11. Women and SDG 12 – Responsible Consumption and Production: Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns

This chapter addresses the interaction between gender equality (SDG 5) and sustainable consumption and production patterns. The main findings include the following:

  • At a global level, there is no evidence of materials use decoupling from economic growth, while the negative impact of environmental damage, waste generation, and climate change is rapidly accumulating.

  • Because of their overrepresentation among vulnerable groups of the population, women are often severely affected by unsustainable production patterns through various channels. Women are dependent for subsistence on strained natural resources; women are affected by poor labour conditions in a “feminised” workforce; women provide a large amount of informal and sometimes unpaid work related to waste management; and women are involuntarily and without their knowledge exposed to harmful products and chemicals.

  • In developing countries, women are overrepresented in assembly-line type jobs, which tend to be low-paid, characterised by poor working conditions (long and irregular working hours and exposure to harmful products), and weak social protection. Much of this employment is located in export processing zones, in which between 70-90% of workers – around 50 million - are women.

  • Surveys from around the world show that women tend to be more sustainable consumers and are more sensitive to ecological, environmental and health concerns. Women are more likely to recycle, minimise wastage, buy organic food and eco-labelled products, and engage in water and energy savings initiatives at the household level. They also place a higher value on energy-efficient transport and in general have a higher preference for public transport than men.

  • Engaging women in the circular economy – raising awareness on sustainable consumption and encouraging participation in leadership and managerial roles – is indispensable to create good circular systems.

  • There is a need to systematically collect gender-disaggregated evidence on the environmental damage caused by unsustainable production and consumption patterns and on the role of women in driving change towards more sustainable production and consumption patterns. A focus on vulnerable groups and intersectionality issues should be an essential aspect of evidence-based analysis and policy action.

  • Rationalising inefficient fossil-fuel subsidies that encourage wasteful consumption is integral to sustainable consumption and production patterns, but further work is needed to better understand and address any gender-disaggregated distributional impacts of reform, and how these might be successfully addressed.

The growth in raw materials use, together with the environmental impact of their extraction, processing and disposal, has put tremendous pressure on our limited natural resources and damaged the Earth’s ecosystems. According to the OECD, the use of materials resources rose from 27 billion tonnes in 1970 to 90 billion tonnes in 2017, which is practically equal to the growth of GDP over the same period (2.6% and 2.7% annual average, respectively) (OECD, 2019[1]). If this lack of decoupling of materials use from economic growth continues, the consumption of materials is expected to double by 2060, substantially worsening environmental consequences (OECD, 2019[1]). Global energy demand is projected to be 80% higher by 2050 – 85% of it covered by fossil fuels - while global water demand is expected to increase by 55% (OECD, 2012[2]).

In 2015, the annual per capita material consumption in OECD countries was 60% above the world average (OECD, 2015[3]). An average person consumed about 46 kg of materials – mainly construction and industrial minerals, fossil energy carriers and biomass – and produced 1.45 kg of waste on a daily basis in 2011 (OECD, 2015[3]) (OECD, n.d.[4]). Rapidly increasing population and industrialisation in developing countries is expected to intensify environmental and social challenges in these countries, as they put further pressure on natural resources.

Unsustainable production and consumption is ultimately behind the human factors causing environmental degradation and natural resource depletion, as it is linked to overconsumption of natural resources such as water, soil, forest, energy and minerals, and an increase in pollution and industrial development. Therefore, production and consumption levels, and the ways humans produce and consume, determine all other environment-related SDGs. Sustainable production and consumption could support the transition towards sustainable agriculture and food systems (SDG 2) and sustainable fishing practices (SDG 14), enhance sustainable use of water (SDG 6) and energy (SDG 7) resources in the production cycle, and drive the transition towards inclusive and sustainable industrialisation and more resilient infrastructure (SDG 9). It could also support more sustainable urbanisation, improving air quality and municipal waste management (SDG 11). It could improve the capacity of rural communities to pursue sustainable livelihood opportunities in parallel to reversing land degradation and halting biodiversity loss (SDG 15), and strengthen resilience capacity against climate-related hazards through efficient use of natural resources (SDG 13). Beyond the environment-related SDGs, sustainable production and consumption could have positive health effects (SDG 3), lead to a reduction of poverty levels (SDG 1), and support achievement of decent work and advancing economic progress through diversification, technological upgrading and innovation (SDG 8).

While there are no SDG 12 targets or indicators explicitly linked to gender equality or gender disaggregation, mainstreaming gender equality in SDG 12 would help achieve its underlying targets. SDG 12 is closely linked to gender equality and women’s empowerment, as women’s access to education (SDG 4), and to land and other assets (SDG 2, SDG 15, and SDG 5), are necessary prerequisites for a better integration of the female population in global and local production and consumption. The role of women in sustainably managing natural resources (see Chapter 6 and Chapter 14), reducing waste generation, and moving towards more sustainable production and consumption patterns at national, local and household levels is not sufficiently acknowledged. Nor is the effect of unsustainable business practices or fossil-fuel subsidies to women’s and men’s economic, health and social conditions. In particular, there is room for further research on the effect of fossil fuel subsidy reform through a gender equality lens. While a substantial amount of research has been conducted on the differentiated consumption of fossil fuels by gender, research on the impact of energy policy reform on gender equality is limited. As with other SDGs, there is a lack of systematic data collection on this key pillar of the gender-environment nexus.

