Paper presented at the 13th Nordic Environmental Social Science Conference HopefulNESS, 6.-
8.6.2017, Tampere, Finland.
Emerging consumer perspectives on circular economy
Petteri Repo & Markku Anttonen
University of Helsinki, Consumer Society Research Centre
The concept of circular economy has become a catchphrase for describing redesign of industries
and economies towards better sustainability. The consideration of consumers holds a prominent role
in the concept, yet consumers are not well accounted for in literature on circular economy. This
paper takes a forward-looking approach to the relationship between consumers and circular
economy. It reviews an extensive and systematically collected corpus of European citizen visions
on desirable and sustainable futures from this perspective, and argues that the concept of circular
economy should increasingly connect to energy issues and social topics, if it is to better embrace
citizens’ expectations on it.
Circular economy has become a concept that encompasses a number of environmental issues of
interest such as restoration and regeneration of economy, rethinking of production and
consumption, and reduction of waste. Key institutional developments, such as the establishment of
the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (2015) and the adoption of the Circular Economy Package in the
European Union (Repo et al. 2015), account for consumers in their activities. The academic
community has at the same time shown interest in the concept of circular economy, and also
identified consumers as players in the concept.
Yet the role of consumers is not prominent nor uniform in either. While consumers are considered
as a part of the economy and in connection to the use of products, they are not seen as key actors,
goal-setters nor even as domesticators of new opportunities. For consumers to become active
players in the realm of circular economy, it is of particular importance to identify how they respond
to corresponding key elements of circular economy.
This paper develops a consumer centred view on circular economy through topic modelling. It starts
off from a review of academic literature on circular economy, identifying key elements of circular
economy: shared use of products, incentivised return, product design, waste reduction, and
sustainable food production. Then it proceeds to review how these elements come forth in 62
visions on desirable and sustainable futures, which have been developed by over 1.000 people in 30
European countries (Jørgensen & Schøning 2016). The visions are topic modelled with the
MALLET toolkit for natural languages (McCallum 2002), thereby identifying and describing
consumer perspectives on circular economy. Two key findings emerge in the analysis: 1) energy for
society is a key topic for circular economy to connect to and 2) social topics are much more
prevalent in visions than they are being discussed in academic literature on circular economy. The
concluding section summarizes the findings and discusses their relevance for the future of the
concept of circular economy.
2. Circular economy and consumer perspectives on it
The key aim of circular economy as a concept is to change current take-use-dispose economies
towards more ecologically and economically sustainable circular flows of natural resources, and to
decouple current levels of resource and energy usage from economic throughput (Ghisellini et al.
2016, Murray et al. 2015). Production loops should be as closed as possible, and material flows
should be pure to enable retaking them into manufacturing processes or biological cycles (Murray et
al. 2015). As such, the circular economy focuses on the economic and ecological aspects of
sustainability and is only little concerned with the social aspects of sustainable development
(Murray et al. 2015).
To achieve decoupling from current linear take-use-dispose economies, there are calls for better
industrial design and improved use of materials, which narrow down the material flows in
manufacturing, with cascading use of materials, i.e. products and materials moving from their
original use to other uses, or becoming resources for other industries (WEF 2014). This requires
that products should be designed or re-designed (Murray et al. 2015) to enable easy take-back of
resources into the manufacturing processes. Excess materials as such, and in products, then become
valuable assets to the companies.
In turn, manufacturing companies need greater control over and knowledge of materials, so these
can be reintroduced in manufacturing processes. This calls for advanced take-back and recycling
schemes accompanied by monetary incentives such as return payments for consumers and aligned
business models (Planing 2015).
Although the concept of circular economy focuses more on industry and the supply side, consumers
are an important part of the equation. In addition to industry needing to recover products and
materials for remanufacturing, other forms of innovative businesses and consumption (Hobson and
Lynch 2016) are needed for circular economy to thrive. Examples of such innovative businesses for
consumer include shared use of assets (car-sharing, power tools, etc.) and results-oriented services
(lighting rather than light bulbs) (Tukker 2015). This is warranted through the idea that consumers
embrace access and use of services instead of owning products as such (Hobson and Lynch 2016;
Tukker 2015). Also, diverse repair and refurbishing services are seen as a central way to prolong
product life and to narrow the throughput of materials in economy (Riisgaard et al. 2016). Such
innovative services offer opportunities for sustainable growth, and jobs alike (Murray et al. 2015).
A review of academic research on consumers and circular economy shows that the body of
literature represents only a fraction of the research on circular economy in general. A quick
literature search on published journal articles on circular economy produces a pool of 426 articles
(Scopus database, date 20161209). In contrast, refining the search to include both circular economy
and consumer(s), and excluding all articles that do not focus on consumers, consumption or
consumer society as such, produces a set of only 23 articles. Ten of these are empirical studies with
the remaining being more focused on conceptual questions , such as Hobson and Lynch (2016) who
argue for taking better into account the potential social implications of circular economy policies
Most of the empirical studies focused on consumers’ attitudes towards repaired second hand
electronic device, or in two articles, second hand car parts (Matsumoto et al. 2016, Zhang et al.
