Circular Economy: A new research field?

Action to pursue the Circular Economy transition is burgeoning in the government and the private sector. Does this action signal that Circular Economy is a distinct field of research with a unique disciplinary identity?


This article, written by Julian Kirchherr, Andrea Urbinati, and Kris Hartley, argues that Circular Economy has reached field status, through its own epistemic communities and through institutionalized knowledge development. The recent growth of Circular Economy research points toward more contextualized and nuanced operationalizations of the concept. This is the evidence that the field is approaching a threshold state of maturity. Drawing on observations from academic literature and discussions with researchers and experts, the article traces the process by which Circular Economy has arrived at the status of a field.


What is Circular Economy?

Recent decades have seen the emergence of numerous scholarly ideas and concepts about sustainability pathways. Examples are industrial ecology, cleaner production, sustainable consumption and production, cradle-to-cradle, biomimicry, the blue economy, the green economy, and green growth. These and other terms, viewed critically, characterize the so-called “sustainababble”—budding ideas that become empty signifiers rather than substantive pathways toward sustainability.


A recent addition to the list of potential sustainababble is the Circular Economy, an idea that has been called “superficial” and a “patch” in part because it is “almost exclusively developed and driven by practitioners”. At the same time, practical implementation of Circular Economy appears to remain at an early stage. The Circularity Gap Report found that the world was only 8.6% circular in 2021 and declining.


Notwithstanding this arrested progress, the Circular Economy concept is thriving in scholarship. This article considers whether Circular Economy research displays traits of an academic field with its own unique disciplinary identity. As far as the authors are aware, no study specifically discusses the potential of Circular Economy to be a distinct field of scholarship. There exists a set of generally shared beliefs and concepts around the “how,” “what,” and “why” of Circular Economy, but also that these are not free of controversy and debate. Additionally, it is observed that epistemic communities dedicated to Circular Economy have emerged through conferences, scholarly societies, and other knowledge exchange platforms. These developments suggest that the Circular Economy concept is mature enough to be considered a distinct field of scholarship.


Circular Economy as a field of scholarship

Definitions abound regarding what constitutes an academic discipline versus a field. While both can share conceptual and institutional footings, many scholars still states that the field is not, or at least not yet, as organized as disciplines. We observe Ehrenfeld‘s definition of fields, which consists of four criteria:


  1. 1. Foundational beliefs and concepts that lend a common meaning to all players;
  2. 2. Practical resources like textbooks and standard tools;
  3. 3. Authoritative structure maintaining quality and (some) conceptual coherence;
  4. 4. Community of actors participating in the aforementioned activities.


Foundational beliefs

It is well documented that Circular Economy is a contested idea. There are different sources of this contestation: core principles (the “how” of Circular Economy), aims (the “why” of Circular Economy), and enablers (the “what” of Circular Economy).


Early Circular Economy literature either portrayed it as both an ends and a means or ignored what the adoption of circularity principles was intended to achieve altogether. However, we observe that the literature has begun to view Circular Economy as an instrument to achieve sustainability. That is apparent in the increasing use of the term “sustainable circular economy” and in the high citation count.


Convergence in the Circular Economy-sustainability narrative can be found, for example, in calls for a sufficiency-based Circular Economy. This idea considers how the private sector, public sector, and consumers can collaborate on Circular Economy initiatives that ensure that consumption and production do not exceed planetary boundaries. Other examples include the salience of the “reduce” concept and the idea that Circular Economy implementation necessitates a systemic shift. The systems perspective emerged from an early contribution by Boulding concerning “economics of the coming spaceship earth”—often viewed as a foundational article in Circular Economy.


Even with this increased focus of Circular Economy literature on sustainability, environmental and economic sustainability is the primary topic, with less attention on social sustainability. In this way, the literature demonstrates a preference for “partial sustainability.” Regarding environmental and economic sustainability, the mainstream view appears to remain that a de-coupling of environmental degradation and economic growth is possible, but a smaller and more critical line of scholarship challenges this view. Even scholars who argue that de-coupling is possible often acknowledge that circular practices do not necessarily enhance sustainability and that “circular rebound” may occur.


Practical resources

The second criterion for a field is the presence of practical resources, including standards-based guides, handbooks, tools, and metrics. Efforts to create and consolidate resources across academia, companies, and supporting organizations suggest that Circular Economy is progressing into a field. Circular Economy related handbooks and guides have proliferated in recent years, many of which are written by practitioners even as most are printed by academic publishers.


Tools aiding Circular Economy implementation, including assessment of circularity performance, are not commonly used by companies or public sector entities. However, the topic has seen growing research attention, suggesting that some conceptual convergence may eventually arise. Circular Economy indicators, as a subset of tools, have been proposed at the micro-, meso-, and macro-levels, with micro-level indicators around circular business model implementation the best developed. Tools for meso-level implementation of Circular Economy have received the least attention in scholarship and practical application.