Unsustainable production, waste generation and pollution have distinct harmful impacts on women, in particular those from socially disadvantaged societal and economic layers. Women are affected by the strain on natural resources on which they depend for subsistence. Women also often experience poor labour conditions in areas of the workforce becoming more and more “feminised”. Women in developing countries provide increasing amounts of unpaid and informal work related to economic activities such as the textile industry and waste management, leading to a greater involuntary and uninformed exposure to harmful products and chemicals.

Women are more likely to experience the negative side-effects of unsustainable production, such as pollution, hazardous waste, and the destruction of common public space such as forests (more on women and forests under Chapter 14).

The costs of the linear economy which brought about degradation of the environment are particularly heavy for disadvantaged groups of the population. Poor people tend to live closer to polluted waters, factories and transport hubs, suffering more directly the negative consequences of pollution and climate change. This is the case both in developed and developing countries, and it becomes more obvious at the local and city level (Finkelstein et al., 2003[5]); (Hajat, Hsia and O’Neill, 2015[6]); (Kioumourtzoglou et al., 2015[7]); (Li, Konisky and Zirogiannis, 2019[8]); (Jiang, Kim and Woo, 2020[9]). Women tend to be at higher risk of poverty than men in many countries, leading to women usually suffering most from poverty and social exclusion, especially in single-headed households with dependent children (Millar, 2003[10]) (World Bank, 2011[11]).

Due to social norms in many cultures, women are more often in charge of waste management. More waste means more work for them. In developing countries, the waste management sector has a high percentage of female participation, in some cities surpassing that of men, though this is often limited to informal work and unregulated employment (Dias and Fernandez, 2013[12]); (Krishnan et al., 2019[13]). Women engaged in these activities usually come from the poorer population groups (Krishnan et al., 2019[13]), and waste picking may not even be a sufficient income-generating activity for them and their dependents (Marello and Helwege, 2018[14]).

Health risks in the waste sector are widely acknowledged, with increasing attention to the consequences of heavy metals exposure from E-Waste on women’s and maternal health (Heacock et al., 2016[15]) (Kim et al., 2020[16]). These are often exacerbated by gender inequality, as equipment used to collect or transport waste is owned by men, which implies that women may lack access to the equipment and hence face additional challenges, which are usually exacerbated due to physical differences between the two sexes (Ziraba, Haregu and Mberu, 2016[17]); (Krishnan et al., 2019[13]). In the formal sector there is a preference for women to cover tasks like material processing and sorting, while men cover activities that require lifting, loading and other heavy work tasks (Krishnan et al., 2019[13]).

In cities where women cover the majority of informal economic activities, they also constitute the majority of informal waste pickers, a high-risk activity that can lead to injury and infection because of physical contact with chemicals directly disposed in landfills. There is also a risk of long-term exposure to solid waste, although there is a lack of available data to measure such health impacts (Ziraba, Haregu and Mberu, 2016[17]). The major landfill collapses that took place in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in 2017 and Maputo, Mozambique in 2018, illustrate these inequalities; of the hundreds of casualties, women made up more than 65% and 75%, respectively (Moshenberg, 2018[18]).

In several developing countries there have been attempts to formalise the activity of casual waste pickers through waste and recycling co-operatives, associations, and micro-enterprises. In some cases women-led co-operatives have provided a safe space for women to get more involved in waste picking, guaranteeing better income and childcare facilities for working mothers (Dias and Fernandez, 2013[12]). Yet inequalities seem to persist, as women continue to face different forms of discrimination in the workplace compared to their male colleagues (Dias and Ogando, 2015[19]).

The operation of multinational enterprises (MNEs) in developing countries is of particular concern, as often labour, health and environmental standards are less stringent or less effectively applied. MNEs may move their operations in search of more flexible or less strict regulations, and lighter controls and reporting standards than in their home countries (Morimoto, 2005[20]). Some MNEs have been responsible for egregious damage to the environment, in particular deforestation in countries within the tropical region to develop mining operations or to open up land for grazing and farming, much of which is export-oriented (Harvey, 1995[21]); (Sonter et al., 2017[22]); (Digdowiseiso and Sugiyanto, 2020[23]). Deforestation and forest degradation has a negative effect on communities and peoples dependent on forest natural resources. In many cases these are women, who see their work burden increase (fuelwood collection, increase of agricultural land distance from home, need to shift cultivation) (Mishra and Mishra, 2012[24]).

Rapid industrialisation and investment inflows in some parts of the developing world have led to the “feminisation” of labour in export-oriented production, meaning an increase in the number of female workers in specific sectors, as well as a move towards less protective practices in some cases (duplicating characteristics of informal female labour to formal labour) (Ghosh, 2004[25]); (Otobe, 2015[26]). In developing countries women are overrepresented in assembly-line type jobs, which tend to be low-paid, have bad working conditions (long and irregular working hours and exposure to harmful products) and weak employment and social protection. Much of this employment is located in export processing zones (EPZs) (Murayama and Yokota, 2009[27]); (Cirera and Lakshman, 2017[28]), in which between 70-90% of workers – around 50 million - are women (Wick, 2010[29]). Sectors with a particularly high representation of women include textiles, clothing, food processing, horticulture, pharmaceuticals, household goods and toy production.

