The Circular Economy – A new sustainability paradigm?
Geissdoerfer, Martin1,2†; Savaget, Paulo1; Bocken, Nancy M.P.1,2; Hultink, Erik Jan2
1 Institute for Manufacturing, Department of Engineering, University of Cambridge,
Cambridge, CB3 0FS, United Kingdom, Tel. +44 (0) 1223 766141
2 Industrial Design Engineering, Delft University of Technology, Landbergstraat 15, 2628
CE Delft, The Netherlands, Tel. +31 (0) 15 278 45 21
† Email: email@example.com
Journal of Cleaner Production (accepted version),
Please cite as:
Geissdoerfer, Martin, Paulo Savaget, Nancy M.P. Bocken, and Erik Jan Hultink. 2017.
“The Circular Economy – A New Sustainability Paradigm?” Journal of Cleaner
Production 143: 757–768. doi:10.1016/j.jclepro.2016.12.048.
While the terms Circular Economy and sustainability are increasingly gaining
traction with academia, industry, and policymakers, the similarities and
differences between both concepts remain ambiguous. The relationship
between the concepts is not made explicit in literature, which is blurring their
conceptual contours and constrains the efficacy of using the approaches in
research and practice. This research addresses this gap and aims to provide
conceptual clarity by distinguishing the terms and synthesising the different
types of relationships between them. We conducted an extensive literature
review, employing bibliometric analysis and snowballing techniques to
investigate the state of the art in the field and synthesise the similarities,
differences and relationships between both terms. We identified eight different
relationship types in the literature and illustrated the most evident similarities
and differences between both concepts.
Circular Economy; Sustainability; Sustainable Development; Closed loop;
Literature Review; Circular Business Model.
There is a pressing need to transition to more sustainable sociotechnical
systems (Meadows et al., 2004; WBCSD, 2010; Seiffert, 2005; Markard, 2012).
Environmental problems, such as biodiversity loss, water, air, and soil pollution,
resource depletion, and excessive land use are increasingly jeopardising the
earth's life-support systems (Rockström et al., 2009; Jackson, 2009; Meadows
et al., 2004; WWF, 2014). Societal expectations are not met due to issues such
as high unemployment, poor working conditions, social vulnerability, the poverty
trap, inter- and intragenerational equity, and widening inequalities (Banerjee
and Duflo, 2011; Sen, 2001; Prahalad, 2004). Economic challenges, such as
supply risk, problematic ownership structures, deregulated markets, and flawed
incentive structures lead to increasingly frequent financial and economic
instabilities for individual companies and entire economies (Sachs, 2015;
To address these and other sustainability issues, the concept of the Circular
Economy – while not entirely new – has recently gained importance on the
agendas of policymakers (Brennan et al., 2015). This becomes evident, for
instance, in the comprehensive European Circular Economy package
(European Commission, 2015) and the Chinese Circular Economy Promotion
Law (Lieder and Rashid, 2016). The Circular Economy has also become an
important field of academic research with a steep increase in the number of
articles and journals covering this topic during the last decade. Companies are
also increasingly aware of the opportunities promised by the Circular Economy
and have started to realise its value potential for themselves and their
stakeholders (EMF, 2013 b).
Despite the concept's importance for academia, policymakers, and companies,
the conceptual relationship between the Circular Economy and sustainability is
not clear. This has potential detrimental implications for the advancement of
sustainability science and the diffusion of practices based on these concepts.
Therefore, this research aims to contribute to conceptual clarity by investigating
the similarities, differences, and relationships between both concepts in theory.
The paper is structured as follows. Section 2 covers a brief literature review that
is introducing sustainability and the Circular Economy by presenting their
origins, synthesising their conceptual definition, and illustrating their relevance
for research and practice. The subsequent section describes the research
design by presenting the research questions and the methods employed,
including the implemented snowballing and the outcomes of a bibliometric
research that helped to determine the sample of articles that would initially be
investigated. Section 4 presents the results of the research, first illustrating the
identified relationships between sustainability and the Circular Economy, before
similarities and differences are contrasted. This is followed by a discussion of
our findings. The paper concludes with final remarks on the contributions of this
research, its limitations, and interesting fields for further research.
This section provides a short introduction to the two main concepts addressed
in this research, sustainability and the Circular Economy. Starting with the
former and concluding with the latter, this chapter briefly introduces the
historical origins of the concepts, compares and synthesises the selected
definitions, and discusses the notions' relevance.
Sustainability concerns are increasingly incorporated into both the agendas of
policymakers and the strategies of companies. The term sustainability itself
originates in the French verb soutenir, “to hold up or support” (Brown et al.,
1987) and its modern conception has its origins in forestry. It is based on the
silvicultural principle that the amount of wood harvested should not exceed the
volume that grows again. This conceptualisation was written down already in
the early 18th century in “Sylvicultura oeconomica” (von Carlowitz, 1713), and
there seem to be even older sources that follow the underlying principles in face
of shortages in wood supply and the husbandry of cooperative systems
(Mantel,1990). Later, it was transferred to the context of ecology, as a principle
of respecting the ability of nature to regenerate itself (Duden, 2015), from where
the modern definition of being “able to be maintained at a certain rate or level”
(Dictionary, 2010) developed.
