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The circular economy (CE) has recently become a popular discourse especially in government and corporate sectors. Given the socio-ecological challenges of the Anthropocene, the concept of CE could indeed help the transition to a sustainable, just and resilient future. However, the actual definition, objectives and forms of implementation of the CE are still unclear, inconsistent, and contested. Different actors and sectors are thus articulating circular discourses which align with their interests, and which often do not sufficiently examine the ecological, social and political implications of circularity. In this context, this research asks how to better navigate and analyse the history, complexity and plurality of circularity discourses by conceptually differentiating them in a comprehensive discourse typology. To answer this question a critical literature review has been carried out, which first, examines and reflects on the core challenges, gaps and limitations of the CE concept. Second, this research develops a comprehensive timeline of circularity thinking, which identifies and conceptually classifies 72 different CE-related concepts from the Global North and South (such as Gandhian and steady-state economics, buen vivir, doughnut economics and degrowth). This leads to the development of a typology of circularity discourses, which classifies circularity visions according to their position on fundamental social, technological, political and ecological issues. This research thus seeks to provide a basis for a more inclusive and comprehensive discussion on the topic, which opens the imaginary regarding the many circular futures that can exist and allows for a cross-pollination of ideas, policy options, strategies, practices and solutions.
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Resources, Conservation & Recycling
journal homepage:
A typology of circular economy discourses: Navigating the diverse visions of
a contested paradigm
Martin Calisto Friant
, Walter J.V. Vermeulen
, Roberta Salomone
Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development, Faculty of Geosciences, Utrecht University
University of Messina, Department of Economics
Circular economy
Circular society
Discourse analysis
Critical literature review
The circular economy (CE) has recently become a popular discourse especially in government and corporate
sectors. Given the socio-ecological challenges of the Anthropocene, the concept of CE could indeed help the
transition to a sustainable, just and resilient future. However, the actual definition, objectives and forms of
implementation of the CE are still unclear, inconsistent, and contested. Different actors and sectors are thus
articulating circular discourses which align with their interests, and which often do not sufficiently examine the
ecological, social and political implications of circularity. In this context, this research asks how to better na-
vigate and analyse the history, complexity and plurality of circularity discourses by conceptually differentiating
them in a comprehensive discourse typology. To answer this question a critical literature review has been carried
out, which first, examines and reflects on the core challenges, gaps and limitations of the CE concept. Second,
this research develops a comprehensive timeline of circularity thinking, which identifies and conceptually
classifies 72 different CE-related concepts from the Global North and South (such as Gandhian and steady-state
economics, buen vivir, doughnut economics and degrowth). This leads to the development of a typology of
circularity discourses, which classifies circularity visions according to their position on fundamental social,
technological, political and ecological issues. This research thus seeks to provide a basis for a more inclusive and
comprehensive discussion on the topic, which opens the imaginary regarding the many circular futures that can
exist and allows for a cross-pollination of ideas, policy options, strategies, practices and solutions.
1. Introduction
The Circular Economy (CE) has become a “go-to concept” that has
caught the attention of all sectors of society in the recent years, in-
cluding academia, businesses, NGOs and governments (Lazarevic and
Valve, 2017). Searching online for the “circular economy” concept in
2008 would only show 20,570 results, the same search now leads to
over 5.74 million, thus surpassing the popularity of the many ideas that
originated it, such as “industrial ecology” (1.01 million results), and
“industrial symbiosis” (195,000), and the ideas that are directly related
to it like “cradle to cradle” (3.14 million), “biomimicry” (2.47 million),
and “performance economy” (224,000).
Overall, the CE concept is viewed as a promising idea and ideal that
has much to bring towards addressing challenges of the Anthropocene
(Aurez et al., 2016;Geissdoerfer et al., 2017;Murray et al., 2017). By
proposing a regenerative and restorative system of production and
consumption, which closes the input and output cycles of the economy,
the CE is expected to solve the problems of resource scarcity, bio-
chemical flow disruption, and climate change, all while revitalizing
local and regional economies (Batista et al., 2018;Delannoy, 2017;
Stahel, 2010).