Reports on the conditions in textile factories and the garment sector in particular highlight the vulnerability of women. In Viet Nam, 80% of the 700 000 garment factory workers are women. They work for longer hours than men, are less likely to receive training and benefits, and earn only 85% of men’s wages (Rees, 2014[30]). Even in factories that supply some of the best-known companies in the world, working conditions have sparked human rights violation allegations. In the span of three days in November 2016, 360 workers collapsed in Cambodia. They reported working in 37oC heat, being overworked and underfed (McVeigh, 2017[31]). Human Rights Watch similarly revealed that women were refused bathroom breaks, denied sick leave and suffered from sexual and physical abuse (Kashyap and Human Rights Watch (Organization), n.d.[32]). In some cases, women suffer a double or triple burden given their race and religion. Recent reports by a coalition of human rights groups has brought attention to international textile industry links with forced Uighur labour in China (Xiuzhong Xu, 2020[33]). In India, exploitation of Dalit girls in the garment industry has been widely reported (INC and SOMO, 2014[34]).

Women in many countries represent the majority of garment factory workers. As such, they are more exposed to the use of hazardous products in the textile and footwear industries (ILO, 2019[35]), chemical substances (pigments, dyes, adhesives and primers), some of which may affect the health of both textile workers and wearers of clothes, and can also end up in the environment (Ahmed et al., n.d.[36]); (Mahmud, Rajath D. and Jahan, 2018[37]). Evidence has shown that maternal health can also be impacted by exposure to occupational health stressors in the textile industry (Wong et al., 2009[38]).

Due to public pressure, companies increasingly report on social and environmental aspects of their activities. Through initiatives such as the UN Global Compact Principles, the Global Reporting Initiative Sustainability Reporting Standards, the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, and the OECD Due Diligence for Responsible Business Conduct, multinationals and their related companies across global supply chains are increasingly being held accountable for their operations in developing countries, including their carbon footprint, broader environmental impact and the labour and human rights conditions of their employees (OECD, 2018[39]). All these initiatives include a specific reference to gender equality or women’s rights, with the exception of the UN Global Compact where it focuses on human rights more generally.

A stronger effort is needed to enhance awareness about the unmeasured costs of business operations, in particular multinationals, with a specific focus on any potential negative impacts on women, vulnerable groups and the environment. More also needs to be done to improve transparency and corporate accountability for environmental impact and human rights and workplace conditions along global supply chains.

Consumption patterns at the level of the end-user are important to explore, as consumers – through their actions and purchasing habits – can influence how products are being developed, produced, used and potentially reused. Social norms highly influence consumer behaviour and attitudes (Melnyk et al., 2019[40]), including towards more sustainable behaviours (Yamin et al., 2019[41]). Women and men also have different environmental attitudes and behaviours (Zelezny, Chua and Aldrich, 2000[42]), as well as different interests regarding environmental improvement based on the different purposes for which they use natural resources. There is, however, an increased willingness by women to pay for improved services (Bulle, 1999[43]).

There are several key areas of consumption that have a strong gender dimension, and where influencing behaviour needs a gender equality perspective to be effective in improving sustainability. For example, traditional division of household responsibilities influences consumption patterns, as women are often responsible for buying short-term use products (household products, food, etc.), while men tend to decide on the purchase of more durable items (e.g. cars) (Yaccato and Jaeger, 2003[44]); (Kelan, 2008[45]). This traditional work-home division of responsibilities persists to some extent in dual-earner households. Estimates from Canadian companies show that women make over 80% of consumer purchasing decisions, but men spend over 80% of household income, although this balance is changing as women’s economic and social situation advances (Yaccato and Jaeger, 2003[44]). This pattern has been confirmed in other studies (Kelan, 2008[45]).

Women tend to be more sustainable consumers and are more sensitive to ecological, environmental and health concerns (OECD, 2008[46]); (Johnsson-Latham, 2007[47]); (Kaenzig, Heinzle and Wüstenhagen, 2013[48]); (Khan and Trivedi, 2015[49]); (Bulut, Kökalan Çımrin and Doğan, 2017[50]). Women are more likely to recycle, minimise waste, buy organic food and eco-labelled products and engage in water and energy savings initiatives at the household level (Yaccato and Jaeger, 2003[44]). They also place a higher value on energy-efficient transport and in general are more likely to use public transport than men. Men are more often the ones taking the credit decisions within a household, and are usually the ones to take up credit (Kirchler, Hoelzl and Kamleitner, 2008[51]). The reasons behind this phenomenon are women’s lower income levels, men’s greater impatience towards making a purchase, and women’s higher risk aversion. Women also have higher credit scores than men – 675 compared to 670, despite conscious or unconscious bias (Rivera, 2016[52]).

When asked about preferences for goods and services, for instance when selecting electronic products, women in Denmark seem to prefer those that have an end-of-life feature (that is, the ability of the product to be reused, remanufactured or recycled). Additionally, they would also be willing to pay a supplementary amount if the product purchased was more environmentally friendly. Men would also be willing to pay a premium price, but only if that was very low (Atlason, Giacalone and Parajuly, 2017[53]).

Women in Denmark also seem to be more responsive to more sustainable waste management solutions. Depending on location and income, women are more likely to accept sorting recyclables and bio-waste as part of their household waste disposal ritual when compared to men; men, on the other hand, seem to not be very engaged in recycling and pay less consideration to the environmental impact of their lifestyle choices (Nainggolan et al., 2019[54]).

