People may be aware of the tremendous work for social inclusion carried out by the actors of the social economy. However, many still do not know that, among other outstanding contributions, social economy actors like social enterprises have for years been leading an innovative inclusive circular economy by promoting reuse and repair activities. In doing so, social enterprises active in the circular economy create valuable job and training opportunities for people at risk of poverty and social exclusion (AROPE) while prolonging the lifecycles of millions of products.
Reuse and repair activities carried out by social economy enterprises provide a perfect example of economic models that are driven by social and environmental goals which are mutually intertwined. Both reuse and repair consist of activities with high job creation potential, mainly requiring manual skills, which social enterprises use as vehicles to foster social inclusion by providing green jobs and training opportunities. Undoubtedly, social enterprises contribute to all 2030 EU headline targets on employment, skills and poverty reduction, while fulfilling several of the social rights of the EU Social Pillar, including the right to education, training, and lifelong learning.
PUTTING REUSE FIRST
While many know recycling, the circular economy first requires the items we already have live a long life while calling for better ways to produce and consume. In this regard, by promoting reuse, social enterprises carry activities for waste prevention activities that rank at the top of the EU Waste Hierarchy for a truly circular economy.
While confusion persists, including in some languages where the same word refers to both recycling and reuse, the two carry notable differences. As opposed to recycling, which consists of breaking down waste to create raw materials to make new objects, reuse is about extending the lifecycle of existing items, thus requiring less energy consumption, time and other resources than the former. It is therefore essential from an environmental standpoint that we avoid premature recycling and focus on reusing existing products before sourcing new ones.
The benefits of prioritising reuse go beyond safeguarding the planet's resources. Reuse and repair social enterprises also offer solutions to combat social exclusion and poverty. The International Network of Reuse, Repair, and Recycling Social Enterprises (RREUSE) estimates its network of social economy enterprises active in the circular economy creates, on average, 70 jobs per 1,000 tonnes of materials collected for the purpose of being reused. This number varies from 20 to 140 jobs based on the type of materials handled, from textile, furniture, and WEEE to toys and miscellaneous, to name a few. These are jobs that are suitable for different underprivileged groups struggling to enter the labour market, such as migrants, people with disabilities, long-term unemployed and so forth.
Finally, most reuse social enterprises offer pre-loved items in their second-hand stores allowing customers to buy social and circular at bargain prices. What’s more, their stores facilitate access to essential items such as clothing, plates, furniture, or electrical appliances like washing machines to people at risk of material poverty. The impact generated by social enterprises thus goes beyond those powering their activities, touching entire communities and creating an environment fostering social cohesion and understanding of the circular economy.
THE SKILLS TO POWER A CIRCULAR ECONOMY
In a context where skills shortages for a green transition, such as in repair, threaten our ability to divert from a take-make-dispose economic model at the detriment of human rights and the planet, social enterprises offer inclusive opportunities to promote skills for a circular economy.
With their training programmes and work-based approach to learning, social enterprises active in reuse and repair preserve crucial circular skills like repair of electrical appliances and bicycles, textile upcycling, recovery of construction materials, refurbishing furniture, and many more. Consequently, they ensure people at risk of social exclusion - who tend to be excluded from formal education opportunities - gain those green skills, which rather than antiquated, are what powers a highly circular economy. As CEDEFOP attests, frontline green workers such as construction professionals, repair specialists, waste management trainers, and reuse experts are among those professions mostly needed for the greening of our societies.
Furthermore, what particularly characterises the lifelong learning work of social enterprises is that they promote an inclusive and targeted approach to skills, ensuring no one is left behind. For instance, in its 2023 skills report with 18 case studies from its wider network, RREUSE showcases examples of training programmes such that of Deaf Enterprises (Ireland) promoting repair skills via Irish sign language, the hands-on learning approach of Baukarussels (Austria) for recovery-oriented building demolition, or yet Humana Nova’s (Croatia) individual work plans accompanied by social workers for sewing and stitching skills for textiles for people with physical and intellectual disabilities.
This way, social enterprises bring their valuable expertise as skill providers in adapting to the needs of the different groups that power their reuse and repair activities, rather than the opposite. Ultimately, no green or digital transition would ever be fully inclusive without proper emphasis on soft skills for a fulfilling life. By fostering self-confidence, motivation, and teamwork skills, including via the involvement of social workers and psychosocial support, social enterprises reinforce transferable skills needed for any future job endeavour.
THE WAY FORWARD: A SUSTAINABLE FUTURE FOR SOCIAL ENTERPRISES
The 2021 EU Action Plan on the Social Economy presents a crucial set of initiatives to address the needs of the social economy and raise its visibility, including across policy areas. Notably, social economy enterprises bring considerable potential to contribute to the ambitions of the EU Circular Economy Action Plan, for instance in waste management.
It is thus fundamental to create more substantial synergies between social and environmental legislation. For instance, socioeconomic assessments should be part of circular legislation and rules on public purchases and investments should provide better financial support to actors driven by social and environmental objectives per their statutes.
The social economy actors are now part of the policy discourse and the current momentum needs to be maintained to support their activities as catalysts to achieve people and the planet's well-being. As the amount of waste grows over the coming decades, the efforts of social enterprises active in the circular economy now need to be supported by new policies to,among other things, promote reuse and repair, sustainable investments for social actors, foster the demand for circular skills across sectors and raise awareness.
Author: Simone Schirru, Policy Officer in Social and Economic Policies at RREUSE, the European network of reuse, repair, and recycling social enterprises active in the circular economy.
 By 2030: an employment rate of at least 78% of the population aged 20-64; at least 60% of all adults to participate in learning every year; at least 15 million fewer people at risk of poverty or social exclusion.
- Publication date
- 13 June 2023
- RREUSE - The European network of social enterprises active in the circular economy in re-use, repair and recycling
- EU Country