can demonstrate their commitment to higher social standards. However, these types of initiative aren’t integrated with the development of circular economy principles.
If the concept of the circular economy is to be successfully implemented, it will need public support. That will be more difficult if it does not embrace the enhancement of social justice. On the positive side, there is much in the principles of the circular economy that might be easily aligned with principles of social justice: servitisation of goods, for example, might make higher quality appliances more easily available to lower income consumers. For those seeking to implement circular economy principles, it is now essential that social impacts are given due weight, alongside environmental and economic considerations. Only by integrating these three founding pillars of sustainability will we truly be able to complete the circle.
Featured image: Vincenzo Vangelisti (public domain), via Wikimedia Commons