In his monthly sustainability news round-up, Oliver Balch reports on how the circular economy is catching on in the Global South, progress on zero-deforestation commitments, and the latest data on wellbeing at work

IF YOU are poor in Colombia and you live in the countryside, entering adulthood with a decent education is highly unlikely. The country’s poorest students get an average of only six years in the classroom. One of the main constraints in Colombia’s education system relates to infrastructure: there simply are not enough schools.

In response, chemical company Dow has partnered with a local non-profit called Conceptos Plásticos to build new classrooms from hard-to-recycle plastics. To date, three “Aulas Verdes” (green classrooms) have been constructed, serving 600 children. The initiative’s co-ordinators plan to build another dozen by the end of this year. As well as helping address Colombia’s education shortfall, the initiative also serves to help resolve its waste problem. At present, only about 17% of the country’s total plastic waste is recycled.

Unicef has also partnered with Conceptos Plásticos, opening the doors to Africa’s first recycled plastic classroom in Côte d'Ivoire last September. It has plans to build a factory there to localise production of the bricks, with a goal to recycle 4,800 tonnes of plastic waste a year, build 30 classrooms to accommodate 1,500 children, empower 1,000 mothers in poverty by formalising the recycling market, and expand to three additional countries. 

It is the kind of initiative that London-based thinktank Chatham House is espousing in a new report, which says the adoption of circular economy methods by manufacturers in the Global South could mitigate material costs worth up to $630bn per year.

The 82-page research paper cites a report by engineering firm Arup (in association with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation) that suggests circular economy production methods in China could result in savings of $10.4trn by 2040, equivalent to 16% of the country’s projected real GDP. A similar study for India indicates that a large-scale shift of this kind could create commercial opportunities worth $218bn per year by 2030. (See also How the circular economy can help developing countries grow more sustainably)

A more circular economy also stands to benefit developing world countries in the form of new jobs. While no in-depth studies have been carried out for the developing world specifically, the report’s authors cite researchthat says circular economy policies could create 3 million new jobs in Europe by 2030. Similar impacts could occur in less developed markets as well, the researchers conclude. Climate change mitigation and resilience represent a third clear upside from circular economy methods. According to projections by the International Resource Panel, resource efficiencies brought about by such approaches could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 60 per cent come 2050.

However, a fully integrated form of circular economic production requires political leadership. Last week, the UK became the first G7 country to commit to become net-zero by 2050. But it doesn’t have a patch on Finland, which updated its 2016-2025 national circular economy strategy earlier this year. The strategy, thought to be the first of its kind in the world, envisions a carbon-neutral circular economy by 2025. What was initially a loose ambition has, with the recent instalment of a new government, taken the shape of formal government policy, albeit with the national carbon neutral goal now pushed back to 2035. The target still awaits official parliamentary approval.

Less encouraging is the increase in perverse incentives that state-backed fossil fuel subsidies give to companies to stick to hydrocarbons. According to research by the International Monetary Fund, governments worldwide paid out $5.2trn in such subsidies in 2017, equivalent to 6.5% of the global economy. This is a rise from $4.7trn in 2015. According to the IMF, the subsidies directly boosted global carbon emissions by 28%. China tops the leader for fossil fuel subsidies at $1.4trn, more than double the United States, which comes in second place at $649 billion.

Another factor pushing companies to reconsider their use of non-renewable resources is regulation. One notable development here relates to plastic waste, which, following a recent amendment to the Basel Convention, will now be treated as a toxic chemical. The ruling will oblige importers and exporters of used plastic to become more transparent about what types of materials are being traded and what happens to those materials after shipment.

Indonesia and Malaysia have become big recipients of plastic waste recently, following China’s ban on plastic imports in early 2018. Just prior to the ban, Asia’s largest economy was receiving 45% of all global plastic imports, with the largest exporters being the US and Japan, at 693m tonnes and 842m tonnes per year, respectively.