Johnston et al. (2007) estimated that there are around 300 definitions of
sustainability. To cite but a few, sustainability can be defined as a situation in
which human activity is conducted in a way that conserves the functions of the
earth’s ecosystems (ISO 15392, 2008), a transformation of human lifestyle that
optimises the likelihood that living conditions will continuously support security,
well-being, and health, particularly by maintaining the supply of non-replaceable
goods and services (McMichael et al., 2003), or an indefinite perpetuation of all
life forms (Ehrenfeld, 2005).
The concept's uptake can be traced back to the increasing evidence on global-
scale environmental risks, such as ozone depletion, climate change, biodiversity
loss or the alteration of the nitrogen cycle. These risks have been systematically
investigated since the 1960s, raising questions about whether present
prosperity trends can be maintained in the future (Clark and Crutzen, 2005;
Rockström et al., 2009) and, consequently, revealing many sources of tensions.
This includes, for example, the limited store of resources, its uneven
geographical distribution and appropriation (e.g. Georgescu-Roegen, 1977),
and the implications of the assimilative capacities of ecosystems over economic
growth (e.g. Daly and Townsend, 1993).
These sources of tensions were condensed by the environmentalists Ehrlich
and Commoner in their equation “I = P x A x T”. Environmental impact (I) is a
function of three factors: population (P); affluence, which is a proxy to represent
consumption (A); and technologies (T) (Chertow, 2001; Commoner, 1972;
Holdren and Ehrlich, 1974). The emphasis given to population, consumption,
and technologies, as well as the interrelation between these variables, has
varied considerably among scholars. Some emphasise demographic control
(e.g. Hardin, 1968), others would rather advocate for reduction in consumption
levels (e.g. Woollard and Ostry, 2000), and an increasing number of scholars
highlight the role of science, technology, and innovation in fuelling social
inclusion and environmental resilience (e.g. Hart and Milstein, 2003; Kemp and
Pearson, 2007; Cohen, 2006).
The emergence of such tensions fuelled a series of international discussions on
the complex and dynamically interconnected nature of the environment, society
and the economy (Kates et al., 2005). These discussions challenged
oversimplified development frameworks and their assumptions about economic
growth. The Stockholm Conference in 1972 and the report Limits to Growth had
wide repercussions due to their interpretation of “development” and
“environment” as contradictory elements of an intrinsic trade-off (Sachs, 2015;
Jackson, 2009). Nevertheless, the most prominent understanding of sustainable
development arose with the Brundtland Report (1987), which came not as a
reformulation of the terms of such trade-offs, but rather as an answer to its
apparent conflicts (Nobre and Amazonas, 2002): “The concept of sustainable
development does imply limits – not absolute limits but limitations imposed by
the present state of technology and social organization on environmental
resources and by the ability of the biosphere to absorb the effects of human
activities” (Brundtland, 1987:8).
The Brundtland Commission also provided the most commonly accepted
definition of sustainability as “development that meets the needs of the present
without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”
(Brundtland, 1987). Despite being initially driven by environmental concerns,
the term sustainable development has since then accommodated a variety of
expectations for desirable progress: “the concrete challenges of sustainable
development are at least as heterogeneous and complex as the diversity of
human societies and natural ecosystems around the world” (Kates et al.,
2005:8). The broad colloquial meaning of the verb “to sustain” refers to
maintaining unspecified features over time, while “development” can comprise
multiple interpretations, varying according to values, interests and disciplinary
conventions. Nevertheless, all perceptions of sustainable development seem to
invoke feelings of desirability and goodness (or avoidance and badness),
nurturing reflexivity upon shared responsibilities and alternative directions of
progress (Stirling, 2009).
Particularly relevant to the widespread diffusion of the term and its most
contemporary understandings is the so-called triple bottom line (Elkington,
1997), the three pillars of sustainability: people, profit, and planet. After the
World Summit in 2002, the triple bottom line has been referred to as the
balanced integration of economic, environmental and social performance. The
three spheres are systemically intertwined and continuously and cumulatively
affect one another through mutual causality and positive feedbacks (Mckelvey,
2002). In other words, they act as “as interdependent and mutually reinforcing
pillars” (UN General Assembly, 2005) that can be adapted to a broad range of
different contexts and time horizons (Wise, 2016).
Based on this, and with regards to maintaining the holistic, adaptive, and
flexible nature of sustainability, the term sustainability is framed in this article as
the balanced and systemic integration of intra and intergenerational economic,
social, and environmental performance.
Instead of merely setting common goals, sustainability opens up the scope for
multiple expectations about, for example, what should be developed and what
is to be sustained, for how long, and for the benefit of whom (Acero and
Savaget, 2014). It has encouraged reflexivity on how to expand
intragenerational prosperity while simultaneously preserving life-support
systems needed to meet intergenerational needs.