The main OECD work on this matter involves a periodic household survey dating from 2008 and 2011 that showed that in some countries - Australia, Canada, Chile, Japan, Korea, Sweden and Switzerland - women were likely to see environmental issues as more pressing than men, whereas in other countries – France, Israel, Netherlands and Spain – men were more likely to be concerned about the environment (OECD, 2014[55]). Furthermore, the survey showed differences in energy consumption behaviour: men are more likely to take special measures to buy renewable energy from their electricity provider, while women – depending on the country and the distribution of household tasks – are more likely to engage in energy saving activities such as turning off lights, energy metering and shifting to renewable energy. In the study, it was concluded that respondents responsible for the economic charges of energy in households are more likely to engage in energy saving practices. Based on the self-assessment based study, men appear to be more familiar with energy-efficient labels, while women have an overall better knowledge of eco labels.

Another study presented by the United Nations shows that women consumers in OECD countries have a marginally more environment-focused or “greener” attitude than men concerning recycling and driving less (Table 11.1). In particular, women seem to recycle more than men in Austria, the Czech Republic, Latvia, Mexico, Korea, Sweden and the United Kingdom, even though this behaviour may also be linked to the gender division of domestic labour. In all countries in the survey, with the exception of Japan, women tend to drive less than men for the purpose of protecting the environment. The information available on the willingness of men and women to pay higher prices or taxes to protect the environment vary between countries. For example, in Germany, Israel, Korea, and the United Kingdom, data showed men were more willing to pay higher prices. Conversely, in Denmark, Finland, New Zealand and Norway, women were more willing to pay higher prices. As for higher taxes, in addition to the countries mentioned above, men in France, Spain, and Turkey also showed more willingness to pay, probably linked to their higher income when compared to women. Only in Denmark and Norway were women more willing to pay higher taxes than men to protect the environment. Finland is the only country where a significant difference exists between men and women that contributed to environmental groups, with 31% of women and 21% of men contributing in 2010 (United Nations, 2015[56]).

Studies in developing countries have also found major differences between men’s and women’s consumption preferences. Women are more likely to use income and debt for food products, health and education for their families. Conversely, men spend a higher share of income on things that personally benefit them – such as snacks, alcohol or luxuries. Such trends explain the success of microfinance initiatives, such as the Grameen Bank which lends practically only to women and has a 97% repayment rate (Esty, 2013[57]).

Studies from Africa also show that across cultures, women are usually assigned domestic waste management roles, as part of their unpaid activities, even when these activities extend beyond the home to community cleaning. Men, on the other hand, generally only tend to handle waste as part of their paid activities (Scheinber, Muller and Tasheva, 1999[58]); (Poswa, 2004[59]). Women and men also treat solid waste differently; women having developed knowledge and skills in managing natural resources, and sorting and recycling solid waste (Woroniuk and Schalkwyk, 1998[60]); (Almasi et al., 2019[61]); (Krishnan et al., 2019[13]).

Women can therefore be key actors to move consumption towards more sustainable patterns. In this regard, public policies and new approaches to influence consumption decisions, such as behavioural insights, should take into consideration a gender perspective. For instance, a 2016 study of 2 000 American and Chinese individuals found that socially accepted notions of masculinity were at odds with much of the eco-friendly marketing and recommended making such marketing more masculine to counter this tendency (Brough et al., 2016[62]).

As consumers, women can play a central role in the move to a circular economy. About 50% of household consumption worldwide covers food and beverages, clothing and footwear, and other household products (World Bank, n.d.[63]). Around 50% of global plastic waste generated is plastic packaging, with single-use plastic for food and beverages being most common (UNEP, 2018[64]). Women are considered to be the decision-makers when it comes to 70-80% of household purchases: as such, they could determine the shift to more sustainable consumption patterns and can therefore become key drivers of eco-friendly behaviour (Brennan, 2015[65]). Such a move towards mainstreaming women’s consumer behaviour towards plastic may be more important than ever, with the effect the COVID-19 crisis is having on plastic waste. Recent information show a slow-down in implementing policies against single-use plastics (Prata et al., 2020[66]); (Brock, 2020[67]).

At the same time, however, women disproportionately use potentially toxic cosmetics and household cleaning products that can harm their health and the environment. In some countries where the use of such chemicals is permitted, women expose themselves to “skin-lightening creams that contain mercury, vaginal douches containing phthalates, and talcum powder,” in sync with feminine norms and societal pressure to be beautiful (Heise et al., 2019[68]). The skin lightening industry is a multi-billion dollar global enterprise, and the mercury sometimes found in cosmetics (eye makeup, mascara, cleansing products) is eventually discharged into the environment via wastewater, where it “becomes methylated and enters the food-chain as the highly toxic methylmercury in fish” (WHO, 2019[69]).

