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Putting people back in the frame to win the hearts and minds of decision-makers

We must show how the circular economy impacts communities and jobs to reach climate targets.

people walking around a circular economy symbol

GreenBiz collage. Circular economy image via Shutterstock/MG Vectors; people image via Shutterstock/GoodStudio.

How we talk about issues affects how other people feel about them — and, crucially, whether they pay attention or even take individual action. When the FrameWorks Institute reframed poverty in the U.K. to highlight the lived reality of people, the root causes of their situation and, ultimately, that poverty is a solvable issue, they tapped into people’s emotions. Feelings of justice, compassion and a drive to take action. As it stated (PDF): "We can solve poverty by loosening its grip on people. Benefits help release people from the restrictions our economy places on them, such as low pay and high housing costs."

In another project, they reframed the planet as a body, connecting the expansive ocean to a human and delicate system in the publics’ minds: "Just as parts of the body are interconnected and dependent on one another, the ocean plays a vital role in regulating the health of our planet." 

At Circle Economy, we work to make the global economy more circular: one where waste is designed out, everything is used at its highest possible value for as long as possible and natural systems are regenerated. To reduce global greenhouse gas emissions and reach climate goals, the global economy must become more circular. However, it is important to consider and show how changing the way materials are used in our economy will not only affect the climate, but how it will be reflected in everyday life. People must be at the center of the circular transition.

Are we using the right framing to encourage climate action?

Images, like words, can be visceral. They are something we like to share, they can stick with us and can help us make sense of complex dynamics. A recent episode of the Climate Question podcast from the BBC World Service Trust struck a similar chord. It looked at the images we associate the most with climate change and whether we should instead be using images that demonstrate and galvanize support for the opportunities that can come with mitigating it.

The guests on the podcast heard vox pops of people interviewed on the street about their perceptions of climate change. They consistently described the polar bear, struggling to survive on melting ice caps. The polar bear has become the unwitting poster child of climate change, but does it really help people understand the severity of the situation and understand humankind’s role in both getting us to this point and now, in getting us out? The consensus was that although it is a powerful image, it may not be the best framing for igniting targeted action. Likewise, images of wind farms and solar panels increasingly populate the billboards of our minds when it comes to sustainability.

This is a step in the right direction — it helps people from policy-makers to the public to better understand the solutions that come with doing things differently. But with the need to tackle the intertwined issues of conflict, unemployment, social inequity and climate change top of our minds, catalyzed by the COVID-19 pandemic, do these images inspire decision-makers to take the joined-up action needed?

Photo by Hans-Jurgen Mager on Unsplash

Putting people back in the frame

We all know that connecting big and complex issues with stories of real people in real-life situations strikes the deepest chord with us. At Circle Economy, we also know that people and their skills are an essential lever for transforming our economies so that we can mitigate climate change and achieve a healthy and just space for people. After all, without people, solar panels cannot be installed and climate targets will be missed. So which frames and supporting evidence and tools can we use to show the opportunities that come with sustainable and inclusive economies and crucially, how this affects how people will take action?

We have been working with the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) under our Circular Jobs Initiative to do just this: create evidence that paints a picture of circular economy activities happening in sectors and how this translates into jobs. As part of this work, we are excited to have evidenced the number and range of jobs that already exist and contribute to the circular economy in over 100 cities across 30 countries. These are freely available on our Circular Jobs Monitor.

Which frames and supporting evidence and tools can we use to show the opportunities that come with sustainable and inclusive economies?

We encountered the need for a social approach to the circular economy time and time again through our collaborations with local and national governments and agencies. To get on board with designing transformative sustainability strategies, decision-makers need to know how this will affect local jobs. What jobs do different strategies involve? What know-how and skills do we already have in our workforces that could be leveraged to achieve a circular economy at scale?

