Is the circular economy prejudiced?

9 November 2023

We were certainly all running and talking in circles – positive circles that is - in October. People were marking Recycle Week with the Big Hunt for items that are being dumped in the black bin, but which could be recycled – such as shampoo bottles and plastic food trays – and it was Circular Economy Week in London. To top it all, we at WRAP launched with eBay the Circular Change Council addressing the mounds of discarded home furniture, 20% of which could have been reused. It was all yet another sign that we are on the cusp of the circular economy – championed by major brands as well as community initiatives - becoming mainstream. I am excited about this growing alternative to the old-fashioned economic thinking, offering a positive vision of change, and of the future. So, imagine my shock to discover that the circular economy has its own very old-fashioned, backward-looking prejudices!

Looking through the ONS job numbers for the circular economy makes depressing reading in 2023. WRAP’s analysis finds that the circular economy is heavily dominated by men, with only one in four jobs held by a woman. And where women do appear it’s often in the lowest paid jobs, or in volunteer roles usually around second-hand sales. I respect the volunteers on whom so many fantastic initiatives rely, but is this really the best we can expect for half of the population?

The circular economy is our secret weapon in tackling the enormous effect of consumption-based emission on climate change. With 45% of GHGs arising from what we make, sell, and use – nearly mirroring the 55% from energy - the circular economy is crucial in addressing the climate crisis and reducing the pollution from manufacturing and the constant extraction of ever more virgin raw materials.

Over the last decade, circular economy jobs have been the success story for UK Plc too.  The number of people employed in reuse, repair, recycling, and resale grew by 20% between 2014 and 2019 to 558,000 jobs. The sector has added to the economy while it helped tackle environmental issues. So why, when it sits so squarely at the vanguard of tackling climate change and creating our future economy and society, are so few women right up there with the men? Why is the forward-looking circular economy perpetuating what should be long-dead gender inequalities? We need to nip this in the bud before it becomes deep-rooted, invisible, and institutionalised.

Many of us know dynamic entrepreneurial women leading the way in the circular economy. Take for example SOJO, established by Josephine Philips to make repairing our clothes more accessible. Or Tessa Clarke, the CEO and co-founder of Olio, the app for sharing surplus food and other goods from retailers. Or Emma Shaw and Rebecca Trevalyan, who co-founded the wonderful Library of Things, enabling people to hire those tools you only need once. My question is why it seems that these women remain the exception?

It has taken years for women to become half the workforce in the economy overall; now we must deploy all those policies and practices to equalise the circular economy too.

Asking women about the challenges, they cited everything from childcare through to only having workplace boots in large sizes. It starts from school onwards with girls taking fewer STEM subjects at college and gender disparities in training for science, technology, engineering and maths. Then of course there may be misconceptions around typical jobs in the circular economy. The full range of skills are needed from repairing clothes, furniture or electricals through to marketing and IT, managing volunteers and customers, or creating new designs for products so they are circular from the start. Are women not seeing themselves in these roles?  Are the job adverts not in the right places or positioned in the right way?   

Many of the required actions are not unique to the circular economy, nor are they constrained to gender. Creating a diverse and inclusive workforce requires a wider discussion and action plans. We can all help ensure that boys and girls from all communities, from a young age, see a future in green jobs and in the circular economy. That’s why WRAP is part of Let's Go Zero coalition campaign to help all our schools become zero carbon, including addressing issues such as careers advice and subject choices, and that’s why Recycle Week 2023 had children at the heart of its activities.

And all of us in the sector need to look at ourselves, ask what more can we do to address the current imbalance, and to lead a conversation about how the circular economy can be more inclusive. I am convinced that circular living is the future. I am also convinced that gender equality must be at the heart of that positive future. It’s time to talk together about how we can create that shift.

This article first appeared in Circular Oct 2023 - the publication of the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management (CIWM).