While those ideals are very appealing, the CE concept is still under
construction and debate and it still faces many challenges and research
gaps to fulfil its promises. Indeed, it is a relatively new concept that is
just recently catching academic attention. While there were only 116
academic articles published on the topic from 2001 to 2008, this
number has grown exponentially to over 4900.
Nevertheless, most of
the CE discourse has actually been developed by actors in the govern-
ment and private sectors, which have specific political and economic
agendas, and have often used the CE as a narrative device for green-
washing (Ampe et al., 2019;Korhonen et al., 2018b;Nylén and
Salminen, 2019;Van den Berghe and Vos, 2019). Public policy predates
Received 12 November 2019; Received in revised form 29 April 2020; Accepted 29 April 2020
Corresponding author.
E-mail address: (M. Calisto Friant).
Search conducted in on the 11th of November 2019, using the advanced search option to search for all results before the 31st of December 2008.
Based on SCOPUS search for “circular economy” (abstract, keyword, title) search conducted on the 11th of November 2019.
Resources, Conservation & Recycling 161 (2020) 104917
0921-3449/ © 2020 The Authors. Published by Elsevier B.V. This is an open access article under the CC BY license
most academic research, especially in China where the concept has
been a national strategy as early as 2002 (McDowall et al., 2017;
Qi et al., 2016). Overall, the CE discourse has been dominated by non-
academic sectors, which are espousing many economic and environ-
mental benefits from circular policies and business models (e.g.
Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2015;European Commission, 2015).
However, these discourses have failed to build a systemic and holistic
understanding of the social and sustainability implications of the CE
(Millar et al., 2019;Moreau et al., 2017;Temesgen et al., 2019).
Moreover, there is little discussion regarding the complex and con-
troversial relationships between CE, energy, resources, biodiversity,
entropy, and economic growth (Bruel et al., 2019;Cullen, 2017;
Desing et al., 2020;Korhonen et al., 2018a).
Some authors argue that those conceptual limitations are not im-
portant for practitioners, which need further empirical research rather
than theoretical discussions (Kirchherr and van Santen, 2019). Never-
theless, considering that the CE is still a relatively recent concept, there
is still a strong necessity to build its theoretical foundations. Otherwise,
the CE runs the risk of lacking systemic validity, critical social relevance
and its claims and propositions might be unachievable on a relevant
scale to effectively address the socio-ecological challenges of the 21st
century. In this context, the CE concept could easily be discredited and
disregarded as a new form of greenwashing or as an oxymoron, com-
parable to green growth or ecological modernization (Gregson et al.,
2015;Lazarevic and Valve, 2017;Monsaingeon, 2017;Valenzuela and
Böhm, 2017). This research aims to address such conceptual risks and
help actors better navigate and analyse the history, complexity and
plurality of circularity visions by establishing a typology of circularity
discourses. Such a typology can provide a basis for a more inclusive and
comprehensive discussion on the topic, which opens the imaginary
regarding the many circular futures that can exist and allows for a cross-
pollination of ideas, policy options, strategies, practices and solutions.
To establish a systematic and consistent typology we used several
research questions as guidelines in our step-wise design process. First,
what are the main challenges and shortcomings of the CE concept?
Second, what are the historical origins and linkages of the CE with other
concepts from the Global South and North alike? Third, what are the
main conceptual differences and similarities of the core circularity
discourses? By answering these three questions, this paper develops the
first 2 × 2 typology of circularity discourses to date. While some papers
do elaborate distinctions within CE thinking (see for example
Blomsma, 2018;Blomsma and Brennan, 2017;D'Amato et al., 2019;
Geissdoerfer et al., 2017;Homrich et al., 2018;Korhonen et al., 2018b;
Kuzmina et al., 2019;Marin and De Meulder, 2018;Merli et al., 2018;
Reike et al., 2018) no research proposes a systematic classification of
circular discourses. This paper thus builds and expands on the work of
those previous authors to fill this research gap and develops a discourse
typology which contributes towards a better understanding and ana-
lysis of the CE and helps contextualize and navigate the plurality of the
concept and its manifold possibilities.