The Circular Jobs Monitor is designed to engage decision-makers in what the circular economy looks like in reality by showing how cities and countries engaging in circular economy activities, such as repair, rental and product-as-a-service, translate into real jobs. The Circular Jobs Metric that we developed with UNEP drives this tool and shows how sectors that provide circular goods and services interact, taking into account the number of people they employ and the materials imported into the country.

We believe tools and evidence such as this are essential for creating a compelling picture of how the circular economy could not only reduce waste and increase resource efficiency, but also how it could help with other pressing issues decision-makers have on their plate, from infrastructure to employment and emissions. We need to show how changing the way materials are used in our economy is reflected in everyday life.

Explore the number and range of jobs that already exist and contribute to the circular economy in over 100 cities from across 30 countries on our Circular Jobs Monitor.

Prioritizing people is an essential part of climate action plans

The importance of work is something we can all relate to: jobs as livelihoods, a means of meeting our basic needs and, if we’re lucky, providing fulfilment and purpose in life. We know that (un)employment is high on the priority lists of politicians around the world — and that the big issues we’re facing, including COVID, and both conflict and climate change-induced migration — are only pushing it higher. The IPCC’s latest report on impacts, adaptation and vulnerability to climate change is another heavy reminder that millions of people are already experiencing the impacts of climate change with little training or guidance on how to deal with them. Yet we still see that considerations over the people and skills needed to make climate action plans a reality are an afterthought.

Although frameworks are available for training staff in developing these plans, the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) set out by countries as of yet include little to no reference to the skills or training needed to implement the strategies or promises. Continuing to treat both the social impacts and the human capital requirements of putting climate plans into action as — at best — a secondary consideration comes with big risks. It risks that strategies are adopted to tackle environmental issues without the adequate measures to upskill or safeguard people and their jobs. This could not only risk jobs, but also see countries fall short of their targets all together if they don’t consider the people and training needed to make them a success.

The energy transition has demonstrated the need for a social justice perspective, foresight and strong skills pipelines.

Here we can learn valuable lessons from the just transition movement ignited as part of the energy transition. The energy transition has demonstrated the need for a social justice perspective, foresight and strong skills pipelines, as well as the role of curriculum and industry to develop the right skills at the right time.

To mitigate these risks and maximize the opportunities that can come with transforming economies from linear to circular, we are trying to make it as easy as possible for decision-makers to access evidence that they can use to place social considerations more centrally to their national climate actions plans and in local strategy development.

Circle Economy’s frames, data and digital tools to inspire action

We aim to use data, evidence and digital tools to frame the circular economy around the issues that most concern our stakeholders. By doing this, we hope to create awareness of not only how powerful a tool the circular economy can be for addressing today’s major challenges, but also how people in work now and in the future are for making the big changes that we need in this decade of action. The Circular Jobs Monitor demonstrates how circular activities translate into jobs, to show which sectors have the most ongoing circular activity and potential and support the design of evidence-based interventions.

In the coming months, we will combine this existing tool with Ganbatte, our new digital product that will support pioneering organizations with knowledge, data-driven insights and tools to activate local circular development planning and implementation and the networks they need to connect to peers around the world.

In advocating for the circular economy, we want to uncover the opportunities and risks that come with taking bold steps in transforming the way we live and work. We want decision-makers to have all the evidence they need at their fingertips so that they can take joined-up action.

By putting people back in the frame, we hope to capture not only the hearts and minds of decision-makers but also members of the public, so that everyone can understand their role in the circular economy and real opportunities it presents for economic transformation.

Learn more about the Circular Jobs Monitor

Circle Economy and the United Nations Environment Program recently launched data on the number and range of circular jobs in over 100 new cities on the Circular Jobs Monitor, as part of the organizations’ ongoing partnership on the transformative potential of the circular economy. This is the first time that data of this kind on employment generated in cities engaging in circular economy activities has been made available. This evidence can be used alongside other social, economic and environmental metrics to help cities build back better and chart a course towards a more sustainable future for their people and the planet.

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