Authority

A field must entail an authoritative structure maintaining quality, and academic journals typically play this role when a field of scholarship emerges.


The Journal of Cleaner Production is currently a leader in volume of Circular Economy research published, although the journal is not dedicated specifically to Circular Economy. A group of scholars has also recently launched the Journal of Circular Economy, an open access outlet that is outside the mainstream academic publishing realm. The growing volume of Circular Economy research will likely strengthen the demand for Circular Economy specific special issues, subsections, and dedicated journals. Authority also manifests itself in Circular Economy specific research units within universities and chair positions focused on Circular Economy related research.


Community of actors

Shared beliefs and concepts, practical resources, and authorities are all developed and maintained by communities of actors, manifest in part through issue-specific conferences and societies. Circular Economy is now a prominent topic at various disciplinary conferences, while conferences dedicated specifically to Circular Economy are increasingly common.


Circular Economy is now often the topic of dedicated panels at major academic conferences, including the Annual Meetings of the American Association of Geographers and the American Economic Association. Conferences dedicated to Circular Economy have recently been held in Europe, Latin America, the United States, Australia, and Asia. Notably, almost all of these conferences bring together academics and practitioners, but the focus is primarily on application.


Experts suggest that this phenomenon is unique to Circular Economy in comparison to other sustainability-related fields. This phenomenon may also reflect the highly applied nature of the field, suggesting that theoretical novelty is scarce—particularly in comparison to sustainability-allied disciplines like economics, public policy, political economy, and others. Possibly due to the dominance of practitioners, Circular Economy dedicated conferences and their keynote speakers tend to be well-funded.


Conclusion

When a field is recognized by scholars and institutionalized through academic authority structures, knowledge development is further enabled. If a sociologist begins studying Circular Economy while failing to consider the topic as a research field, the scholar may be concerned only with addressing research gaps in sociology. However, when considering Circular Economy as a field, that scholar’s perspective can become more integrated, interdisciplinary, and multi-methodological.


Recognition and institutionalization of a field also imply a certain epistemic stability. While authorities give in-principal and rhetorical support to interdisciplinarity and conceptual novelty, commitment to disciplinary silos remains embedded in how organizations are structured and how the research community evaluates work.


There remain other challenges to Circular Economy’s progress as a field. While some of the most influential Circular Economy research has been authored by practitioners and practice-oriented researchers, the field has become more academic and new scholarly ideas may not always support practical implementation. For example, recent research has focused on the relationship between Circular Economy and economic growth, including degrowth.


Circular Economy may be the most celebrated sustainability idea of the past decade, and its salience is likely to endure in the coming decade. Ten years after publication of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s flagship report, Circular Economy draws attention across academic disciplines and practitioner communities. The authors of the article propose that Circular Economy has indeed emerged as a field of scholarship with an increasingly coherent set of shared beliefs and concepts, numerous practical resources, enabling authorities, and a vibrant community of actors. The field connects scholars and practitioners to an extent that is unique among sustainability-related research subfields. Further, the institutionalization of Circular Economy is well-advanced in academia and progressing in industry and government. This suggests that the concept is a robust and durable field of both scholarship and practice.

Do you want to find out more information on circular economy and its themes? Visit Tondo’s blog!


This text is an excerpt from an article published in the scientific journal “Journal of Industrial Ecology,” with the following reference: “Kirchherr, J., Urbinati, A., & Hartley, K. (2023). Circular economy: A new research field?”. Journal of Industrial Ecology, 27(5), 1239-1251.” It can be read in its entirety at this link.

Andrea Urbinati

Andrea Urbinati, Ph.D., is Senior Assistant Professor of Sustainability & Circular Economy at the School of Industrial Engineering of LIUC Università Cattaneo, Italy. His research interests concern the fields of sustainability and circular economy, with a focus on the design of new business models. He is Deputy Director of LIUC’s Green Transition Hub and a member of the Core Faculty of LIUC ... Read more

Andrea Urbinati, Ph.D., is Senior Assistant Professor of Sustainability & Circular Economy at the School of Industrial Engineering of LIUC Università Cattaneo, Italy. His research interests concern the fields of sustainability and circular economy, with a focus on the design of new business models. He is Deputy Director of LIUC’s Green Transition Hub and a member of the Core Faculty of LIUC Business School, LIUC’s School of Management.

Andrea obtained his Ph.D. in Management Engineering at the School of Management of Polytechnic of Milan. He is also a member of the Extended Faculty of the Graduate School of Business of the Polytechnic of Milan (POLIMI-GSOM), where he teaches in MBA, Executive MBA, Flex EMBA, and specialist master’s programs. Andrea has more than ninety publications, including articles in international journals, books and book chapters, national and international conferences. Andrea is Associate Editor in several scientific journals and Ordinary Member of the International Society for Circular Economy (IS4CE). In 2023 he was included in the world’s top 2% of scientists in the list drawn up annually by Stanford University.