Skip to main content

Learning from social enterprises creating an inclusive circular economy

The transition will require people to work together across companies and sectors, using skills such as empathy, craftsmanship and ingenuity.

Jobs are an important vehicle for social inclusion. They help us to feel valued and have a sense of purpose. They improve our quality of life and are a way of participating in society. They provide us with the resources we need to support and spend time with our family and friends.

In the current linear — take-make-waste — economy, financial drives often come before social protection and participation. Too often this means that people find it hard to access work or find a job that meets their needs. An inclusive labor market should provide decent work opportunities for all people no matter their age, ethnicity, gender, educational level or geographic location.

The circular economy changes the world of work

The transition to the circular economy will be labor-intensive, especially in the coming 10 to 20 years, requiring more people to drive its principles (PDF) of reuse, repair, refurbish, recover and recycle, than in the linear economy where resources are typically wasted and incinerated.

The circular economy requires people to work together across companies and sectors, using skills such as empathy, craftsmanship and ingenuity. Because of this, the circular economy has the potential to create new types of jobs and tasks, opening up opportunities for people currently distant from the labor market. At the same time, we need to be mindful of the wide spectrum of workers often deeply embedded in the circular economy.

So, what role could the circular economy play in rebalancing power and how are social enterprises already creating more inclusive work opportunities in the circular economy?

Triciclos, waste pickers

Social enterprises leading the way

While commitments towards circularity are being made by global and national actors, the local social economy will be key to translating these commitments into action and helping to make sure the circular economy serves everyone. Here are a few examples of social enterprises that already are helping to create more inclusive work opportunities for people in the circular economy and what we can learn from them.

1. Putting a face to circular jobs

In Santiago, Chile, the resource management company Triciclos has set up micro-entrepreneurships in its resource management facilities. Here, informal waste pickers are given a place to work that not only shelters them from the sun and rain but also provides them with a place to work with more dignity.

At these facilities, local residents come to drop off their waste directly with the person handling it — giving a face to the informal waste pickers whose services they rely on. These simple interactions give the informal workers who are usually hidden and the local people that use their services a greater sense of how valued this work is in the community. This project demonstrates the power of face-to-face interactions for promoting the social value of circular jobs that many of us take for granted and the need to support informal workers that otherwise may remain anonymized to have greater visibility both in our communities and policies.

2. Collaborating for business and social value

In Lisbon, Portugal, the NGO Cais runs Cais Recicla (Portuguese) with beverage company Super Bock. Through these micro-businesses, people that have experienced homelessness, drug and alcohol problems or mental health issues create new eco-design products from materials that have been discarded as waste by different companies. The products are then sold commercially.

Collaborations such as this, between the social economy and private companies, are not only a great way of helping companies to convert their waste into new products; they also create meaningful work opportunities for people who often face stigma when applying for jobs, boosting their skills, confidence and work experience.

Robedrijf, local economy, repair, assembly

3. Segregating tasks for inclusive jobs

In Rotterdam, the Netherlands, Robedrijf connects people with a distance from the labor market to employers through the outsourced services they offer in the assembly, packaging and repair of products. Once commissioned by a local company, these services are then delivered by people working in Robedrijf’s sheltered workshop who have physical, mental or psychological difficulties.

This means people who might find traditional job roles challenging are given the opportunity to learn circular skills such as disassembly and repair while working in a supportive environment.

Robedrijf splits up workstreams into packages of tasks so that there are tasks suited to people with different levels of abilities. By breaking up tasks, Robedrijf can ensure that the services they deliver to its customers are high-quality as well as ensuring good quality, tailored jobs available for people that otherwise face barriers to work.

Beyond local: putting inclusion on national and global agendas

The European Green Deal promises that no one will be left behind, by allocating resources to workers in declining and shifting sectors and providing opportunities in the circular economy, both within and outside of Europe. But as well as supporting workers in carbon-intensive sectors, people that are currently distant from the labor market, unregulated and informal workers also need to be prioritized in negotiations.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, 25–50 percent of waste is recycled by informal waste pickers (PDF), and 44 percent of organizations in the Dutch construction sector rely on self-employed workers (PDF). Both sets of workers are crucial to the circular economy but do not have the same protections as formal or permanent workers.

Although unregulated or informal sectors provide routes into work (PDF) for people that otherwise might struggle to find work, flexible and unregulated work is associated with more vulnerable livelihoods. The quality of the jobs the circular economy creates, therefore, needs to be monitored.

As policymakers meet in the coming months to discuss how the Green Deal will be operationalized, the role of the social economy in creating good quality and inclusive work opportunities must be recognized. Partnerships between social economy and sectors where there will be high demand for labor, particularly in earlier stages of the transition, need to be encouraged.

By supporting labor-intensive areas of the circular economy to work in partnership with the social economy, the European Green Deal will be in a better position to support workers and communities that face the biggest challenges in times of change, helping to ensure that no one is left behind.

This article originally appeared on the Circle Economy blog. The inclusivity of the labor market in the circular economy is a key focus area of the organization's Circular Jobs Initiative. Find out more here.

More on this topic

More by This Author