Green Economy

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A skilled workforce is critical for a green economy

Without an investment into artisanal skills and technical and vocational training and education (TVET), South Africa will not benefit from the employment dividends of the green economy. This is according to Lauren Hermanus, Director of Adapt, a consulting practice that provides a platform to convene teams of thinkers and doers from a network of sustainable development professionals. She says while progressive policy frameworks are in place, more needs to be done in terms of implementation. 

According to the United Nations Environment Programme, sectors such as farming, architecture, science and teaching will be heavily affected as the world transitions towards a green, circular economy. According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), almost half of young people in 2021 felt they did not have the right skills to contribute to this. In the WEF 2020 Future of Jobs report, employers estimated that four in 10 workers will need to be reskilled in the near future.

Hermanus says the narrow definition of the green economy — as those sectors and industries that produce goods and services that are resource-efficient and restorative of the ecological damage caused by the broader economy — is no longer sufficient. “We need to transform our economy broadly to change supply and demand dynamics to operate equitably within ecological limits,” she explains. “We must connect social and ecological thinking and planning to achieve this.” 

She says for this to happen, accountability is key: “We must be realistic about who has consumed our global society into the state it is in now — it is the Global North. As we transition to a green economy, a just transition means accounting for the exploitation of people and ecosystems in developing countries.” 

Hermanus has ample experience in sustainable development research and practice. “I have worked on this for more than 10 years, bringing together an interest in systemic transformation and an ethical imperative to respond to our most pressing societal challenges.” She has worked in the private and public sectors, academia and with NGOs, focusing on sustainable energy innovation, urban resilience and green economic development.

South Africa has a huge amount of green economy policy in place, and a great legislative framework, including the draft Climate Change Bill. “However, we need to accelerate our implementation and the level of coherent cooperation across the public and private sectors to drive it,” she says.  

This also requires buy-in from the public: “What this means in practice is that, on the demand side, on the whole we need to consume less — fewer goods and services in the economy — and reverse ecological damage. Within this consumption, developing economies and marginalised people need a greater share of this global allocation to live dignified lives.”

On the supply side: “What we consume needs to be much more efficient; we must do what we do with less energy, fewer resources and by offsetting any ecological impacts we create. We need to provide goods and services that utilise reuse and recycling of inputs, and we need to minimise the waste that is produced from these goods and services.” 

This means closing the loop between production and consumption. “Instead of a straight line that leads from, for example, harvesting raw materials, to manufacturing, to use, to the landfill, we need to loop that line into a circle,” she explains. “In other words, waste needs to be redirected back into production processes, and into energy generation.” 

For South Africa to reap the economic and social benefits of the green economy, there must be a concerted focus and investment at all levels of operations. “In terms of what is included in the green economy, sometimes we can be overly focussed on shiny high-tech solutions,” she explains. “What is missed out is the foundational investments in conservation, ecological infrastructure and nature-based solutions that are sometimes challenging to monetise.” This, she says, is a global challenge and not unique to the country or the continent. 

The green economy will create millions of new jobs and careers globally, but creating new employment opportunities is only part of the equation;  developing an appropriately skilled workforce is critical. “As green industries start off, especially in the high-tech space, specialised skills requiring advanced university qualifications are frequently required,” Hermanus explains. 

“However, there are a range of other artisanal skills that are going to be needed too, and to make sure that these skills are available, we must undertake a broad reform and investment in our TVET sector.” She says that without these investments, South Africa will not be able to benefit from the employment dividend of green economy investments. — Jamaine Krige

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A full circle: Promoting sustainability while creating opportunity

A South African venture has gained global recognition for its innovative upliftment programme that not only uplifts individuals and communities, but also contributes to sustainability and the promotion of a circular economy. The Clothing Bank (TCB) runs a two-year skills development programme, training unemployed men and women to start their own businesses and earn a living from selling clothes and appliances donated by major retailers. 

The Clothing Bank helps small businesses, and at the same time reduces retail chain waste

According to the Council for Industrial and Scientific Research (CSIR) South Africa has a very linear, resource-extractive-based economy, with large throughputs of resources, predominantly inland extraction and manufacturing of goods; export of resources for further international beneficiation; little resource “investment” in local stocks; and even smaller resource returns into the economy. 

The South African government recognises the benefits that a transition to a more circular economy could provide the country. As outlined in the White Paper on Science, Technology and Innovation: “The circular economy is recognised as a new source of growth for South Africa, together with other game-changing developments such as the fourth industrial revolution.”

The CSIR’s Professor Linda Godfrey says the circular economy has largely been misinterpreted as a waste issue, often used interchangeably with waste recycling, but it is about so much more than that: “The circular economy is about sustainable resource management. It is about managing South Africa’s future development risks by understanding the availability of resources and keeping these resources circulating productively within the economy.” 

