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The Consumer Insight Action Panel on Electronics Reveals Social Impacts of the Circular Economy

The Circular Economy is seen in the EU as the great hope on the road to a more sustainable economic system and climate neutrality. The potential is enormous, not only in terms of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but also when it comes to conserving resources and protecting biodiversity. While the Circular Economy can score in environmental terms if done right, as part of the CSCP programme, Consumer Insight Action Panel (CIAP), we raised the question: What about the social dimension? Major societal transformation processes also entail major social upheavals: who is affected by this and in what way?

According to the European Commission, the circular economy creates more net jobs than it loses. In principle, that doesn’t sound bad. Within CIAP, we wanted to know more, because this statement conceals many socio-economic effects. One thing is certain: the upheavals in the labour market will hit some sectors and regions harder than others. Sectors that have made entire regions economically strong and ensured that people have jobs will change in ways that some job profiles will simply no longer meet the new requirements and as a consequence disappear. One example is mining in the Ruhr region, a German conurbation that has long benefited from the linear economic model through coal mining.

The experts we interviewed in our project agree: EU-wide upskilling and reskilling programmes are crucial against this backdrop in order to absorb possible job losses and offer people from traditional industries a perspective. A good example of this is the organisation RREUSE, which offers people who can no longer find employment in the traditional labour market a professional perspective in the field of reuse and repair through further education and training. The experts we interviewed also pointed out the global responsibility that the EU has in the upcoming restructuring of the economic system: so-called “waste pickers” in developing countries. They are responsible for sorting waste for recycling and should be able to work under appropriate safety and labour standards. Often though, they are exposed to toxic substances and precarious conditions.

While it is undisputed that jobs, secure incomes, and safe working conditions are of great importance, they do not represent the totality of social impacts. The way we consume and live also has an immense impact on the Circular Economy. The urge to buy the latest smartphone model, for example, supports the trend towards ever shorter lifetimes of electronic devices and runs counter to the circular principle, as does the fact that we usually want to own products ourselves instead of borrowing or sharing them with others. The social norms, i.e., what we have perceived as normal and customary up to now, should therefore change. This would also be a good basis for using the social potentials of the Circular Economy, e.g., through a new sense of belonging when sharing and repairing together.

This requires talking more about the social side of the Circular Economy. Our publication “Discussing the social impacts of circularity” summarises the results of our expert survey and aims to provide an impetus for this. The report was produced as part of the Electronics Club, funded by the Finnish Innovation Fund Sitra as part of the Consumer Insight Action Panel (CIAP). CIAP is a CSCP multi-stakeholder programme that aims to support the transition to a Circular Economy by generating, applying and testing consumer behaviour insights into circular strategies in areas such as textiles, plastics, and electronics. The overarching vision was to enable circular behaviour by exploring how innovations can enable consumers to reuse, repair, share, recycle, or lease in support of a Circular Economy and more sustainability. Read our CIAP final report here.

For further questions, please contact Imke Schmidt.