Moreover, this research finds that the many related concepts which
the CE historically builds on can positively contribute to its limitations
through the cross-pollination of solutions and ideas. This is particularly
important now that the concept faces a period of “validity challenge”
(Blomsma and Brennan, 2017, p.609), and needs to address some of its
major critiques and limitations to propose a compelling, fair, resilient
and sustainable future. This paper thus not only fills a literature gap on
CE discourse analysis
but also on the links between the CE and alter-
native social discourses and ideas (Bruel et al., 2019;D'Amato et al.,
2019;Ghisellini et al., 2016;Moreau et al., 2017;Prieto-Sandoval et al.,
2018;Schröder et al., 2019b;Temesgen et al., 2019).
The paper is structured as follows: first, it describes the research
methods (Section 2). It then critically reviews the challenges of the CE
concept (Section 3.1) and establishes a comprehensive historical time-
line of circularity thinking (Section 3.2). The paper builds on these
findings to differentiate circularity discourses based on the extent to
which they address the identified challenges (Section 4.1). This is fol-
lowed by the development of a new discourse typology, which classifies
circularity discourses according to their position on fundamental socio-
ecological issues (Section 4.2). Finally, a discussion Section 5 reflects on
the conceptual and methodological implications of this research.
2. Methods
There are no standard methods for developing a discourse typology
as previous researchers have followed a variety of different approaches
(e.g. Audet, 2016;Dryzek, 2013;Schwarz and Thompson, 1990;
van Egmond and de Vries, 2011). This paper was built based on a cri-
tical literature review,
which is particularly valuable to identify con-
ceptual gaps in the literature and to develop new theoretical perspec-
tives from a broad range of different fields and perspectives (Grant and
Booth, 2009;Greenhalgh et al., 2018;Saunders and Rojon, 2011;
Snyder, 2019).
In general, the main weakness of critical literature reviews is the
inherent subjectivity in the selection of literature (Snyder, 2019). A
systematic literature review could reduce this bias by having strict
criteria for the selection of literature, which enables a detailed analysis
of a specific topic (Grant and Booth, 2009). However, a systematic re-
view does not allow for the effective integration of grey and academic
literature, as well as academic literature in languages other than Eng-
lish, which are not effectively indexed in the main academic search
engines such as Scopus and Web-of-Science (Albarillo, 2014;
Morrison et al., 2012;Paez, 2017). Since this article aims to investigate
the diversity of different circularity discourses, rather than developing
an in-depth analysis of a specific aspect of the CE, a critical review is
better suited to the objectives of this research as it can generally include
a broader range of perspectives and theoretical positions
(Greenhalgh et al., 2018;Snyder, 2019) .
This paper was developed in four main steps, which build on each
other and lead to the construction of the typology of circularity dis-
courses presented in Section 4.2 (see Fig. 1).
The first step consists of a critical literature review of the CE and its
challenges, gaps and limitations. This review does not focus on sys-
tematically or bibliometrically exploring what has been written on the
CE, as many recent systematic literature reviews have already done so
(see for example Blomsma and Brennan, 2017;Geissdoerfer et al., 2017;
Ghisellini et al., 2016;Homrich et al., 2018;Kalmykova et al., 2018;
Korhonen et al., 2018b;Kühl et al., 2019;Merli et al., 2018;
Murray et al., 2017;Prieto-Sandoval et al., 2018;Reike et al., 2018).
Instead, it focuses on critically analysing the conceptual challenges of
the CE and why they are important to address. Literature was selected
based on its relevance for answering the research question, publication
date (with a specific focus on recent work) and importance (citation
count, regardless of year). Moreover, to ensure breadth and diversity,
literature from various fields was reviewed including industrial ecology
(Bruel et al., 2019;Saavedra et al., 2018;Zink and Geyer, 2017),
A Scopus search for “circular economy” AND “discourse analysis” (abstract,
keyword, title), conducted on the 20th of December 2019, finds only 3 results.