And that is exactly what The Clothing Bank (TCB) has managed to do. The non-profit company was started in 2010 as a solution to the problem of excess stock in the retail supply chain, and in 2021 alone received more than 1.8-million items from its retail partners. It creates self-employment and small business opportunities for unemployed people while also reducing retail chain waste, by redirecting quality products such as end-of-sale merchandise and customer returns from partners like the Mr Price group, Macro and Checkers to SMMEs. 

Co-founder and COO of TCB Tracey Gilmore says the organisation has managed to buck the negative effects of a challenging global economy — helping its participants generate more than R60-million in annual profits —  while still putting sustainability, social and economic development at the forefront of its operations. 

This year, TCB made it onto a list of global corporate-ready social enterprises, alongside similar organisations from 43 countries. The Corporate-Ready: How Corporations and Social Enterprises Do Business Together to Drive Impact report from Acumen and IKEA Social Entrepreneurship was launched to highlight new survey data, demonstrating how social enterprises can bring inclusion, social impact and sustainability to corporate value chains.

Based on data gathered from more than 150 social impact-oriented businesses globally, the report provides recommendations for how companies can use their procurement spending, estimated at $13-trillion globally, to source from social enterprises and advance their environmental and social commitments.

Gilmore explains that these partnerships are good for retailers in terms of social responsibility and transformation, but also help with sustainability and contribute to communities by promoting entrepreneurship and employment on a wide scale. She said the group was delighted to feature among the world’s social enterprise leaders in the prestigious global report. “Our group’s success has always been built on power partnerships with corporate South Africa, and we have a blueprint that can work globally.” 

Yasmina Zaidman, Chief Partnerships Officer at Acumen, commented: “This research has shown us how the success of social enterprises and of corporations are intertwined. These corporate-ready social enterprises are helping corporations solve business challenges while driving major progress on their sustainability and inclusion goals.”

The TCB’s latest initiative, TradeUp, supports unemployed seamstresses with training and access to repurposed “dead stock” such as sample fabrics and trims from the retail and manufacturing supply chain.

Gilmore says she hopes that organisations like TCB can continue to grow their networks and partner with other corporates, both locally and globally: “Just as successful entrepreneurs solve many of the world’s problems through innovation, we believe that social enterprises hold enormous potential to partner with corporates to help them address their challenges, while broadening their horizons to solutions that may lead to a positive impact on society.” — Jamaine Krige

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How the green economy impacts all sectors

The green economy should not be seen as a separate sector, but rather as an overarching ideology that infiltrates all other industries and all levels of economic engagement. According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), certain sectors that will require a much higher investment into green solutions, and a more intense focus on upskilling and reskilling workers  to  stay relevant. 

The demand for green skills is particularly acute in the energy industry; the sector could need as many as 400 000 new recruits by 2050. “More than half of these recruits will be in roles that don’t currently exist,” says Steve Holliday, president of the Energy Institute. He says that alongside engineering roles, diverse skills like behaviour change, digitalisation and data will also be needed. 

The WEF says these jobs and sectors will be impacted as the transition to a green economy is prioritised: 

Theoretical and applied scientists 

Across the board, the green economy will be heavily reliant on workers with a strong science background going forward. These roles will include environmental scientists, biologists, hydrologists and biochemists, who will be involved in monitoring, managing and protecting natural resources, and for coming up with innovative processes to further sustainability goals.

Architects and building planners

There will be a need for existing and new buildings to be more energy efficient, with fewer resources used from the point of construction through to operations, maintenance, renovations and demolition. Architects and planners will design these buildings to comply with environmental regulations and client demands for green spaces. Rising energy costs, resource insecurity and changing regulations have led to an urgent need for more energy-efficient buildings in South Africa. Buildings generate nearly 40% of annual CO2 emissions.

Green engineers and technicians 

Green engineering will be in the spotlight as the need increases for new technologies and environmentally-friendly solutions. Aside from the design of alternative-energy solutions, there will also be a need for technicians skilled in maintaining technologies such as solar panels, wind turbines and low emissions vehicles.

Farming and agriculture 

With food security in the spotlight, farming and food supply chains must become more sustainable. This means that existing operations will need to adapt, but also that there will be new opportunities in areas like organic farming, urban farming and precision agriculture. This involves using data to improve farming efficiency.

Environmental justice

Environmental justice workers will operate at the intersection of human rights and environmental rights. According to the WEF, they will gain legal, social and historical awareness to ensure humanity does not repeat the mistakes of the past — especially mistakes that led to poor environmental and social health.

Systems development and operations 

The green economy will require workers who are able to design, operate and monitor a wide range of systems, assessing them against performance indicators and finding ways to optimise and improve system operations. — Jamaine Krige

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