The root of many of our present-day environmental challenges, including pollution, climate change and bio-diversity loss, are linked to patterns and intensity of resource use. The linear economic model of take-make-dispose leading to mounting volumes of waste and increased degradation of environment is finally being understood to be unsustainable for the planet.
Resource scarcity and increasing complexity of extraction processes themselves are becoming a cause of concern for the industry. This scenario makes a shift towards a more sustainable form of economic system imperative, and it is also the reason why the paradigm of circular economy (CE) has gained significance – a fact that is underlined by circular economy’s increasing traction at high-level forums including the G20, which launched the G20 Resource Efficiency Dialogue in 2017, the World Economic Forum, which since 2018 annually releases the Circularity Gap Report and the World Resource Forum, which has the dedicated objective to promote innovative solutions for sustainable use of resources since 2012.
Circular Economy, a regenerative and transformative economic model, has the potential to address issues relating to consumption and production and replace the traditional take-make-dispose economic model by aiming at decoupling economic growth from finite resource consumption. However, as economies attempt to break away from unsustainable, linear take-make-dispose models, it is imperative that the transformational potential of resource efficiency (RE) and CE be also utilized to build a more equitable society, inclusive and collaborative in all its aspects. Discussions on RE and the transition to a circular economy have largely focused on environmental and economic aspects of sustainability with relatively less focus on the social aspects, even though the transformation to a CE and the systemic change that lies beneath this transformation is a unique opportunity to address the existing social issues related to an equitable society and pave the way to an inclusive and collaborative society, while transforming to a CE.
An inclusive and equitable circular economy model will need to consider ways to make the processes and business models more gender sensitive. All efforts will need to make sure that gendered power hierarchies are not reproduced and embedded. The conversation as well as the developing discourse needs to identify challenges, barriers and opportunities for women and men.
It is acknowledged and years of experience have revealed that gender balance and equality are the essence of sustainability. In addition, studies suggest that by 2025 if women were able to participate in similar roles to that of men, the economic growth would be of the order of USD 28 trillion.
In India, a common refrain underlines the conversations on sustainability: that many behavioural aspects of traditional Indian culture were sustainable with limited generation of waste. For instance, torn clothes were mended, old or outgrown clothes were either passed down to younger siblings or cousins, or were converted into rugs, durries, cleaning clothes, or used during menstruation as pads. Food waste was also minimal. Waste, whenever generated, was segregated (and still is) into different streams and sold to a scrap dealer. As such the generation of waste at the level of household was low.
However, this glorified picture of sustainability does not account for the role and labour of women. The undervaluation or ‘invisibilisation’ of women’s labour is also responsible for the decline of many environmentally friendly practices at both the household and societal level, and their replacement with more resource intensive services/products.
Women also form a significant proportion of labour force in unorganised sectors, including in construction, waste collection, recycling and agriculture, and are often paid less than men. The United Nation Environment Programmes 2019 study on Gender and Waste Nexus has revealed that in the highly precarious and hazardous waste management, gender inequalities further exacerbate the vulnerabilities of women workers. While the fixed jobs in waste collection are held by men which offer relatively steady income and protective gear, women remain informal. Among the most disadvantaged groups are women waste-pickers who work under the supervision of their male scrap dealer bosses.
For the transformative potential of circular economy to be unlocked and be rendered effective, gender responsive policies are needed that consider differentiated barriers and strength of women as agents with influence on sustainable behaviour and practices at all levels including household, community, and societal.
As economies look to “build back better” by adopting a circular economy and resource efficiency approach, the issue of mainstreaming gender equality becomes even more imperative to avoid reproducing and embedding the existing gender hierarchies. There is a rare opportunity to make sure that the new economic circular model addresses these issues at the level of system design in order to address the needs and interests of half of its stakeholders and agents, as otherwise it is likely to be inefficient and under-performing and serve to further exacerbate vulnerabilities.
Understanding the importance of gender equity as an enabling factor for sustainability, resulted into the strengthening of gender equality becoming an important focus area on a global level and a signal for the years to come: In 2015, during the G20 Summit, Women 20 (W20) was launched, which works towards the recognition and minimization of women’s unpaid care work, the establishment of legal and policy frameworks to eliminate workplace discrimination and taking measures to strengthen women’s economic, social and political networks in order to amplify women’s collective voices and raise awareness about policies and opportunities.
Important ways to make the circular economic system more gender sensitive and responsive will entail the development of an understanding of roles, responsibilities and location of women as workers and to support their formalisation and recognition. There are existing models and examples of women self-help groups including Swach in Pune, SEWA in Gujarat and Hasirudala in Bangalore. Greater financial literacy and access to finance will be needed for greater autonomy and independence and greater decision-making roles. Increasing opportunities for women at all levels, capacity building and leadership trainings for enabling entrepreneurship, and occupational protection will be key in enhancing the participation, collaboration and partnerships at all levels.
Dr Katharina Paterok is an Advisor with the EU Resource Efficiency Initiative and the Circular Economy Solutions for Preventing Marine Litter project at the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH. During the past ten years, she has been researching and working in the field of solid waste management, environmental policy development and circular economy. She enjoys reading and writing, being in the nature and swimming.
Dr Reva Prakash is Project Coordinator with the EU-Resource Efficiency Initiative at the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH, and has been a sustainability researcher since last ten years. Her research interests include circular economy, international environmental norm development and politics, environmentalism in the global south. She is constantly aspiring to follow the 3R Principle of Reduce, Reuse and Recycle, and is a compulsive segregator of waste. She enjoys reading, writing, gardening and walking. You can find her on Facebook.
Featured image source: Ellen Mac Arthur Foundation