A critical literature review (also called integrative literature review) ”aims
to assess, critique, and synthesize the literature on a research topic in a way that
enables new theoretical frameworks and perspectives to emerge […] This type
of review often requires a more creative collection of data, as the purpose is
usually not to cover all articles ever published on the topic but rather to
combine perspectives and insights from different fields or research traditions.”
(Snyder, 2019, p.335-336)
Reviewers have noted that a meta-synthesis method of literature review
could overcome some of the limitations of a systematic literature, by adding
expert consultations to search engine results to ensure a broad and diverse
range of literature (see for example Kirchherr et al., 2016).
M. Calisto Friant, et al. Resources, Conservation & Recycling 161 (2020) 104917
ecological economics (Giampietro, 2019;Millar et al., 2019;
Temesgen et al., 2019), environment and sustainability sciences
(Korhonen et al., 2018a;Repo et al., 2018;Schröder et al., 2019a),
resource efficiency (Lehmann et al., 2018), critical geography
(Hobson and Lynch, 2016), engineering (Cullen, 2017), political
ecology (Bihouix, 2014;Fressoz and Bonneuil, 2016), waste manage-
ment (Velis, 2018), political sciences (Monsaingeon, 2017;
Valenzuela and Böhm, 2017), business and management
(Geisendorf and Pietrulla, 2018) etc. Search engines included Google
Scholar, Scopus, and WorldCat: a total of 107 articles and books were
thus reviewed (please see supplementary materials for full list).
In the second step, a timeline of circularity thinking was elaborated
based on a broad perspective of CE as an umbrella concept
(Homrich et al., 2018). The timeline builds on those previously devel-
oped by Blomsma and Brennan (2017) and Reike et al. (2018) and
further adds to them to expand the debate on the CE. To elaborate the
timeline, the results of the previous critical review were first carefully
analysed, especially by examining what other ideas and theories were
commonly connected to the CE. Snowball sampling (Handcock and
Gile, 2011) was used to widen the focus to other similar sustainability
discourses, especially focusing on the most influential work in the area.
Books and articles from on closely related concepts were thus examined
such as “permacircular economy” (Arnsperger and Bourg, 2017),
“performance economy” (Stahel, 2010), “cradle to cradle”
(McDonough and Braungart, 2002), “degrowth” (D'Alisa et al., 2014)
etc. Conceptual diversity, plurality and breadth was sought by re-
viewing literature from the Global South and North alike as well as
concepts from both practitioners and academics. A complete list of 72
different CE-related concepts was thus established. A key originating
book or influential article was then reviewed for each concept to ana-
lyse its relation to circularity and to organise each idea in different
historical and conceptual groups (Fig. 3).
The third step is a classification of circularity discourses according
to their level of complexity (Table 1), meaning the extent which each
discourse addresses the complex challenges identified in step 1. Five
levels of complexity and a set of differentiating criteria for each level
were thus established based on those challenges, which include issues
of temporal and geographic scales, sustainability dimensions, and on-
tology. This allows for a clearer and more consistent distinction of the
various concepts presented in the timeline (Table 2).
