An economy where both people and nature thrive

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In 2016 Tearfund and the St Paul’s Institute held a programme of roundtables exploring global development and the green economy. Barbara Ridpath, Director of the Institute, and I explore inequality and the economy, and the recommendations from the programme in our follow up paper, ‘Going Full Circle:  tackling resource reduction and inequality’.

Look around your office floor or the train you’re travelling in. Can you count eight people? That’s the number of men who own the same amount of wealth as the poorest 3.6 billion people in the world this year. This inequality is extreme and it’s down to a broken economic system. 

In this current system, we also take resources from the natural world quicker than they can be replenished. Damage to our environment is considered incidental; it’s collateral damage. As Dr Irene Guijt, Head of Research for Oxfam GB, puts it in her guest introduction to our joint paper, “We ignore planetary limits at our collective peril.” But this peril is unevenly felt. It is the 3.6 billion, not the eight men, who face the worst consequences.

There is another way though; one that tackles inequality and environmental sustainability together. Over the last year there has been a growing discourse about the potential development benefits of the circular economy (jobs created, health and environment improved); in this paper we look more thoroughly at the contribution to addressing the world’s growing inequality, through for example:

  • Greater inclusivity: People living in extreme poverty are often already involved in informal waste collection and recycling. Formalising their informal contribution to the circular economy can improve their incomes, and include often-marginalised groups such as women and youth within the economy.
  • Intergenerational equity: ensuring the ability of future generations to meet their needs has long been a central tenet of development. The circular economy is more fair to future, as well as present generations, in ensuring that finite resources are still available to them, and minimising pollution and contributions to climate change.

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We share stories of this fair circular economy in practice. One is of a group of mothers in Brazil who have achieve financial independence, through turning discarded plastic bottles into household items, souvenirs and accessories (pictured above). For one woman, this cooperative gave her the self-esteem to stand up to her husband in the face of domestic violence. Now that violence has ended.

The fair circular economy is a whole-system approach. This mean that the participation of actors throughout the system is required to see its full potential realised. Through our series of roundtables we identified opportunities for policymakers, businesses, investors, researchers and NGOs to play their part. Common threads throughout are the opportunity for champions to advocate for this approach, and the need for it to be designed into policy, to products, and to programmes on the ground. When diverse actors and organisations embrace this approach, then we will see the circular economy at its best; where both people and nature thrive.

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