Despite divergence in the perceived strengths and weaknesses of the term and
its associated responses, sustainability has been institutionalised into the
agendas of policymakers and strategies of large organisations, becoming
cumulatively more embedded into the rules that structure social interventions
and shape behaviour (Hodgson, 2005). While incorporating a broad range of
contradictions and being ambiguously instrumentalised by diverse interest
groups, the concept proves to be a “political concept as persistent as are
democracy, justice and liberty” (O’Riordan, 1993:48).
2.2 Circular Economy
The concept of the Circular Economy has been gaining momentum since the
late 1970s (EMF, 2013b). Several authors, like Andersen (2007), Ghisellini et al.
(2016), and Su et al. (2013) attribute the introduction of the concept to Pearce
and Turner (1989). By describing how natural resources influence the economy
by providing inputs for production and consumption as well as serving as a sink
for outputs in the form of waste, they investigate the linear and open-ended
characteristics of contemporary economic systems. This is influenced by
Boulding's (1966) work, which describes the earth as a closed and circular
system with limited assimilative capacity, and inferred from this that the
economy and the environment should coexist in equilibrium.
Stahel and Reday (1976) introduced certain features of the Circular Economy,
with a focus on industrial economics. They conceptualised a loop economy to
describe industrial strategies for waste prevention, regional job creation,
resource efficiency, and dematerialisation of the industrial economy. Stahel
(1982) also emphasised selling utilisation instead of ownership of goods as the
most relevant sustainable business model for a loop economy, allowing
industries to profit without externalising costs and risks associated with waste.
The contemporary understanding of the Circular Economy and its practical
applications to economic systems and industrial processes has evolved to
incorporate different features and contributions from a variety of concepts that
share the idea of closed loops. Some of the most relevant theoretical influences
are cradle-to-cradle (McDonough and Braungart, 2002), laws of ecology
(Commoner, 1971), looped and performance economy (Stahel, 2010),
regenerative design (Lyle, 1994), industrial ecology (Graedel and Allenby,
1995), biomimicry (Benyus, 2002), and the blue economy (Pauli, 2010).
The most renowned definition has been framed by the Ellen MacArthur
Foundation, introducing the Circular Economy as “an industrial economy that is
restorative or regenerative by intention and design” (2013b: 14). Similarly, Geng
and Doberstein (2008: 231), focusing on the Chinese implementation of the
concept, describe the Circular Economy as the “realization of [a] closed loop
material flow in the whole economic system”. Webster (2015: 16) adds that “a
circular economy is one that is restorative by design, and which aims to keep
products, components and materials at their highest utility and value, at all
times”. Accordingly, Yuan et al. (2008: 5) state that “the core of [the Circular
Economy] is the circular (closed) flow of materials and the use of raw materials
and energy through multiple phases”. Bocken et al. (2016: 309) categorise the
characteristics of the Circular Economy by defining it as “design and business
model strategies [that are] slowing, closing, and narrowing resource loops”.
Based on these different contributions, we define the Circular Economy as a
regenerative system in which resource input and waste, emission, and energy
leakage are minimised by slowing, closing, and narrowing material and energy
loops. This can be achieved through long-lasting design, maintenance, repair,
reuse, remanufacturing, refurbishing, and recycling.
The circular economy has received increased attention in academic research
with a range of reviews on the topic by Andersen (2007), Ghisellini et al. (2016),
Lieder and Rashid (2016), and Su et al. (2013). Specific areas of attention are
closed loop value and supply chains (Guide and Van Wassenhove, 2009; Wells
and Seitz, 2005; Govindan et al., 2015; Stindt and Sahamie, 2014), circular
business models (Bocken et al., 2016) and circular product design (Bakker et
The work of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation is important in this context. The
Foundation has published a range of publications on the topic, including a book
by Webster (2015) and a series of reports (EMF, 2014, 2013a, 2013b). The
Foundation also acts as a collaborative hub for businesses, policy makers, and
academia. Various consultancies have now tapped into the opportunities of a
Circular Economy (e.g. Lacey and Rutqvist, 2015 and McKinsey through the
support of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation in EMF, 2013a, b, for example).
The concept has also gained traction with policymakers, influencing
governments and intergovernmental agencies at the local, regional, national,
and international level. Germany was a pioneer in integrating the Circular
Economy into national laws, as early as 1996, with the enactment of the
“Closed Substance Cycle and Waste Management Act” (Su et al., 2013). This
was followed by Japan’s 2002 “Basic Law for Establishing a Recycling-Based
Society” (METI, 2004), and China’s 2009 “Circular Economy Promotion Law of
the People's Republic of China” (Lieder and Rashid, 2016). Supranational
bodies have also incorporated circular economy concerns – most notably the
EU’s 2015 Circular Economy Strategy (European Commission, 2015).
3. Research Design
The previous sections summarised the history, definition, and relevance of
sustainability and the Circular Economy. Both concepts are essentially global in
their nature, sharing concerns with the current state of technology, industrial
production, and consumption, which might not only jeopardise future
generations, but also present sources of unexplored competitive advantage.
