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Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL)

Pathways to a circular economy

This research considers how the impacts and solutions to the environmental challenges of climate change and plastic pollution intersect with the global scarcity of work and the dominance of the informal sector in lower-income countries. In seeking to understand this work-environment nexus amongst vulnerable and hard-to-reach demographic groups, the project explores three research themes:

  • The quality and quantity of work in the circular economy, with a focus on informal work within the recycling sector in Africa and Asia.
  • How businesses transition towards more circular modes of operating.
  • Youth livelihoods in lower-income settings where there is a structural deficit of work opportunities.

Applications in practice

  • Future risk and opportunity
  • Business strategies and models
  • Social and political change

Contribution to CISL’s core research themes

Zero carbon


Circular economy 


Protection of nature


Inclusive and resilient societies


 About the project

This project is concerned with pathways to – and challenges in - creating sufficient good quality work, which aligns particularly well with UN Sustainable Development Goal 8. This includes decent work within the circular economy, moves towards building more circular business models, and living wages as a pathway to decent work.   

The dearth of decent work worldwide is especially acute in lower-income countries, where low unemployment rates reflect the vital need to make a living in a context of minimal state welfare. This connects with the circular economy, whereby informal waste-pickers underpin the recycling loop of the circular economy in many settings. The economic vulnerability of waste pickers has been highlighted by the recent pandemic, as COVID-19 containment measures left many without work, income or food.

While most thinking around circular economies is concerned with flows of materials, this project highlights the essential labour performed by informal waste collectors, arguing for the inclusion of labour as a pillar of circular economy thinking.  

Within quality work, wages are a key issue, as globally 630 million people earn poverty wages (ILO, 2021). This study also considers how businesses are forging pathways towards living wages and circular economy business models. There are parallels and compatibilities between the two, with both stemming from a sustainability rethink, and both would be greatly boosted by widespread adoption of the new model. Overall, if these shifts can happen in parallel, social and environmental sustainability can be created in tandem.  

The aim is to theorise the role of informal labour in the recycled plastics supply chain and to advise policy makers and businesses on routes to a socially inclusive circular economy. 

Impact and relevance

Over the past decade, the circular economy and the climate crisis have moved up political and research agendas, with both increasingly embodied in the policy ambitions of many countries and companies. This project highlights the parallel need for significant increases in opportunities for decent work and argues that solutions to the decent work deficit should be incorporated into new business models for the circular economy. Poorer and more vulnerable people in lower- and middle-income settings already bear the brunt of the impacts of climate change, so it is critical that their livelihoods feature prominently in any agenda for change, to ensure that they do not also lose out in a green transition.


1. Informal work in the circular economy

What happens to work as we transition towards a more circular economy? What types of jobs are created, and which are lost? Focusing on informal waste work in lower- and middle-income settings, this project aims to understand how the informal economy intersects with movements towards a circular economy, and what interventions might work to improve the quality and quantity of work available. This research involves a systematic literature review, a series of stakeholder interviews, and a waste-collector diary method, to understand the challenges and opportunities for work in the recycled materials supply chain. The geographical focus of this work is South Africa, Nepal, and Indonesia. The aim is to theorise the role of informal labour in the recycled plastics supply chain and to advise policy makers and businesses on routes to a socially-inclusive circular economy.

There is a global deficit of work opportunities, especially for young people, who suffer greater labour market disadvantage than older adults. Acknowledging this social and economic challenge, this work stream also focuses on the already-fragile livelihoods of marginalised young people, including waste pickers. In particular, this stream seeks to understand how young people’s livelihoods have been impacted by COVID-19 in Nepal and Indonesia, analysing diaries which record their activities and responses. The lessons from this research will be shared with the international development sector, policymakers and businesses, to deepen understanding of the causes of vulnerability and sources of resilience in young people’s livelihoods.

2. Business pathways to a circular economy

How are businesses and business models being reconfigured around goals to be increasingly circular? While large multinationals have the resources and scale to make changes with far-reaching impact, their business models are usually linear, making changes in approach more difficult for them than for companies which are ‘born sustainable’. By interviewing incumbent businesses, this project seeks to document the motivations, barriers, enablers, and ambitions vis-à-vis the circular economy. The aim is to share lessons and subsequently support other businesses in their own circular transitions.

3. New commitments to living wages

Observing today’s high levels of in-work poverty, this workstream considers the rationale and discourses amongst those businesses which have adopted or are moving towards living wage commitments. Living wages pay enough for workers and their families to afford a decent standard of living, covering all the essentials and leaving enough spare to allow for some savings. They are a cornerstone of the wider concept of decent work, and new corporate living wage commitments increasingly cover multinationals’ core operations and their value chains. This work stream analyses interviews with key stakeholders–including businesses, investors, NGOs, Unions, and UN organisations–to understand and map the enablers and barriers in moving towards stronger commitments to social sustainability. Living wages have the potential to seriously contribute to global reductions in poverty and inequality, which are both central to the Sustainable Development Goals. 

Collaborators and funding

This work is supported by a philanthropic gift from Unilever. Supplementary funding was secured from the Asian Development Bank to support the youth-specific research dimensions of this project.

Research team

Safiya AhmadSafiya Ahmad, Research Assistant in Pathways to a Circular Economy

Saffy was a Research Assistant and supported two workstreams: (1) business pathways to a circular economy, and (2) informal waste work in lower- and middle-income countries. Saffy recently graduated with a BA in Geography from the University of Cambridge. Her undergraduate dissertation focused on the export of plastics from the UK to Malaysia, specifically with regards to environmental (in)justice and the spatial distancing of care. Her interest in plastic waste and international development led her to work with the Centre for Global Equality, consulting on the implementation of a new photoreforming technology as a technological solution to the plastic waste crisis.

Marina Zorila, Research Assistant on the Case for Living Wages

Marina is supporting the research on the business case for providing living wages across global supply chains. She holds an MPhil in Development Studies from the University of Cambridge and a BASc in Economics and Global Sustainable Development from the University of Warwick. Her experiences working in corporate social responsibility and development consulting and research have fostered her interest in the role of the private sector in advancing sustainable development. Her academic research interests lie at the intersection of economic development, climate change, and inequalities, particularly with respect to gender.


Dr Anna Barford

The Prince of Wales Global Sustainability Fellow in Pathways to a Just Circular Economy, supported by Unilever

“This Fellowship offers me the chance to work at the intersection of the world’s most pressing environmental, social and economic challenges. By working on the socio-economic dimensions of circular economy models, I consider how business and governments can ensure that the necessary green transition is also a much-needed just transition.”

Dr Anna Barford

"Unilever’s vision is to make sustainable living commonplace, so we’re delighted to fund a Prince of Wales Fellow at CISL to help accelerate the world’s transition to a circular, zero carbon economy at the same time as maximising the employment opportunities resulting from innovation.”