The women’s wear industry, worth about EUR 500 billion, is the largest segment of the whole textiles industry (Stotz and Kane, 2015[70]). The clothing industry, of which women are the largest consumer group, uses numerous chemical substances (such as formaldehyde, dyes, residues of cleaning products and fabric and hygiene conditioner), some of which may affect the health of both textile workers (see Section 11.3.2) and wearers of clothes, and can also end up in the environment during manufacturing, use and disposal phases. When washed, some garments release plastic microfibers, of which around half a million tonnes every year contribute to ocean pollution – 16 times more than plastic microbeads from cosmetics (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2017[71]). Plastic microfibers also have direct effects on human health from chronic exposure, particularly visible in manufacturing workers (Buzzi and Börkey, n.d.[72]). Environmental and health concerns, such as carcinogenicity, mutagenicity and skin sensitisation arise in the cosmetics and cleaning products sectors, which also employ millions of women and target them as their main consumers (Nijkamp et al., 2014[73]).

Women also bear the brunt of childcare and along with this comes the responsibilities of it, such as changing nappies. Carrying the double-burden of paid and unpaid work – women are driven toward time-saving options, one of which is disposable nappies which generate a lot of waste. According to the United Kingdom’s Environment Agency, nappies accounted for 2-3% of all household waste in the country in 2005 (Aumonier and Collins, 2005[74]). Later calculations estimated that a single child’s disposable nappies results in a global warming impact equivalent to about 550 kg of carbon dioxide within a period of two and a half years, amounting to approximately 700 Mt of carbon dioxide equivalents per year for the United Kingdom (Aumônier, Collins and Garrett, 2008[75]). In Australia an estimated 3.75 million nappies enter landfills per year, and an estimated 4.2 million tonnes of nappies are discarded per year in the United States (Sustainability Victoria, 2020[76]). Wet wipes are also problematic and the build-up of discarded wipes in the United Kingdom is even changing the shape of British riverbeds as they accumulate in mounds (Van der Zee, 2018[77]).

Women also utilise an array of disposable products, such as tampons and sanitary pads, which often consist of plastic. Over the course of her lifetime, a woman may use between five and 15 000 pads or tampons. Knowing exactly how much waste these products create is not so easy to track, but the amount of tampons sold per year are in the tens of billions, with a third sold in the United States alone in 2018 (Borunda, 2019[78]).

Hence, while women may in general have a predisposition to engage in environmental matters, they have a long way to go to achieve more sustainable consumption. The concern arises partially from the lack of awareness and education on sustainability, and partially from the lack of alternatives for basic necessities that are more sustainable but still affordable, as well as from cultural and societal norms that impose unsustainable consumption patterns on women and men.

Agenda 2030 has set out some ambitious targets under SDG 12, including substantially reducing waste generation by 2030 through prevention, reduction, recycling and reuse, and halving per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer levels. The concept of the circular economy is indispensable to achieving sustainable resource management and reducing carbon emissions through fundamental shifts in the way we produce and consume. As identified in the OECD RE-CIRCLE project, transitioning towards a circular economy, through business models that are more resource efficient and promote the reduce-recycle-reuse triptych, is expected to strengthen growth prospects, increase the competitiveness of domestic firms and create jobs in innovative sectors. When the circular economy is supported by advancements in the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) sector and digitalisation, it can contribute to both resource productivity growth and non-resource and externality benefits. For Europe, this has been calculated to a 7% GDP increase up to 2030, equivalent to an 11% increase in household disposable income, not to mention the positive effects on employment (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2015[79]).

A report by the Carbon Trust, UK Knowledge Transfer Network and Coventry University (Knowledge Transfer Network (KTN) et al., 2014[80]) estimated that remanufacturing typically uses 85% less energy than manufacturing, and that on a global scale it could offset more than 800 000 tonnes of CO2 emissions per annum. The circular economy can also boost growth and employment opportunities. The World Economic Forum and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimate that a shift in reusing, remanufacturing and recycling products could create more than half a million jobs in the recycling industry across Europe (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2013[81]).

Yet, so far, work on the circular economy has largely focused on the environmental and business aspects of circularity, while there has been little analysis of the social implications, in particular the role of women in leading the necessary transformations in the circular economy, the skill set needed, and the impact on women’s job opportunities. As Murray et al (2015) point out, “key social equality aspects such as gender, racial and financial equality, inter- and intra-generational equity and equality of social opportunities are [still] often absent in the existing conceptualizations of the circular economy” (Murray, Skene and Haynes, 2017[82]).

On the production side, the circular economy needs to look at all the steps of the chain to minimise the use of resources and their ecological footprint; to keep resources in circulation for as long as possible; and to recover as much as possible of those resources at the product’s end of service life via recycling. Products are therefore designed in a way to facilitate reuse and recycling. A well-designed circular economy also needs to promote sustainable consumption practices that minimise waste by extending the service life of products and promoting the sharing economy and second hand markets. Without understanding consumer behaviour, it is not possible to design sustainable circular economy models.

A move towards a more circular economy can enable gender equality and women’s empowerment. Considering women’s role in the local community, their engagement with household tasks, including waste management, and their consumption patterns, they are likely to benefit greatly from a shift towards circular economy and better waste management. Such a shift would not only reduce the environmental damage, waste generation and pollution caused by the production and consumption of materials, but could also support women’s efforts in the waste management business to increase their income (through recycling and reusing) in a safer environment (minimising danger from toxic substances and contaminated products). Hence, circular economy could generate economic opportunities for women, boosting female employment and green entrepreneurship. In addition, developing financial support mechanisms that could promote such female entrepreneurship and employment, together with the necessary upskilling that the shift to green jobs might entail, could further support women to be equally represented in the sector. Integrating a gender perspective is therefore essential for the successful implementation of a circular economy strategy.