They also stress the importance of better integrating environmental and social
aspects with economic progress, and set system-level changes at their very
Apart from these similarities, the concepts are notably used in different contexts
and with different purposes. Sustainability, in particular in its early rooting of
sustainable development (Brundtland, 1987), is more open-ended than the
Circular Economy (Yuan et al., 2008) and used to justify a broader variety of
institutional commitments and to signal a wider set of risks and opportunities.
Although both concepts are being adopted by a growing number of academics
and practitioners, the relationship between both notions has not been studied
extensively, and the similarities and differences between them remain
underexplored. Knowledge about their relationship, similarities, and differences
is relevant for conceptual clarity, as well as to reveal the interests and goals
behind the use of these terms by policymakers and companies. Therefore, this
research can assist efforts aiming at integrating these concepts to better
promote social inclusion, environmental resilience, and economic prosperity.
To investigate the research gap, the following two research questions were
RQ 1: What are the main conceptual similarities and differences between
sustainability and the Circular Economy?
RQ 2: How is the Circular Economy conceptually related to sustainability?
To work towards answering these two research questions, we employed
different methodological techniques.
First, we conducted a bibliometric research, a well-established form of meta-
analytical research of literature (Kim and McMillan, 2008). This is a method that
analyses published data, measuring texts and information such as authorship,
affiliation, citations, and keywords (Bellis, 2009), unveiling articles and
illustrating linkages between and among articles about a certain research topic
(Fetscherin and Usunier, 2012). It can be used to describe, evaluate and
monitor the state of a particular field over time, evaluating meta-analytically the
development of a given research area to identify their key components and
underlying theoretical frameworks (Fetscherin and Heinrich, 2015). A
bibliometric review was thus conducted to identify the articles that describe both
sustainability and the Circular Economy, while also revealing the most cited
authors, keywords mentioned, and the journals in which they were published.
Data were collected from Web of Science in January 2016 by searching with the
strings “circular economy”, sustainability and "circular economy" AND
sustainability, as shown in Table 1. The search was applied to topics and for
publications in English that were published after 1950. These searches helped
identifying the initial sample of papers that would be investigated in depth
through an extensive literature review. Furthermore, as the Circular Economy is
a recent research topic, we observed the importance of analysing its
emergence and progress before analysing its relationship with literature on
sustainability. Therefore, for the 295 records on the Circular Economy, we used
the open source software NAILS to carry out the statistical and network analysis
functions (Knutas et al., 2015) needed to uncover and quantitatively describe
our dataset. It is important to mention that all abstracts resulting from the
searches were scanned to filter out irrelevant publications. The most relevant
results are demonstrated below, in Figures 1 to 4.
Table 1: Number of articles and reviews resulting from search string
Number of articles and reviews found in
Web of Science
"circular economy" AND
Figure 1 shows a steep increase in the number of publications on the Circular
Economy, reaching a more than tenfold growth in the last 10 years.
Nevertheless, the absolute number of publications on the Circular Economy is
small when compared to publications on sustainability (see Table 1). This
finding suggests that research on the Circular Economy may be far from
saturated, and there is great room for improvement in terms of conceptual
development and cross-fertilisation from other research fields.
Figure 1: Number of reviews and articles per year with the topic circular
economy on Web-of-Science
Figures 2 and 3 show, respectively, the most common locations of authors and
the most cited publications. Only one country (China) has more than 100
publications, presenting almost four times the number of the second in the
ranking, England. The same applies to the most cited publications, as the first,
Journal of Cleaner Production, has more than twice the number of publications
than the second in the ranking. That indicates that a few players have taken the
2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016
lead in the conceptual development of this emerging topic, with China as the
top-ranking country, which is not surprising given its Circular Economy
Promotion Law (Lieder and Rashid, 2016).
Figure 2: Most common geographical locations of authors of reviews and
articles with the topic circular economy that have more than three publications
010 20 30 40 50 60 70 80 90 100 110 120 130
Figure 3: Publications per journal of reviews and articles with the topic circular
economy that have more than three publications
Figure 4 presents the most popular keywords. Among them are subtopics of the
Circular Economy, such as recycling, reuse, waste management, and eco-
efficiency. It also incorporates other concepts and schools of thought that are
cross-fertilised with the Circular Economy, such as industrial symbiosis and
sustainable development. Interestingly, China, in addition to being the country
of origin of most of the authors, is also one of the most popular keywords,
reflecting the efforts the country has been taking since it began regulatory
implementation in 2009 (Lieder and Rashid, 2016), inspiring not only new
practices and evidences, but also authors covering the geographical contexts
and jurisdictional performances.
010 20 30 40 50 60 70 80
Journal of Cleaner Production
Resources Conservation And Recycling
Journal Of Industrial Ecology
Waste Management Research
Environmental Science Technology
Journal Of Material Cycles And Waste …
Renewable Sustainable Energy Reviews
Environmental Science And Pollution …
Science Of The Total Environment
International Journal Of Sustainable …
Physicochemical Problems Of Mineral …
Figure 4: Number of occurrences of most important keywords of reviews and
articles with the topic circular economy
These steps offered a better understanding of the coverage of our research
topic and contributed to identifying the sample of articles that should be
investigated in depth through an extensive review of the literature. This review
started with a sample of relevant papers published by highly cited journals and
academics, which was then followed by a semi-structured snowballing approach
(Wohlin, 2014), to capture both established and emerging conceptual trends
(see Figure 5).
