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Social Impacts of the Circular Economy in the Built Environment

The absence of questions about equity, power, and social justice in the CE literature has been acknowledged by several authors. At the same time, there is an unfortunate history of environmental initiatives that resulted in unintended social harm. For example, “green redevelopments” resulted in gentrification and put residents out of work. Social life cycle assessments (S-LCA) can help fill this gap by shedding light on the social impacts of materials production and trade.

Group Planting a Tree

Dr. Melissa Bilec and I collaborated with anthropologists Dr. Cynthia Isenhour and Dr. Brieanne Berry to conduct S-LCAs and E-LCAs applied to building products with different durability (see figure). Our study highlighted challenges in the emerging S-LCA methodology and its interpretation in the context of CE. Among the challenges were the different data aggregation and spatial boundaries of S-LCA and E-LCA databases. Finally, we discussed the applicability of the social indicators currently used in S-LCA methods to social justice issues surrounding CE. In a parallel initiative, Dr. Bilec and I collaborated with Dr. Isenhour’s research team to explore whether social justice issues emerged in CE discourse. We investigated CE reports by American organizations and concluded that, when addressed at all, social justice issues discourse leaned heavily toward neoliberal forms of justice, that is, emphasized the free pursuit of mutual self-interest, the protection of private property, and freedom of choice. We argued that the neoliberal logic of justice is insufficient to ensure a just and inclusive CE and that other forms of justice (e.g., distributive justice, procedural justice) are necessary. An article resulting from this work is currently in press.

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