In OECD countries a circular economy seems just common sense. Growth rates are bumping along towards zero or very little. Employment is becoming more polarised between the well-paid salariat and the gig economy precariat, existing in the exciting world of self employment, zero hours contracts and unpaid internships…you get the picture. Resource issues do not simply involve volatile prices but also the dangers of increased climate change – and waste more generally. Something practical like an economy, where making sense of energy, materials and information flows means designing out waste, rebuilding and regenerating natural capital and turning the emphasis from providing goods to providing services is not only beneficial to resource use but increases economic growth and employment. This was at least the conclusion of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation reports, especially Growth Within. But this vision is clearly suited to Europe with its highly developed infrastructure, its aging population – the old buy less ‘stuff’ but more services – the saturation of white goods and many other markets for durables (cars, furniture and so on) and the effects of widespread indebtedness. It also benefits from political systems which are still sensitive to public concern and have good record of regulatory compliance.

Many or most of these conditions do not apply to low-income economies where populations are usually young, politics are of varied character but often insensitive to democracy, regulations are inconsistently applied, infrastructure is patchy and the informal economy is important. Large numbers only subsist in rural areas and the flows to cities to escape poverty are significant. Economic growth for some emerging markets is prosperous, India for example, but for others, like Brazil, the decline is particularly severe and for yet others the figures are clearly unreliable. The picture would not be complete if we failed to mention the traditional, well-established and well-developed “circular economy of poverty”, an economy where materials are scavenged, repairs and refurbishment are improvised in a very clever way, but where the most miserable conditions imaginable follow it, envelop it. This is not a circular economy worth the name, it carries no nobility, nothing to congratulate since it is destructive of people and born of necessity not choice. In the words of Walter Stahel, “In the past, reuse and service-life extension were often strategies in situations of scarcity or poverty and led to products of inferior quality. Today, they are signs of good resource husbandry and smart management.”

Emerging markets Photo credit: AdamCohn via VisualHunt / CC BY-NC-ND
Photo credit: AdamCohn via VisualHunt / CC BY-NC-ND

Yet low & middle income economies seem caught in many other traps. The traditional path of industrialisation leads to rising numbers of workers with decent wages who become consumers as productivity rises. Their spending spills over into new businesses whilst the long-term trend leans towards the service industries which is by far the sector that employs the most people in industrialised countries. Post WW2, 30-40 years of this trend built a solid middle class. But for emerging markets, this path has been cut short, dislocated on two fronts. First the automation of manufacturing has spread rapidly and the latest crop of robots and their application has been particularly strong in middle income economies. The International Federation of Robotics, an industry group, estimates that China will account for more than a third of all industrial robots installed worldwide by 2018 and Foxconn, perhaps the world’s largest electronic manufacturer, has recently displaced 60,000 workers. Second, the very forces which have brought this dislocation have begun to disrupt services, just as they have done in the OECD economies. Therefore, in the face of an ICT revolution only just gaining its maturity, the services are not a safe haven for employment. Today’s shiny outsourcing and call centre office blocks in Bangalore may be tomorrow’s follies, a monument to the glory of a passing fashion.

But the partial nature of digital infrastructure in emerging markets means very uneven development and might exacerbate the differences between rural and urban but also rich and poor. And while in Europe and the US observers like Paul Mason can see a resurgence of economic activity based on the spread not only of digital communication tools but devolved, digitally based manufacturing – 3D printing being the usual poster technology – is this really feasible for low & middle income economies? And in any case does it do the job in either place, because although it adds value locally it may not be much more than social production, if its value added does not keep pace with other economic trends. Two of these prominent trends are housing and education costs.

Emerging markets Photo credit: pichenettes via Visual hunt / CC BY-NC-ND
Photo credit: pichenettes via Visual hunt / CC BY-NC-ND

Real estate can be an engine for economic growth, and as a store of value it has been hard to beat. The action in emerging markets and indeed in our own economies may have little to do with production and consumption (since over-production is easily achieved and margins are low) but more to do with an inflationary cycle of urban real estate development. This certainly spins off construction jobs and the ‘wealth effect’ of spending by the winners in the boom part of the cycle, but what it does for the generality is less clear, other than to up housing costs, which makes it harder to make ends meet when engaged in an occupation that, though useful has low productivity. Using an aggregator app to make a market among traders who want to take advantage of a ‘circular economy’ in food or materials might still be insufficiently profitable to get beyond the increased cost for housing, as productivity is low in many of these labour intensive activities.

It seems clear now that much of the concern around rising energy and materials prices in the period after 2008 seems down to what happens when an economy the size of China triples its indebtedness in a few short years and begins the construction boom to end all booms.

The second trend is the costs of education, which in many parts of the world are increasing faster than those of health or resources. Increased supply from young demographic profiles has only sharpened competition, since the prize of a permanent salaried position is no longer as available as it was. In many ways the holding of a degree has become a mandatory purchase: an entry ticket to the employment lottery.

In the series of upcoming articles, we will examine the prospects for a circular economy in low & middle income economies as an interplay between a number of these major trends. The first is the ICT revolution and how it affects production and use/consumption, employment and income in both manufacturing and service sectors. The second is the role of the informal economy, the major part of the economy of so many of these nations – in India 67% of non-agricultural labour and in Brazil 42%. This is intimately connected to the “circular economy of poverty” and how to transform it into something that is more rewarding. The third trend is the contrast between lowering costs and adding value, between the different scales of operation. For the established productive businesses it is about lowering costs, for the devolved, the periphery, it is about adding value with what is available here and now. A circular economy has to work for all scales, but it is not necessary – perhaps – to have the same enablers. A fourth trend is that contrast between the inflationary property and assets cycle and the depressed ‘deflationary’ effects of changing employment and low wages, coupled with low materials prices. A fifth trend is demographic: the rising numbers of qualified and ambitious people and whether the circular economy speaks to them. The last trend to consider is the pressure coming from the environment itself and whether this plays into the case for more ‘circularity’ and how?

These articles will welcome the input of experts, thought leaders and practitioners based in emerging markets. In this way the dialogue is created and its results manifested. If you would like to be invited to comment in detail or indeed contribute an alternative perspective, please contact the Circulate team.

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Circular economy in emerging markets: an insight from Brazil

The Author

Ken Webster

Ken Webster

Ken Webster is Head of Innovation at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and he is a major contributor to the development and communication of ideas in this field.