2011). A majority of the reviewed articles analysed consumers’ willingness to buy and use second
hand devices, or in what way prior knowledge (Hazen et al. 2016), experiences (Mashhadi et al.
2016) or pricing (van Weelden et al. 2016; Yang & Wang 2011) may affect willingness to use them.
Also, the development of consumer repair services of mobile device markets have been analysed
(Riisgaard et al. 2016; Kissling et.al. 2013; Ongondo et al. 2013).
None of these studies analysed the development of different product services, which enable leasing,
renting, access (car-sharing, etc.) or desired outcome (for example installed lighting, clean clothes).
Commercial or peer-to-peer sharing was also absent, as were different take back and recycling
schemes for consumer goods. These subject areas connect either to an ample body (e.g. sustainable
consumption, product services) or fast-growing field (sharing economy), but they do not seem to
relate closely to the research on circular economy.
To sum up, consumer-related studies on the concept of circular economy and corresponding
empirical consumer studies contribute to five key issues of interest to look for in citizen visions on
desirable and sustainable futures: 1) shared use of products (for example car-sharing, outcome
oriented services), 2) incentivised return (take-back schemes such as those for used car tires and
plastic beverage bottles), 3) product design (making products better repairable and recyclable), 4)
waste reduction (retaking materials into industrial processes), and 5) sustainable food production
(material flows in biological processes).
3. Topic modelling circular economy from citizen visions
The analysed data has been collected from a set of 179 citizen visions on desirable and sustainable
futures extending to the year 2050. These visions were developed across 30 European countries in
the Cimulact project and involved more than 1000 citizens between November 2015 and January
2016 (Jørgensen & Schøning 2016). The visions consist of a title and a description of the content of
the vision as well as of how it differs from today and how it is desirable. The visions represent a
wide scope and range across 29 social needs (Warnke et al. 2016). The concepts of citizens and
consumers are in this paper interchangeably, reflecting that the obtained insights originate from lay
The authors selected visions relating to circular economy according to the 5 criteria emerging from
literature on consumers and circular economy: shared use of products, incentivised return, product
design, waste reduction, and sustainable food production. Both authors separately reviewed all 179
visions for sections corresponding to these criteria and evaluated these sections with three criteria
for selection: yes, perhaps, no. In the following stage both authors returned to those visions which
had received differing evaluations of which one was yes, and checked if their review remained
valid. Only those visions, which subsequently received two yes-reviews are included in the analysis.
This led to the analysis of 62 visions on desirable and sustainable futures, each of which include a
section corresponding to circular economy.
The selected visions are analysed by topic modelling with latent Dirichlet allocation, which is a
technique suitable for unstructured data (Blei et al. 2003). Patterns in the vision data are observed
using the MALLET machine learning toolkit for natural languages, (McCallum 2002). Topics, i.e.
probabilistic clusters of words, are identified in the data and provide integrating views on contents.
Observed topics relate to the full corpus of the 62 visions, which consists of the full texts of the
selected visions. Stop words and special characters have been removed from the corpus to improve
analysis, and capital letters have been replaced with lower case letters for the same reason. Topic
modelling requires a selection of the number of topics to be identified. The analysis is carried out
with 10 topics, after having piloted the analysis with 5, 10 and 15 topics. Modelling was carried out
with the optimisation interval of 20.
The results of the topic modelling indicate in which future contexts citizens consider circular
economy. They are representations rather than exact depictions and the process follows that of
discourse analysis, where focus is on beyond what is directly expressed in sentences. The applied
discourse analysis can be considered to be of ‘critical’ character in the sense that it focuses not only
on offering explanations, but also considers issues, problems and controversies (see Gee 2014;
4. Ten topics for future circular economy
The findings emerging from the topic modelling provide 10 topics for future circular economy
(Table 1). Modelling provides key words appearing in a topic and its Dirichlet parameter which
indicates the weight of that topic in the corpus. The naming of the topics is performed by the
authors and relates to the clusters of keywords. The topics in order of weight are the following:
energy for society, balanced standards, cultural progress, healthy humanity, future choices, climate
threats, equal possibilities, policy mission, accessible opportunities, and clean systems.
The topic of Energy for society is of substantially more weight than the other nine topics. Thereby,
it should be considered an overarching facilitative topic, which connects to a number of activities
and issues such as energy, people, life, food, community, society, education, production and work.
Even when modelling the corpus with five and fifteen topics, energy for society emerges as the
same key topic. The finding can be considered specific for circular economy also because education
performs that same overarching role when analysing all 179 visions of which the 62 visions are a
subset (Repo et al. 2017).