Engaging women in the circular economy – awareness-raising on sustainable consumption and encouraging participation in leadership and managerial roles - is indispensable to create good circular systems. A move towards a more circular economy can be designed to encourage gender equality. As women are more often segregated into jobs with low pay, low security and limited social mobility, the rise of green jobs as part of the circular economy movement offers an opportunity to empower women (ILO, 2015[83]).

The development of more economically and environmentally sustainable value chains is interlinked with achieving gender equality. Women’s social responsibilities make them ideally positioned to manage natural resources, such as land, water and air, and contribute to local and global value chains. In developing countries, given their role in collecting water and biofuel and growing subsistence crops, women have a unique repertoire of knowledge and skills. However, the gender gap in access to resources, assets and decision-making undermines women’s ability to efficiently contribute to the economy and promote sustainable development.

With the development of global value chains, production and sourcing take place on an increasingly global scale. Women generally have less of a say in production, as they have fewer assets and less access to leadership positions, especially in manufacturing activities and natural resource sectors, such as mining and energy. In 2013, only 10% of employees in large-scale extractive industry were women. Furthermore, studies show that in countries with high dependence on mining, oil and gas extraction, women were much less likely to be in leadership positions than men (World Bank, 2015[84]).

Improving gender equality and sustainable economies is mutually reinforcing. For instance, closing the gender gap in agriculture (by increasing access to assets, land and opportunities) would enable women to increase their yield by 20% to 30%, leading to a rise in total agricultural production in developing countries by 2.5% to 4%, and thus reducing the number of food insecure people worldwide by 12% to 17% (FAO, 2016[85]). Improving efficiency in agriculture also helps women free up time for other responsibilities and alleviates the triple burden of caring for children, the elderly and working. In addition, the integration of women in local value chains enables regional suburban development, thereby reducing urban resettlement and the pressures of urban living.

Women could play a central role in the circular economy as consumers, by steering companies towards production methods based on the circular economy. There have been important efforts recently in women-focused industries such as the fashion industry. So-called sustainable fashion is becoming more apparent, and covers clothing, shoes and accessories that are produced, marketed and consumed in a sustainable way, both from an environmental and a socio-economic aspect. Apart from the choice of materials, companies are taking initiatives with the potential to reduce materials use, embrace the fashion reuse market, set up their own recycling system, or manufacture clothes from certified textiles. Many new and some repositioned old clothing brands are now focusing more on a greater sustainable production of clothes, on recycling, on using sustainable and responsible materials. Standards against “greenwashing” are being developed. The EU only recently approved the so-called “Taxonomy Regulation” for financial activities [Regulation (EU) 2020/852], and the OECD has developed sustainable finance definitions and taxonomies (OECD, 2020[86]). It would be worth examining how to expand such approach to other economic activities currently not covered by it, such as apparel manufacturing.

The current COVID-19 crisis is expected to change consumer behaviour towards the apparel industry. First of all, the changes in everyday habits and needs, due to restrictions in moving, is estimated to bring a 27-30% fall in revenues in 2020 compared to 2019 (McKinsey, 2020[87]). The 2020 McKinsey report also foresees a change in the type of apparel items people consume, estimating a shift towards more sustainable products. In the United States and Europe alone 15% of consumers are expected to buy more sustainable clothing. Fashion companies are also expected to change their business models, moving towards more sustainable design (clothes with multiple uses, which may be adapted to seasons and needs) (McKinsey, 2020[87]).

Additionally, the circular economy is increasingly getting attention as 71% of customers are expressing a greater interest in circular business models, such as rental, resale, and refurbishment, and many are showing interest in investing in higher quality apparel after the pandemic (GFA and McKinsey, 2020[88]). Moreover, there are a lot of gains which could be saved from circular business models considering that more than USD 500 billion of value is lost annually due to clothing under-utilisation and lack of recycling (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2017[71]).

When it comes to fashion companies that self-define as sustainable and ethical, women seem to occupy more senior management positions in this part of the clothing sector. In 60 sustainable brands that are active internationally, 52% of CEOs are women (Figure 11.1). According to a 2019 report, only 12.5% of Fortune 1000 companies in the apparel industry have female CEOs, even though women do occupy a larger percentage in middle management positions (PwC, 2019[89]).

Women have parlayed their unique experiences into the development and advocacy of eco-friendly and sustainable products that reduce waste. Notable are reusable alternatives to one-use, disposable sanitary pads, tampons, and nappies pioneered by women. Innovative solutions such as Thinx underwear, or Mooncups (reusable silicone menstrual cup) were created by women. The Mooncup is used by women in over 50 countries and is estimated to have reduced the use of 2.4 billion tampons that would have ended up in waste streams (Stewart, n.d.[90]).

In modern times, women have eschewed reusable cloth nappies due to the dirty and time consuming task of cleaning and sanitising them. Nevertheless, women around the world are now entering the cloth nappy business through their own start-ups, and promote their products that result in cost savings over-time, are more easily maintained, and reduce overall waste that enters waste streams (such as Bumpadum, Cotton Babies, Superbottoms, Esembly, Magabi etc.).