The snowballing started with the definition of an initial sample of relevant
papers, which contained 295 documents arising from the search on "Circular
Economy". As demonstrated in our bibliometric results, we included publications
since 1950 into our sample, although most publications are dated since 2006
and the numbers of documents increased steeply in the last 4 years.
The authors first scanned the titles and abstracts of these papers, then focusing
on examining the full content of the 67 articles stemming from the search on
"Circular Economy" AND "Sustainability". It is important to stress that we
concentrated on peer-reviewed scientific journal articles in English to ensure the
quality of our sample, but we subsequently selected a limited number of
influential publications from non-profits and international organizations (such as
the OECD and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation). The inclusion of non peer-
reviewed articles was appropriate since Circular Economy is a new area of
research, and its relationship with Sustainability has not been extensively
addressed by peer-reviewed articles.
After reviewing our initial sample, we conducted a process of identifying and
scanning articles referenced by the ones we reviewed, including the relevant
ones into our sample. The inclusion/exclusion process depended on whether
publications can provide new insights on the phenomena investigated, and this
decision was reached after analysing their titles, contents and abstracts. In
other words, relevant papers were defined as the ones capable of contributing
with novel insight on similarities, differences or relationship types between the
studied concepts. Furthermore, if a new paper was included in the sample, we
would also analyse its references, in search for new inputs – and these
iterations would occur until new papers were not contributing significantly to
answer to our research questions.
Figure 5: Literature Review Process
Finally, all papers within our sample were thoroughly examined and contrasted,
by using techniques for content analysis. This was used as a method of
analysing written communication (Elo & Kyngäs, 2008), with the purpose of
providing a condensed description by examining text to reveal patterns. This
was a rather exploratory process, as the categories of similarities, differences
and relationship types were not pre-defined, neither were the relationship types
explicitly defined by the reviewed literature. Therefore, patterns emerged
throughout the content analysis and were subsequently validated through the
triangulation (Creswell, 1998) of the research outputs between the authors of
this article, aiming at ensuring robustness and comprehensiveness of its
The following two subsections first summarise the identified relationship types
between the Circular Economy and sustainability, and then, the main similarities
and differences between both concepts in literature.
4.1 Similarities and differences
Table 2 provides an overview of the most relevant similarities between
sustainability and the Circular Economy. Both notions emphasise intra- and
intergenerational commitments motivated by environmental hazards and signal
the importance of increasing agency and public deliberation upon the multiple
and coexisting pathways for development. They also share an essentially global
perspective, emphasising problems on a planetary scale that lead to shared
responsibilities and to the relevance of coordination between multiple agents.
Both concepts frequently employ multi- or interdisciplinary approaches to better
integrate non-economic aspects into development, which often conclude that
system design and innovations are the main drivers for reaching their ambitions.
They also describe not only potential costs and risks, but also the importance of
diversification in taking advantage of distinct opportunities for value creation.
Both concepts view cooperation between stakeholders not only as desirable,
but as imperative to reach their expectations.
To guide and align stakeholder behaviour, both concepts rely heavily on
regulation and increasingly on the deliberate design of incentive structures.
Private business plays a central role among relevant stakeholders because it
commands more capabilities and resources than any other actor. Since the
implementation of more sustainable solutions seems to lag behind expectations
and technological capabilities and advances in material and production
technology are becoming ever more incremental, authors increasingly see
business model innovation as the key pathway to the necessary socio-technical
transitions (see also Geissdoerfer et al. 2016b).
Table 2: Selected similarities between sustainability and the Circular Economy
Similarities between sustainability and the Circular Economy
• Intra and intergenerational commitments
• More agency for the multiple and coexisting pathways of development
• Global models
• Integrating non-economic aspects into development
• System change/design and innovation at the core
• Multi-/interdisciplinary research field
• Potential cost, risk, diversification, value co-creation opportunities
• Cooperation of different stakeholders necessary
• Regulation and incentives as core implementation tools
• Central role of private business, due to resources and capabilities
• Business model innovation as a key for industry transformation
• Technological solutions are important but often pose implementation
The literature review also reveals a range of differences between the two
concepts. For example, the concepts have different origins, goals, motivations,
system prioritisations, institutionalisations, beneficiaries, timeframes, and
perceptions of responsibilities.
The modern understanding of the term Circular Economy seems to have
emerged more recently than that of sustainability. While the Circular Economy
is traced back by EMF (2013b) to different schools of thought like cradle-to-
cradle and industrial ecology, the concept of sustainability is considerably older
(Mantel, 1990) and was institutionalised by environmental movements and
supranational bodies, especially after the publication of the Brundtland report in
Furthermore, there are different goals associated with the Circular Economy
and sustainability in the literature. While it seems clear to most authors that the
Circular Economy is aiming at a closed loop, eliminating all resource inputs and
waste and emission leakages of the system, the goals of sustainability are
open-ended and different authors address a considerable multitude of goals,
which also shift depending on the considered agents and their interests.