Together with the topic of Climate threat, Energy for society are the only topics in which
consumption and consumers are directly addressed in their key words. Interestingly, neither overall
sustainability nor energy were amongst the criteria for selecting vision data for the analysed corpus,
which further highlights the importance of these topics.
Table 1. Ten topics for future circular economy
Key words in topic
1. Energy for society
energy people life food community society education production work
resources environment vision green nature social time consumption
ecological local water
2. Balanced standards
level accordance rural city workers conscious pierino members secure
leisure meat story common standard sustainable active vehicle triple
3. Cultural progress
eat great consequences supporting cultural progress days built interests
alternatives group child replacing fair public case gardening species
4. Healthy humanity
healthier higher global costs restrictions citizen professions problems
reduced large stylish humanity cohesive embedded ethics heart end
satisfaction set person
5. Future choices
modern children concern relation cars supported plastic walls holistic
volunteering close cultural favour squares codes civil developing
choices sense experiences
6. Climate threats
oil rooftop fish learning climate principle measures employment ensure
money generation town consumer scale customers actively meeting
programme start science
7. Equal possibilities
perspective possibilities ideas everyones equally sick ecologically lead
climate milk add herbs grandparents regional holders house racists
wanted auto accept
8. Policy mission
give balanced nowadays regions policy bodies dwelling technical
heritage quantum reserves mission typical democracy operating find
models differences valued benefit
accessible universal educated remote farmers opportunities efficient part
main building people fruits corporate earlier lawn playing seas cleaner
10. Clean systems
part systems relationships clean adapted resist burden simple cleaner
interest virtuous success cradle street involvement integrate dialogue
immaterial wishes due
The topic of Balanced standards relates to finding appropriate solutions between differing contexts
such as rural areas and cities, and work and leisure. Cultural progress deals with eating, interests,
alternatives and fairness while considering doubts about biodiversity. Healthy humanity considers
health in terms of costs, restrictions, professions and problems. Future choices responds to a variety
of forward-looking selections having to do with relations, materials and senses. Equal possibilities
takes inclusion into account, pointing at everyone, acceptance and racism in relation to ecology and
climate. Policy mission pays attention to regions, institutional bodies, mission, democracy and
finding operating models. Accessible opportunities relate to accessibility, universality, education
and opportunities with a slight emphasis in the material world through farmers, fruits, lawns and
seas. Clean systems considers relationships between part of system, adaptation and resistance as
well as cleanliness.
Figure 1 visualises these topics according to the three dimensions of sustainability (ecological,
social and economic) and the dimension of technology which is evident as a background enabler
both the topics and the visions they originate from. When categorising the topics according to their
key and supporting dimensions (if any), four topics position in one dimensions (Energy for society,
Equal possibilities, Accessible opportunities / Social; Climate threats / Eco), one covers all four
(Balanced standards) with the remaining ranging over two (Cultural progress and Policy mission /
Eco & Social; Healthy humanity / Social & Economic; Future choices / Social & Techno; Clean
systems / Techno & Economic). The figure illustrates well how the citizens’ perspectives differ
from the accentuations of the standard concept of circular economy (Eco-Techno-Economic).
Figure 1. Topics illustrated in terms of sustainability (ecological, social and economic) and
All but two topics connect to the social dimensions of circular economy. Alongside the magnitude
of the energy topic which is also positioned socially, this is a key result of the analysis. The social
dimension is indeed highlighted in forward-looking consumer and citizen visions on desirable and
sustainable futures that relate to circular economy. In comparison, the ecological dimension plays a
Technology is often considered an enabler for new solutions, but it relates only to three topics. This
can be interpreted either to question the technological emphasis of circular economy or to leave it to
the industry of supply side to address. Similarly, the economic dimension draws little attention,
again accentuating the social character of circular economy in citizen visions.
The concept of circular economy considers consumers, yet this connection has received limited
attention in academic literature. There is, in particular, a lack of empirical and consumer-centred
work on circular economy. This paper has responded to that knowledge gap by reviewing how
European citizen visions on desirable and sustainable futures relate to the concept of circular
economy. Visions were selected to be included in the analysed corpus according to the following
content criteria: shared use of products, incentivised return, product design, waste reduction, and
sustainable food production.
Applying the methodology of topic modelling to analyse the visions that relate to circular economy,
two consumer-centred key findings emerge: 1) energy is a key topic for the concept of circular
economy to connect to and 2) social aspects are very prevalent when people think of the future
opportunities of circular economy. These forward-looking discourses exhibit how people relate to
features included in the concept of circular economy (see Gee 2014; Wodak 2009), and do differ
from the standard concept, which accentuates ecological, technological and economic dimensions.
The findings exhibit forward-looking expectations citizens have on the concept of circular
economy. To stimulate the acceptance and take-up of the concept of circular economy amongst
citizens in Europe, it would seem worthwhile to highlight its relationship to challenges relating to
energy and social sustainability.
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