In developing countries, waste handling represents a considerable source of income, especially for the more disadvantaged female groups. The transition to more sustainable waste management can generate economic opportunities for women in recycling and waste management, and in parallel the move to better organising informal waste pickers could help to tackle the risks of waste picking and manual recycling of products. Leveraging these opportunities requires a consideration of a gender perspective in the development of national and local circular economy strategies and measures, as well as relevant initiatives at the business level (OECD, 2019[91]).

An example where initiatives engaging women resulted in improved sanitation and sustainable consumption took place in Harare, Zimbabwe (Davies and Kudzai, 2016[92]). By including women in solid waste management, proper sanitation behaviour across the community improved, together with household income as waste management generates returns. A similar initiative took place in Bangalore, India (Huysman, 1994[93]). In Indonesia, the government launched a Waste Bank initiative in 2008, which has created employment opportunities for women as well as increased their income (OECD, 2019[91]) (Box 11.1).

Another example is a company in Uttar Pradesh, India, which employs over 150 women from the lower social and economic strata to collect flowers daily from more than 30 temples and mosques. The company detoxifies the flowers of all the major insecticides and pesticides and uses them to make incense and soaps. The flowers would have normally ended up in the Ganges River, polluting the water (Lewandowska, 2019[94]).

Despite these positive examples, women generally remain absent in the ownership and senior management of large recycling companies and landfill operators, where marginal profits appear to be the highest (Krishnan et al., 2019[13]). Also, the modernisation of waste management generally makes it capital and technology intensive, with reduced employment opportunities for less qualified labour (Durgekar, 2016[95]), such as women when compared to men.

A focus on women and vulnerable groups, should be at the core of initiatives to modernise waste management (Groh, 2017[96]). Guaranteeing women that they will also benefit from initiatives that support skills development or innovation in the sector would make sure that they would not be marginalised or excluded in the next steps. Civil society organisations also have a key role to play in championing labour rights and the empowerment of women, including via stakeholder consultations and campaigns to raise awareness raising (Samson, 2010[97]).

SDG Target 12.1 calls for the implementation of the 10-year Framework of Programmes on Sustainable Consumption and Production (SCP) Patterns. According to the UN Statistics Division, 71 countries around the world – and the European Union - have developed such action plans or mainstreamed sustainable consumption and production as a priority in national policies (Figure 11.2). Yet, few countries effectively integrate a gender perspective into their SCP strategies and policies. For instance, the EU Circular Economy Action Plan does not report any differentiated gender actions, and there are few references in other national plans to the differentiated impacts of unsustainable production and consumption by gender or the specific conditions for empowering women as more responsible consumers (EC, 2020[98]).

Regions and cities, where most of the people live and will be living in the future (70% of the global population by 2050), are taking actions towards the transition to the circular economy. Cities like London, Paris, Amsterdam, but also smaller cities in size like Valladolid, Granada, Umeå and Groningen, to name a few, are developing and implementing circular economy strategies (UNDESA, 2018[100]). Projections show that greenhouse gas emissions are likely to decrease by half a million tonnes of CO2 per year in the City of Amsterdam (Circle Economy, 2018[101]); that circular approaches applied to the built environment, food, textiles, electronics and plastics in London are estimated at USD 9.3 billion every year by 2036 (LWARB, 2015[102]); finally, in the Île-de-France about 50 000 jobs linked to the circular economy are estimated to be created (Mairie de Paris, 2019[103]) (OECD, 2020[104]).

The OECD Programme on the Circular Economy in Cities and Regions supports them in defining their role as promoters, facilitators and enablers of the circular economy (OECD, n.d.[105]). As such, it is widely recognised that transitioning from a linear to a circular economy is a shared responsibility across governments and a wide range of stakeholders, including women.

Communications policies, financial incentives, and behavioural policies are part of the toolkit to ‘nudge’ consumers towards the SDGs. As highlighted in the 2018 Western Cape Government-OECD Behavioural Insights Conference in Cape Town, South Africa, behavioural insights could be used to promote better outcomes in key policy areas such as improving education and youth policies; creating safer communities; making better choices in water, energy and transport; and delivering better health services and results. Given women’s role in consumption decisions, their sensitivity to sustainability concerns and the different roles women and men play in the household, behaviourally-informed policy solutions may help promote sustainable choices that provide better outcomes for all (OECD, 2017[106]); (Western Cape Government and OECD, 2018[107]).

Consumption patterns can be heavily influenced via effective public communications campaigns and labelling. Building on behavioural insights can support consumers in reaching more sustainable consumption choices by adapting messages across different social groups. Businesses, media and citizen engagement can play a significant role in changing unsustainable consumption patterns and in transitioning towards a sustainable economy.

Although fossil fuel subsidies are not gender-specific, discriminatory effects can arise where policies fail to address the social barriers that women face in accessing services (Elson and United Nations Development Fund for Women., 2006[108]).

Despite the redistributive intent behind many fossil fuel subsidies, the literature shows them to be, on the whole, regressive. This is due to wealthier segments of the population capturing the majority of consumer subsides, given their higher consumption and access to energy. This is notably the case for liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) in India and kerosene in Bangladesh and Nigeria (Merrill et al., 2019[109]). The IEA has pointed out the regressive impact of fossil fuel subsidies, estimating that in 2010, the poorest 20% received only 5% of subsidies for LPG, 9% of subsidies for electricity, 10% of subsidies for natural gas and 15% of subsidies for kerosene (IEA, 2011[110]). This observed regressive effect is especially felt by low-income women, who have limited access to currently subsidised fuels (such as LPG in India) and many are not aware of the existence of such subsidies (such as in Bangladesh and Nigeria - (Merrill et al., 2019[109])).

