Circular Economy

Global South circular economy could generate millions of job opportunities

The use, re-use and recycling of products contributes to sustainable development and helps combat climate change.

News | 09 May 2023

GENEVA (ILO News) – The transition to a circular economy could lead to the creation of millions of new jobs. At the same time, this shift calls for informed policies that promote both job quality and environmental sustainability.

However, a new report has shown a lack of research in developing countries, where the vast majority of waste management and recycling jobs are located.

The report has been produced by the International Labour Organization, the Solutions for Youth Employment (S4YE) Programme at the World Bank, and Circle Economy – a non-governmental organization that promotes sustainable development and the circular economy.*

It has been estimated that a total of seven to eight million new jobs could be created in the circular economy, where all forms of waste, such as clothes, scrap metal and obsolete electronics are reused, recycled and refurbished.

This helps protect the environment, contributes to the better use of natural resources and supports the development of local economies.

The report, Decent Work in the Circular Economy: An Overview of the Existing Evidence Base, says that current research on jobs in the circular economy fails to fully address the impact circular economy interventions have on people in countries in the Global South, atypical workers, women, migrants, youth and vulnerable populations.

The report finds that 84 per cent of research combining decent work and the circular economy focuses on countries in the Global North. Sub-Saharan Africa, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa were the least represented regions – despite the fact that most circular economy activities are now located in the Global South. Moreover, while 73 per cent of workers in low-income countries are employed in the informal economy, most research concerns formal, regulated work.

‘There is no doubt that a circular economy can help us reach our climate goals. However, the links between circularity and the achievement of social and economic progress remain overlooked. The shift towards a more circular economy offers significant opportunities for the world of work, such as the creation of new jobs and sustainable enterprises,’ said Alette van Leur, Director of the Sectoral Policies Department of the ILO.

Existing research on decent work in the circular economy also focuses disproportionately on job creation and largely disregards job quality, including working conditions and wages. The report finds that only a handful of studies have examined whether and how a circular economy can alleviate poverty and benefit vulnerable communities in low-income countries.

‘It is not as much the concept of circularity that needs an introduction in these economies, but instead, the focus should be on addressing the low quality, low paying jobs in the informal sector with hazardous working conditions and exposure to toxic materials that are associated with circular activities like waste management, recycling, repair and reuse,' said Namita Datta, Programme Manager for the World Bank’s Solutions for Youth Employment Programme (S4YE).

The report calls for more in-depth research on decent work and the circular economy, focusing on the Global South, informal workers, the quality of jobs and supply chains. Joint advocacy and data partnerships are also needed to close knowledge gaps, including links to related issues such as climate justice and women’s empowerment.

* This report is the first output under the ‘Jobs in the Circular Economy’ initiative of the ILO, Circle Economy, and S4YE. This initiative aims to address gaps in the evidence base for circular jobs through collaboration with an international community of research institutions, industry representatives, social partners, governments and public agencies.