A new business-backed scheme should help to streamline the global trade in waste plastic. The 3R Initiative crediting mechanism, which was launched at Ethical Corporation’s Responsible Business Summit Europe last week by non-profit BVRio, allows consumers good firms, retailers and packaging manufacturers to trade plastics credits issued by recyclers, effectively helping them to offset their plastic use. The initiative, which is backed by Danone, Veolia, Nestlé and Tetra Pak, aims to “jumpstart the circular economy”. It includes a third-party assessment for verifying the plastic reduction efforts of company participants.

Slow progress on zero deforestation commitments

Just 42.5% of timber imported into the UK is sustainably certified. (Credit: Uwe Aranus/Shutterstock)

TREES TAKE time to grow, but no time at all to cut down. So forest conservation groups cheered in 2015 when five EU countries – Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands and the UK – put their names to the Amsterdam Declaration on Deforestation and pledged to support companies in removing deforestation from their supply chains.

Four years on, progress has been slow. A new analysis of companies that source large volumes of forest-risk agricultural commodities (soya, palm oil, cattle, timber and paper) finds that only 13 from the signatory countries have zero deforestation commitments across all their supply chains and operations. The study was carried out by non-profit supply chain specialist Trase and deforestation-free campaign charity Global Canopy, which produces the annual Forest 500 Index of deforestation’s “powerbrokers”.

Of these 500 high-impact companies, 180 are based in Amsterdam Declaration countries (a group that now also includes Italy and Norway). For single commodities, the figures are slightly healthier. Almost one-third of the high-risk companies (32%), for instance, have zero deforestation policies covering their palm oil supply chains. This marks an increase of 25 percentage points on 2015 levels. However, the proportion of those with zero-deforestation policies falls to 24% and 21% for soy and cattle, respectively.

Brazil, with its rich biodiversity and expansive forests, lies at the heart of the issue. Soy’s expansion is especially inimical to forest preservation in the South American country. In 2017, Amsterdam Declaration countries imported 9.5m tonnes of soy from Brazil. These imports are associated with 10,000 hectares of soy deforestation. So, while Brazilian soy comprises only 15% of these companies’ soy imports, it accounts for 82% of their total deforestation risk. And recent news from Brazil suggests that this risk could be increasing. According to satellite-based data recently published by local conservation group Imazon, the Amazon rainforest lost 216,900 hectares between August 2018 and April 2019, a 20% increase on the same period last year.  

The European food industry comes under fire in another recent report. The Data Speaks, published by Dutch non-profit IDH, The Sustainable Trade Initiative, calculates that only 22% of soy imports into Europe were responsibly sourced (ie compliant with FEFAC Soy Sourcing Guidelines). A mere 13% could be considered deforestation-free, meanwhile. The overall picture shows considerable divergence within the EU, however. In Norway and Finland, for instance, 80% and 66% of imported soy conforms to deforestation-free standards. In France, the figure is only 19%, while in Portugal and Italy (the largest single importer, at 4,330 metric tonnes per year) it drops to 6% and 3%, respectively.

The scenario is better for palm oil, with 74% (8,100 tonnes) of all imports compliant with standards set by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. Considerable work is required for tropical timber imports, meanwhile, of which only 28.5% of the total (1.47m tonnes per year) is currently certified as sustainable. Again, regional differences exist. For example, 42.5% and 67.5% of timber imported into the UK and Netherlands, respectively, is sustainably certified. The proportion of certified imports for cocoa is similar to that for timber, at around 30%. Time is short to turn this around. Belgium and the Netherlands, for example, both have commitments to ensure all cocoa-based products are made from 100% sustainably certified ingredients by 2025. Switzerland and Germany have pledged to ensure 80% and 85% of cocoa products meet similar standards by the same date.

In 2017, environmental transparency advocate CDP put the economic risk to business from commodities linked to deforestation at $941bn. According to CDP, deforestation and forest degradation account for approximately 10-15% of the world's greenhouse gas emissions.

