Sustainable Circular Economy

Mission Statement of the Sustainable Circular Economy Section

Absolute decoupling of global resource use, land use and greenhouse gas emissions from economic growth and wellbeing is crucial to mitigate the climate crisis and to return global society into the safe operating space within Planetary Boundaries. Expectations are high that the circular economy (CE) is a new framework delivering such decoupling, by transforming unsustainable, linear take-make-dispose production-consumption systems into sustainable and circular ones. Narrower, slower, cascading and closed materials cycles are expected to minimize waste, save energy and reduce emissions, while delivering the products and services for high wellbeing. 

The vision of the ISIE section on the “Sustainable Circular Economy (SCE),” is to facilitate scientifically grounded discussions and action on the concept of the Circular Economy to meet these grand sustainability challenges of our time. In particular, we aim at contributing to the development of circular economy research that addresses all dimensions of sustainability in a systemic manner – environmental, economic and social. 

To fulfill this vision, the section draws on the systems-based approaches and methods of industrial ecology and beyond, to provide inter- and transdisciplinary assessments of the potentials, synergies and trade-offs for a sustainable circular economy. 

This section will:

  • Support the explicit conceptualization and analysis of the relationship between the concepts and practice of circular economy and sustainability.
  • Facilitate the development of the scientific grounds for a truly Sustainable Circular Economy, especially regarding technical and socio-economic systems vis a vis environmental limits and targets.
  • Advance approaches and methods of IE for covering CE topics.
  • Provide a platform for discussing IE and CE methodologies and CE across ISIE sections.
  • Offer a point of contact and collaboration for CE practitioners and researchers, and thus.
  • Explore synergies between researchers of IE and beyond to find comprehensive solutions for a Sustainable Circular Economy.
  • Serve as an expert platform for policy, practice and the media.
Beyond the Buzz? Narratives and Research Directions for a Sustainable Circular Economy

The current enthusiasm for the circular economy (CE) offers a unique opportunity to advance the impact of research on sustainability transitions. Diverse interpretations of CE by scholars, however, produce partly opposing assessments of its potential benefits, which can hinder progress. The study “Lessons, narratives, and research directions for a sustainable circular economy” (Open Access) by Leipold et al. (2023) [1] published in the Journal of Industrial Ecology, presents three ideal typical narratives prevalent in the research community, which provide crucial insights into policy-relevant lessons and future research directions for a sustainable circular economy (CE): the optimist, reformist, and skeptical narratives (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Narratives of policy-relevant lessons on a sustainable circular economy

The study is relevant to the Sustainable Circular Economy (SCE) community of scholars because the three narratives underpin the ambiguity in CE assessments.

  • The optimist narrative views CE as a fundamental part of sustainability transformations and suggests specific actions to reach a sustainable CE, effectively equating sustainability and circularity.
  • The reformist narrative argues that the CE has transformative potential, but only if social and environmental boundary conditions are prioritized and clear policy guidance is deployed.
  • The skeptical narrative questions the general usefulness of a CE for sustainability transformations, highlighting that in practice the CE often supports business-as-usual practices and marginal improvements, instead of transformative action.

Across all three narratives, the lessons portray policy interventions as crucial for CE success, although each narrative qualifies them differently. Additionally, the importance of social processes and participation for sustainable CE development is highlighted, specifically calling for the inclusion of diverse stakeholders. Finally, many lessons call for a shared CE conceptualization and framing, as well as an understanding of limitations. As these narratives are based on 54 key CE scholars’ insights, they provide novel insights into the convergence and divergence of scholarly views on policy relevance and societal change.

The overview of narratives provides a starting point for a collective reflection on - shared or partialized - CE conceptualizations and framing. Based on this, the study also identified four key research priorities for a sustainable circular economy (CE), differentiated into 20 research questions. The identified priorities are:

  • Build consensus on what constitutes a sustainable CE and link it with wider socio-economic frameworks and objectives.
  • Identify and leverage change opportunities for policy and practice options that enable a CE transformation.
  • Assess the environmental, economic, and social costs and benefits of CE strategies and ways to distribute them.
  • Reflect on the role of science in supporting CE development, especially in the context of political decision-making.

Overall, the study emphasizes that the circular economy (CE) presents an opportunity to advance sustainability research. To better manage the concepts’ complexity and ambiguity, CE researchers need to reflect on the problem description and narrative underpinning their studies and critically assess their assumptions. Researchers should also link technical, environmental, and managerial research with studies on social and political implications and science-policy-society interactions. Although this is a difficult task for research departments organized along disciplinary lines, it is necessary for the CE community to advance sustainability transformations.


[1] Leipold, S.Petit-Boix, A.Luo, A.Helander, H.Simoens, M.Ashton, W. S.Babbitt, C. W.Bala, A.Bening, C. R.Birkved, M.Blomsa, F.Boks, C.Boldrin, A.Deutz, P.Domenech, T.Ferronato, N.Gallego-Schmid, A.Giurco, D.Hobson, K., … Xue, B. (2023). Lessons, narratives, and research directions for a sustainable circular economyJournal of Industrial Ecology276– 18