As responsibility for cooking decisions tends to be gendered in countries surveyed by research [Nigeria, India, Bangladesh, Indonesia (Kusumawardhani et al., 2017[111]); (Merrill et al., 2019[109]); (Zinecker et al., 2020[112])], subsidy reform for fossil fuels used for cooking such as kerosene in Nigeria, or LPG in India should target women when planning mitigation measures. In low-income households, fuel price was found to be the most significant factor when determining household consumption. Thus, subsidised fossil fuels have the effect of locking poorer households into use (kerosene subsidies in Nigeria and Bangladesh – (Merrill et al., 2019[109])), where women are often found to bear the detrimental health effects and loss of time linked to using a cheaper fuel. This effect is amplified in rural areas where households have access to ‘free energy’. For example, 51% of households in Imo State, Nigeria, stated that they would use more biomass to cope with price increases (Merrill et al., 2019[109]). Fossil fuel subsidies should be removed to align fuel prices with the social cost they incur, a cost which is heavily borne by women. Nevertheless, reforms solely based around cooking fuels and women may further reinforce existing gender roles within households.

At the same time, OECD analysis on Indonesia’s fossil fuel subsidy reform and its distributional impacts has indicated that redistribution schemes such as cash transfers are the most progressive from a social perspective while also meeting environmental and economic goals (Durand-Lasserve et al., 2015[113]). Schemes such as food subsidies and labour support are less progressive. Applying a gender lens when designing redistribution schemes, by focusing on single-parent households, or by moving to more disaggregated analysis in the household, could help provide clearer guidance to guarantee that such schemes do not discriminate against women and girls in the household.

Limitations to be overcome in this area of research include establishing a causal link between reform and witnessed impacts, and estimating the magnitude of said impacts. Kitson et al., (2016) addresses this shortfall by surveying the literature and beginning to tackle the issue by hypothesising on the gender effects of fossil fuel subsidy reform, given it results in a fuel price rise (Kitson et al., 2016[114]). Further research can build on this by relaxing this assumption and exploring scenarios other than a fuel price rise.

A number of policy actions are needed to better integrate a gender perspective into global, national and local efforts to shift production and consumption towards more sustainable patterns:

  • Collect gender-disaggregated evidence on the environmental damage caused by unsustainable production and consumption patterns, with a focus on vulnerable groups and taking intersectionalities into account. Greater awareness is needed on women’s exposure to environmental damage in certain sectors such as garments and waste management, where they are overrepresented in the workforce.

  • Develop a better understanding of consumer behaviour across genders, integrating lessons learned from behavioural insights and traditional sustainable practices, of which women are often knowledge holders, and leveraging local value chains for sustainability. In particular, there is a need for an up-to-date survey on gender differences in consumer attitudes to sustainability and their drivers. This would allow developing policies that ensure a “just transition” for all, but would also inform how to make the new economic paradigm operational and sustainable.

  • Ensure a systematic gender equality perspective on the circular economy strategies and action plans. Targeting gender roles and behavioural preferences in consumption as well as waste generation and prevention could be a key pillar in the transition to a circular economy not only by reducing waste but also by addressing some gender inequalities through recognising the value of jobs supporting circular economies. Women’s exposure to environmental and health stressors need to be considered in this effort in order to guarantee their health and safety.

  • Develop gender-responsive skills strategies to strengthen women’s career opportunities in green economy sectors. Equipped with the right information, knowledge, and competences, women can play a growing role in transforming industrial practices towards more sustainable methods.

  • There is a need to mobilise business, media and civil society to ensure more responsible business conduct that integrates gender and environmental considerations. Along with public communication campaigns and behavioural policies by governments, businesses and the media should play an active role in promoting sustainable and ethical business practices and encouraging responsible consumer behaviour. This also requires taking an integrated gender-sustainability angle in the monitoring and management of social and environmental risks, including in international initiatives such as the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, the OECD’s work on Responsible Business Conduct and the UN’s Global Compact. Policymakers should also consider a gender lens when designing environmental regulations, carbon pricing and other climate policies that lead to more sustainable production and consumption patterns.

  • There is room for further research on the effect of fossil fuel subsidy reform, through a gender lens. While a substantial amount of research has been conducted on the differentiated consumption of fossil fuels by gender, research on the impact of energy policy reform on gender equality is limited, further still concerning fossil fuel subsidy reform.

  • Subsidy reform needs to be undertaken with care, and mitigation measures are needed to protect poor women: Increasing the price of subsidised fuels without any support measures could hurt poor women, especially where they are using subsidised cooking fuels. Secondary impacts, such as on studying or leisure time, should also be taken into consideration.

  • Education and information campaigns must accompany fossil fuel subsidy reform in order to ensure access to clean fuels for women. This is because the level of education of women has been found to be a significant factor when switching between fuels (Nigeria - (Zinecker et al., 2020[112])); (Guatemala, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Pakistan and Sri Lanka - (Kojima, 2011[115])).

  • A focus on connection over consumption subsidies can encourage gender empowerment around decisions to purchase new cooking equipment for LPG and overcome upfront connection costs (Merrill et al., 2019[109]).


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