Wellbeing at work: beating the blues

Enjoying a healthy work-life balance is critical to overall wellbeing. (Credit: Andreas Saldavs/Shutterstock)

MOST OF us will spend around one-third of our lives at work – more if we discount our childhood and retirement years. But does the workplace make us happy? The best answer might be, “happy-ish”. According to a three-year research studyby professional development firm Myers-Briggs, the average worker puts his or her sense of positive wellbeing at 7.51 out of 10. The study, which tracks over 10,000 people from 131 countries, finds little difference between men (7.45/10) and women (7.52/10). Age, on the other hand, does seem to affect the bounce in our step.

Older workers (over 65 years old) positively skip to work (averaging 8.14/10), while 18 to 24 year olds) are distinctly less chirpy (6.77/10).

Location is a factor. You are more likely to jump out of bed on a Monday morning if you live in Australasia or Latin America (7.83/10), than if you live in Asia (7.38/10). What job you do also matters. Finance and consultancy might top the pay leagues, but if you’re after wellbeing at work then the best sectors to pick are education (7.78/10), healthcare (7.73/10) or community and social services (7.66/10).

Meaning, or “purpose”, is very much in vogue at present. According to the 2019 Workforce Purpose Index, working adults in the US today say they would much prefer a job that fulfils them (64%) than one that engages them (28%). Before employers start panicking, most workers (68%) believe that the primary responsibility for finding fulfilment in the workplace lies with them personally. Such fulfilment remains elusive for most, however, with only one third (33%) of the 1,038 US workers surveyed agreeing to feeling fulfilled.

According to the late UK’s Best Workplaces report, published last month by the Human Capital Management Institute, 88% of employees in top-performing companies credit their managers with ensuring good team dynamics. In the average workplace, only just over half (54%) of workers can say the same.

Similarly, 84% of employees in the highest-ranked firms say they can count on their team members to co-operate, compared with 66% in lower-ranked firms. Enjoying a healthy work-life balance is also critical to overall wellbeing. Here, the split between the best workplaces and the mean average is very marked – at 81% versus 49%. Topping the UK list of best places to work (for large employers) is Salesforce, followed by Cisco UK, Hilton, Admiral Group and Mars UK.

More than 235m women workers globally have zero legal protection in the workplace. (Credit: Frame China/Shutterstock)


In the worst workplaces in the world, however, avoiding harassment is what preoccupies workers, not the glowing buzz of wellbeing. Delegates at the International Labour Organisation (ILO) are currently discussing a proposed new Convention on Ending Violence and Harassment in the World of Work. An early draft of the convention was approved by 79 of the ILO’s 83 participating governments back in March. At present, around one in three countries around the world has no law  against sexual harassment in the workplace, meaning more than 235 million women turn up to work with zero legal protection.

A further 82 million women have no legal recourse when faced with gender-based discrimination, the letter notes. The proposed ILO convention also won public support from three progressive business lobby groups; Business Fights Poverty, B Team, and BSR. In a public letter published to coincide with last month’s International Women’s Day, the advocacy groups note that two-fifths (40%) of women in the UK have experienced unwanted sexual behaviour in the workplace. The Ethical Trading Initiative echoes these sentiments in a separate letter, co-signed by a number of high-profile retail brands, including Primark, ASOS, Hobbs and the John Lewis Partnership (Waitrose).

It is not only women who have reason to turn up to work fearful. More than one 10th of the world’s population lives in countries flagged as being at “extreme risk” of abusive child labour. Of the 27 nations identified by strategic consulting firm Verisk Maplecroft in its recently published Child Labour Index, the worst are North Korea, Somalia, South Sudan, Eritrea and the Central African Republic. Worryingly, India and China – both key, global manufacturing hubs – occupy 47th and 98th place in the index, respectively. The report came out in the run-up to the first ever World Day Against Child Labour on 12 June. According to the United Nations, which organised the event, 152 million children are pushed into coercive work – seven in 10 of whom are to be found in the agriculture sector.

Main picture credit: Conceptos Plásticos
Conceptos Plásticos  education  green classrooms  circular economy  BVRio  deforestation  sustainable timber  wellbeing  Myers-Briggs  International Labour Organization  Child labour  workplace harrassment 

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