This is also reflected in the main motivation underlying each concept. The
motives behind sustainability are based on past trajectories, are diffused and
diverse, and often embrace reflexivity and adaptivity to different contexts. In
contrast, the Circular Economy is mainly motivated by the observation that
resources could be better used and waste and emissions reduced with circular
rather than linear make-use-dispose systems.
In fact, sustainability aims at benefiting the environment, the economy, and
society at large (e.g. Elkington, 1997), while the main beneficiaries of the
Circular Economy appear to be the economic actors that implement the system.
The environment is also seen to benefit through less resource depletion and
pollution, and society benefits from the environmental improvements and certain
add-ons and assumptions, like more manual labour or fairer taxation (e.g.
Different underlying motivations also lead to different systems being prioritised
in the literature. The Circular Economy clearly seems to prioritise the economic
systems with primary benefits for the environment, and only implicit gains for
social aspects. Sustainability was originally conceptualised as holistically
treating all three dimensions as equal and balanced, although portfolios of
interventions should be prioritised according to contextual differences. For
instance, it is conceptually plausible to design policies and industrial
interventions with more environmental emphasis in rich countries like Sweden,
and more social emphasis in developing countries like Zambia.
The literature also assumes differences in the way both concepts became
institutionalised. While sustainability provides a broader framing (e.g.
Brundtland, 1987), which can be adapted to different contexts and aspirations,
the Circular Economy emphasises economic and environmental benefits
compared to a linear system (e.g. Rashid et al., 2013).
There is also a difference in agency, influencing the understanding of the
agents that should influence system changes. While agency is diffused in the
case of sustainability (e.g. Bocken, 2015), as the priorities should be defined by
all stakeholders, the Circular Economy has a clear emphasis on governments
and companies (e.g. Webster, 2015).
Furthermore, the timeframes for the required changes differ for both concepts.
The temporal dimension for sustainability is open-ended, as goals can be
constantly adapted or reframed over time. In contrast, there are theoretical
limits to optimisation and practical ones to implementation that could set the
thresholds for the successful conclusion of the implementation of a Circular
Economy within a geographical unit (EMF, 2013b).
Finally, the perception of responsibilities is also clearly distinct between both
concepts. In the sustainability debate, responsibilities are shared, but not clearly
defined, while the literature considers that the responsibility for the transition to
a circular system lies primarily with private business, regulators, and
policymakers. Moreover, the commitments, goals, and interests behind the use
of the terms differ greatly. The focus seems to be on interest alignment between
stakeholders for sustainability, whereas the Circular Economy prioritises
financial advantages for companies, and less resource consumption and
pollution for the environment.
Table 3 summarises the identified differences between the concepts that are
discussed in this paper.
Table 3: Selected differences between sustainability and the Circular Economy
Origins of the
Environmental movements, NGOs,
non-profit and intergovernmental
agencies, principles in silviculture and
Different schools of thought like
implementation by governments,
lobbying by NGOs like the EMF,
inclusion in political agendas, e.g.
European Horizon 2020
Open-ended, multitude of goals
depending on the considered agent
and her interests
Closed loop, ideally eliminating all
resource input into and leakage out of
Diffused and diverse à reflexivity and
adaptive --> past trajectories
Better use of resources, waste,
leakage (from linear to circular)
What system is
Triple bottom line (horizontal)
The economic system (hierarchical)
The environment, the economy, and
society at large.
Economic actors are at the core,
benefitting the economy and the
environment. Society benefits from
environmental improvements and
certain add-ons and assumptions, like
more manual labour or fairer taxation
How did they
Providing vague framing that can be
adapted to different contexts and
Emphasising economic and
Diffused (priorities should be defined
by all stakeholders)
Governments, companies, NGOs
Open-ended, sustain current status
Theoretical limits to optimisation and
practical ones to implementation
could set input and leakage
thresholds for the successful
conclusion of the implementation of a
Responsibilities are shared, but not
Private business and
the use of the
Interest alignment between
stakeholders, e.g. less waste is good
for the environment, organisational
profits, and consumer prices
Economic/financial advantages for
companies, and less resource
consumption and pollution for the
4.2 Relationship types
Rashid et al. (2013) describe circularity in business models and supply chains
as a precondition for sustainable manufacturing, which in turn is necessary for
the improved economic and environmental performance of industrialised and
developing countries. Similarly, Läpple (2007) describes a circular economy as
an important element of sustainable development.
A much stronger conditional relationship is assumed by the Ellen MacArthur
Foundation (2013b) and Webster (2015). Maybe even more pronounced, at
least in the environmental dimension, are Bakker et al. (2014), who consider
circularity as absolutely necessary for sustaining economic output. A similar
approach is also held by the United Nations Environment Programme (2006),
which presents the Circular Economy as a necessary condition for maintaining
economic growth in a sustainable way, but here other pathways for establishing
this condition are not excluded.
