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Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership

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

While the circular economy is principally concerned with flows of materials, intending to capture and reuse value within material flows, this project examines how a more circular use of materials intersects with key social outcomes while paying particular attention to UN Sustainable Development Goal 8, which demands decent work for all. 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. While the work done to get by is often considered to be economically unproductive, informal waste-pickers underpin the recycling loop of the circular economy in many settings. The economic vulnerability of waste pickers has been recently highlighted, as COVID-19 containment measures left many without work, income or food. The mismatch between the essential labour performed by informal waste collectors and their poor working conditions leads this project to argue for the inclusion of labour as a pillar of circular economy thinking.

Impact and relevance

Over the past decade circular economy and the climate crisis have moved up political and research agendas, and both are increasingly embodied in the policy ambitions of many countries and companies. Through her research Anna highlights the parallel need for huge increases in opportunities for decent work and argues that solutions to the decent work deficit should be designed into new models for the circular economy. Poorer and more vulnerable people already bear the brunt of the impacts of climate change, and these groups could also lose out in a green transition, so it is critical that their livelihoods feature prominently in any agenda for change.


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, the 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, in light of Sustainable Development Goal 8 (decent work for all). 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.

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 a far-reaching impact, the business models of incumbent companies are usually linear, making it more difficult for them to change approach than for the 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 therefore support other businesses in their own circular transitions.

3. Youth livelihoods when there aren’t enough jobs

There is a global deficit of work opportunities, and this is especially acute for young people who suffer greater labour market disadvantage than older adults. Acknowledging this social and economic challenge, this research theme focuses on the already-fragile livelihoods of marginalised young people in the form of three projects. One research project considers the impact of climate change on young people’s livelihoods in the Karamoja and Jinja districts of Uganda, using interviews, focus groups, a survey and policy panels to gather data. Another 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. Lastly, young Bangladeshi women categorized as Not in Education Employment or Training (NEET) are the research focus of Anna's graduate student, Kate Brockie. 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.

Collaborators and funding

This work is supported by a philanthropic gift from Unilever.

Research team

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

Saffy is a Research Assistant, supporting 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 focusing 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.

Emily MurphyEmily Murphy, Research Administrator on Youth Livelihoods and Climate Change in Uganda

Emily is the Research Administrator for the Youth Futures project. She also works part-time supporting two Executive Directors at the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL). Prior to this, Emily was the PA to the Chief Executive and President of the British Academy, where she supported Lord Stern and became interested in sustainability.


Grace MuellerGrace Mueller, Research Consultant on Youth Livelihoods and COVID-19 in Nepal and Indonesia

Grace is interested in understanding young people's experiences of exclusion from 'modern work' within increasingly decentralized, technocratic societies. She holds a MSc from the University of Edinburgh, where her thesis focused on how ethnic minority groups in NE Bangladesh negotiate socio-political and economic inclusion through relational entrepreneurship. On this project, Grace will be supporting research design and analysis, studying youth-led approaches to qualitative research study and developing guidelines based on empirical data  for youth-livelihood intervention in the Asia and Pacific region.

Kate BrockieKate Brockie, Postgraduate Student researching young female NEETs in Bangladesh

Kate is a postgraduate student in the Department of Geography with an interest in decent work opportunities for the world's growing youth population. In collaboration with the International Labour Organization, Kate's research is concerned with the characteristics, expectations and aspirations for work amongst marginalised young people in low- and middle-income countries. Her doctoral research will combine detailed data analysis of relevant global surveys with qualitative research focused on the lived experiences and perspectives of female NEET (not in employment, education or training) youth in Bangladesh.


Anna works with:

Professor Brendan Burchell, Department of Sociology, University of Cambridge

Dr. Katarzyna Cieslik, Department of Geography, University of Cambridge

Dr. Mia Gray, Department of Geography, University of Cambridge

Dr. Anthony Mugeere, School of Social Sciences, Makerere University, Uganda

Professor Niall O’Higgins, International Labour Organisation

Ms. Rachel Proefke, Restless Development Uganda

Dame Barbara Stocking, Murray Edwards College, University of Cambridge

Professor Bhaskar Vira, Department of Geography, University of Cambridge

Additional sources of funding

Further funding to support current workstreams has been provided by:

School of Technology Seed Funding, University of Cambridge (2021).

The Asian Development Bank: Youth-specific livelihoods impacts and responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. In partnership with Restless Development. Focusing on Nepal and Indonesia.

British Academy Youth Futures grant: Peak Youth, Climate Change and the Role of Young People in Seizing their Future. In partnership with Makerere University (Uganda) and Restless Development (Uganda). 2020-2021.

ESRC DTP Knowledge Exchange Scheme in collaboration with the International Labour Organisation, funding for a 1+3 graduate student starting in 2020, on the research project “Characteristics, expectations and aspirations for work amongst marginalized young people in low- and middle-income countries”.


Dr Anna Barford

The Prince of Wales Global Sustainability Fellow in Pathways to a 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.”