Sustainability in the Global South isn’t one-size-fits-allhere’s why

Circularity is more prevalent than we think — but it’s not always known as such

As businesses and policies with strategies rooted in the circular economy become more prevalent in the Global South, the lacking social aspect becomes even more apparent. While the circular transition is promoted as a necessary means for countries to address their climate goals and contribute to a green economy, tools and discourses are often framed around European ideas of sustainability. These put high-tech solutions on a pedestal but do little to challenge the production and consumption status quo. They fail to factor in the Global South’s structural economic conditions: resource intensiveness, informality, highly integrated linear global supply chains, and export-oriented economies that also import masses of waste from the Global North.

The lowest rung of the circular economy ladder: we need to shift away from the recycling tunnel vision in the Global South

Currently, most of the circular economy approaches and financing geared towards the Global South revolve around activities with low-value retention — recycling, for example. This contradicts the reality of current practices: activities such as reuse and repair, which retain materials’ value to a far greater extent, are prevalent in many countries in the Global South — often, but not always, due to necessity. Take for example, as presented in the recent World Circle Economy Forum Side event about Achieving Social Justice in a Global Circular Economy, in Ghana, many Ghanians grow up with a tradition of buying fabric that is tailored to create bespoke garments that are repaired and restored over their lifetime. This may be about necessity in some cases, but it is also a culture of creating your own clothes and taking care of them. These options are more culturally relevant, affordable and functional over the long term — so why focus on recycling so much within policy? This may stem from the dominant resource efficiency narrative among some circular economy proponents, who advocate for better production processes. In that logic, recycling is seen as the lowest-hanging fruit, lending itself as a profitable extension of existing operations. Recycling may also be appealing because it does not question the growth imperative: an increase in production is seen as ‘good’ as long as it’s done in a circular manner, with fewer materials and less waste.

The circular economy isn’t socially just by default

Circular policies don’t ensure socially just outcomes by default: they must be co-designed and co-implemented in an integrated manner to achieve needs’ satisfaction and well-being, within our planetary boundaries. This requires a deep interrogation of interdependent systems, starting from the local and scaling up to the global level.



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