A third type of conditional relation is identified by Nakajima (2000), who
describes circularity and service-based systems as a necessary but not
sufficient condition for a sustainable system. Other conditions, like a change of
lifestyle, must accompany a closed loop system to pursue long-term
A similar view is held by the European Commission (2014), which presents
circular economic systems as beneficial for different sustainability dimensions
like resource productivity, job creation and GDP growth, but does not elaborate
on whether this is a necessary or sufficient condition or how it relates to other
concepts that could foster sustainability.
Differently, Bocken et al. (2014) identified circularity as one archetype of
sustainable business models among others. Circularity is seen as one of
several options to foster the sustainability of the system. These options are all
seen as beneficial in principle and can also be combined to add up gains or
achieve synergies. Similarly, Evans et al. (2009) and Weissbrod and Bocken (in
press) describe circular strategies as one option among others, like increasing
efficiency or dematerialisation. This is a view that is also shared by other
manufacturing scholars like Allwood et al. (2012), Garetti and Taisch (2012),
and Seliger (2007), who do not explicitly group and highlight circular strategies,
such as reuse and remanufacturing, among other manufacturing and societal
changes that benefit sustainability, like energy efficiency or consumer
The OECD (2009) holds a hierarchical view and considers closed loop
manufacturing systems to be more sustainable than most other manufacturing
concepts because they comprise more eco-innovation targets and mechanisms.
The only exception in this prioritisation is the industrial ecology framework,
which is seen as even more sustainable.
Negative relationships between circularity and sustainability are also
highlighted. Andersen (2007), for example, describes not only the potential
benefits but also the costs of circular systems that must be balanced to avoid
the creation of negative value. A similar view is held by Allwood (2014), who
suggests a range of problems that the circular economy brings with it, such as
the technical impossibility of a closed circle in combination with growing
demand or problems with the energy required to recycle materials. This energy
and its impact may be higher for many materials than the overall environmental
effect of acquiring the material from conventional sources like mining. Thus, the
circular economy might worsen the emission of greenhouse gasses and, as a
result, accelerate global warming. Therefore, a more pragmatic approach is
necessary, where material efficiency and other forms of reducing inputs should
have higher priority than the circular economy.
Similarly, Murray et al. (2015) argue that while circularity has a positive
influence on certain aspects of sustainability, it does not integrate other
dimensions, especially the social one. These missing dimensions could be
added to the concept of the Circular Economy.
Table 4 provides an overview of the different types of relationships between
sustainability and the Circular Economy that were identified in the research.
These categories aim at stressing the most evident differences identified within
our sample. It is nonetheless important to stress that this table does not aim to
be exhaustive, as each type of relationship could be further subcategorized and
consequently be investigated in more depth.
Table 4: Relationship types between the Circular Economy and sustainability
loop systems are
one of the conditions
for a sustainable
Rashid et al., 2013
the main solution for
a transformation to a
Bakker et al., 2014
a necessary but not
for a sustainable
beneficial in terms of
without referring to
one among several
Allwood et al., 2012
Bocken et al., 2014
Evans et al., 2009
Garetti and Taisch,
Bocken, in press
yielding a degree of
being more and/or
having costs and
benefits in regard to
can also lead to
Murray et al., 2015
Our research shows that most authors (e.g. Bakker et al., 2014; Bocken et al.,
2016; EMF, 2013b; Rashid et al., 2014) focus on the environmental
performance improvements of the Circular Economy rather than taking a holistic
view on all three dimensions of sustainability, although this is also true for a
range of authors in the latter field (e.g. Muniz and Cruz, 2015; Shiva, 1992).
While the environmental perspective taken by sustainability can vary from
explicitly and implicitly holistic to the investigation of a specific set of issues,
most authors conceptually simplify the Circular Economy to resource input,
waste and emission output. Other issues like land use or biodiversity loss are
only implicitly addressed by the latter authors (see e.g. Bakker et al., 2014;
This more limited focus comprises a narrow coverage of social wellbeing by
most Circular Economy authors. If social aspects are mentioned, the reference
is mostly to job creation, as there seems to be no clear understanding of the
extent to which the circular economy could contribute to subjective well-being
(Frey and Stutzer, 2001). Some authors, like Webster (2015) try to construct
other elements of a social dimension of the Circular Economy by adding a more
just and efficient tax system and changing lifestyles through the shared
economy. However, the conceptual integration is unclear in the work of most
authors, and the increasingly apparent negative effects of the shared economy,
like the deterioration of secure employment that is subject to social insurance
contributions and the elimination of affordable housing in cities and tourist
destinations (Malhotra and Van Alstyne, 2014), in fact imply detrimental effects
on social inclusion and wellbeing.
The Circular Economy also refers mostly to individual economic benefits
through input reduction, efficiency gains, and waste avoidance with relatively
immediate results compared to sustainability (e.g. EMF, 2013b; Elkington,
1997). Differently from sustainability, long-term viability seems to be excluded
from most discussions (e.g. EMF, 2013b; Brundtland, 1987). Furthermore, the
behaviour of organisational actors and consumers should be nudged with
incentives in the Circular Economy, while many sustainability approaches
favour behaviour change through engagement and education, although
incentives also play an increasing role in the literature (e.g. Webster, 2015;
While some authors consider the interpretive flexibility of the sustainability
paradigm as a strength, that allows its adaptation to different contexts and wide
institutionalisation (e.g. Leach et al., 2007), others argue that it is too vague
and, consequently, hinders operationalisation (e.g. Middleton and O’Keefe,
1993). The concept of Circular Economy, on the other hand, is often seen as
more narrowly framed by these authors, which would provide clearer directions
for its implementation. This is sometimes accompanied by a – seemingly
unrealistically promising – business case for the private sector (e.g. EMF,
Also because many conceptualisations of the Circular Economy (e.g. Allwood et
al., 2012; Bakker et al., 2014) appear to exclude large parts of the social
dimension, emphasise economic benefits, and simplify the environmental
perspective, the concept might be more attractive for policy makers and private
business than competing approaches. This can be problematic for the transition
to a more sustainable economic system because attention and resources are
diverted from more comprehensive and holistic approaches.
To address this issue, we consider the identified subset relation to be adequate.
It not only enhances diversity and adapts to different contexts but also allows
the combination of circular with complementary strategies, because it does not
prescribe an intrinsic hierarchy between the Circular Economy and other
sustainability strategies. An example for this are the sustainable business model
archetypes of Bocken et al. (2014). Therefore, we would propose this, as well
as other work exploring the multiple dimensions of sustainable business models
(e.g., Boons et al., 2013; Geissdoerfer et al., 2016a) as a good base for future
research and practice. In this way, environmentally focused approaches to CE,
like the work by Allwood et al., (2012) and Bakker et al. (2014), can be
complemented with concepts that take a more holistic stakeholder view – and
especially social considerations – into account.
First, based on key literature, we define the Circular Economy as a regenerative
system in which resource input and waste, emission, and energy leakage are
minimised by slowing, closing, and narrowing material and energy loops. This
can be achieved through long-lasting design, maintenance, repair, reuse,
remanufacturing, refurbishing, and recycling. Second, we define sustainability
as the balanced integration of economic performance, social inclusiveness, and
environmental resilience, to the benefit of current and future generations.
We found that the Circular Economy is an emerging topic that has attracted
increasing research interest. While the roots of the topic are European, much of
this recent surge started with Chinese authors after the implementation of
regulatory controls in this country. Chinese and European scholars have in
particular have taken up this topic and there is an exponential growth in
publications. This could reflect the increased interest from companies and
policymakers in these regions.
To answer the first research question - What are the main conceptual
similarities and differences between sustainability and the Circular Economy? -
this paper summarises the main similarities and differences between
sustainability and the circular economy. Despite often being used in similar
contexts, the similarities and differences between these concepts have not
been made explicit in the literature, therefore blurring their conceptual contours
and constraining the efficacy of their use. We believe that by shedding light on
their differences, this paper contributes not only to conceptual development, but
also serves to better reveal the interests, motivations and practical implications
of their use in the public and private sectors.
Furthermore, the paper addressed the second research question - How is the
Circular Economy conceptually related to sustainability? We found that the
Circular Economy is viewed as a condition for sustainability, a beneficial
relation, or a trade-off in literature. This can be broken down into eight different
relationships. Based on the investigated literature, this paper argues that the
subset relationship seems to be appropriate to maintain diversity while,
concomitantly, shedding light on the wide range of complementary strategies
that managers and policymakers can adopt.
The most relevant limitations of this work derive from the methodologies
employed for our literature review. Bibliometric analysis assumes that
researchers publish their most important findings in journals and base their
research on previously published articles (Fetscherin and Usunier, 2012). This
paper used bibliometric tools for meta-analysis to cover the differences,
similarities and interrelationship of the Circular Economy and sustainability by
unravelling the evolution of these fields and the most relevant academic
sources of research that would be initially sampled for literature review.
However, contributions might arise from unpublished documents, as well as
reports and other documents that are not published in academic journals.
Moreover, bibliometric analysis was followed by semi-structured snowballing to
capture emerging conceptual trends. The central limitation of this
methodological step consists of the lack of randomised representativeness,
resulting in selection bias. These limitations can be overcome by further
research, using different methodological techniques to not only test the validity
of these results, but also to clarify the contexts in which they might not be
Finally, there is a wide range of opportunities for future research in this area, of
which we believe two are particularly critical to the advancement of literature.
We would first encourage research about how the investigated relationship is
seen by a wider range of companies and by policy makers, which can then be
contrasted with the results presented in this article. Moreover, the linkage
between Circular Economy and emerging concepts such as the Performance
Economy (Stahel, 2010), Sharing Economy, and new business forms such as
benefit corporations could be investigated (Bocken et al., 2014). Importantly,
the actual impacts of Circular Economy initiatives need to be analysed – how do
these perform against the triple bottom line (Elkington, 1997) and contribute to
‘strong sustainability’ and slower forms of consumption, i.e., closing as well as
slowing resource loops (Bocken et al., 2016)? Lastly, it is critical to investigate
the influence of a better understanding of the relationship between the Circular
Economy and sustainability and their influences over the performance of supply
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