Finally, in the fourth step, a typology of circularity discourses was
developed based on previous classifications of environmental dis-
courses (Audet, 2016;Dryzek, 2013;Mann, 2018;Schwarz and
Thompson, 1990;van Egmond and de Vries, 2011) and their adaptation
to the particularities of the CE. The typology draws upon the findings of
the previous steps by integrating the most important challenges iden-
tified in step 1 as well as the core criteria for the classification of
circularity discourses (Table 1). Different 2 × 2 typologies were tested
with each axis representing a core challenge identified in step 1 or a
differentiating criterion developed in step 3. Different combinations
were thus tried until a definitive version was established, which could
effectively incorporate and differentiate all the circularity concepts
presented in the timeline (Fig. 3). When conceptually defining each
discourse type, the authors built on the results of previous research on
the topic, in particular those, which have sketched other distinctions in
circularity thinking (see for example Blomsma, 2018;Blomsma and
Brennan, 2017;D'Amato et al., 2019;Geissdoerfer et al., 2017;
Homrich et al., 2018;Korhonen et al., 2018b;Merli et al., 2018;
Reike et al., 2018), and which have analysed circularity discourse in
specific sectors (Colombo et al., 2019;Fratini et al., 2019;
Kaźmierczyk, 2018;Kuzmina et al., 2019;Marin and De Meulder, 2018;
Monsaingeon, 2017;Pardo and Schweitzer, 2018;Repo et al., 2018;
Rijnhout et al., 2018;Valenzuela and Böhm, 2017;Vonk, 2018;
Welch et al., 2017). The above steps ensured that the final typology
would not be overly stereotypical or simplistic as it closely aligns both
with previous research on discourse analysis and key debates on cir-
cularity. Moreover, earlier versions of the discourse typology were
presented in an academic conference and three academic workshops to
test and improve it.
These workshops involved around 15 to 25 aca-
demic participants and allowed for the discussion of the discourse ty-
pology and 4 circularity discourse types. They helped reduce inherent
subjectivity in the construction of the discourse typology by collectively
discussing the description of each discourse type and cross-checking
their relation to the concepts in the timeline. Once the typology was
finalized, it was used to classify the 72 concepts in the timeline (Fig. 3)
as well as a list of 120 definitions of the CE
to evaluate where the
current and past circularity debates stand.
Fig. 1. Main steps in research methods.
The conference was the 25th International Sustainable Development
Research Society (ISDRS) Conference in Nanjing, China on the 27th of June
2019, 2 of the workshops were held at the Copernicus Institute of Sustainable
Development, Utrecht University, in May 2019 and December 2019, and a third
workshop with the CRESTING project research community in Lisbon, Portugal
in September 2019.
The set of definitions used are mainly those sampled by Kirchherr et al.,
2017, which were supplemented with the addition of a few more recent defi-
nitions from (Geisendorf and Pietrulla, 2018;Gregson et al., 2015;
Korhonen et al., 2018a,2018b;Prieto-Sandoval et al., 2018). Please see sup-
plementary materials for further details.
M. Calisto Friant, et al. Resources, Conservation & Recycling 161 (2020) 104917
3. Results
3.1. Review of challenges and limitations of the circular economy
The major research gaps and critiques of the CE have been grouped
into the 5 following topics, which will be examined in this section:
1 Systemic thinking on entropy, growth, capitalism and decoupling
2 The materials, energy and biodiversity nexus
3 Evaluating and assessing the full impacts of a circular economy
4 Governance, social justice, and cultural change
5 Alternative visions of circularity
3.1.1. Challenge 1: systemic thinking on entropy, growth, capitalism and
There is no agreed general economic or social theory underlying the
CE. It is a useful concept for organizing regenerative and restorative
production and consumption systems, but it is not based on any eco-
nomic model or philosophical theory (Velis, 2018). While this makes
the concept simpler and easier to promote and adopt, it also means that
it faces key challenges, inconsistencies, and limitations in its under-
standing, application and its systemic validity (Geissdoerfer et al.,
2017;Korhonen et al., 2018b;Lazarevic and Valve, 2017;Reike et al.,
For instance, there is little clarity regarding entropy and the laws of
thermodynamics as applied to a CE (Mayumi and Giampietro, 2019;
Rammelt and Crisp, 2014). Since materials degrade in quantity and
quality each time they are cycled or used, they cannot be circulated
indefinitely (Korhonen et al., 2018a;Reuter et al., 2019). This means
that to establish a perfect CE, where all resource inputs come from
recovered or renewable materials, a general reduction in material de-
mand, and economic throughput is necessary (Giampietro, 2019;
Korhonen et al., 2018a).
Due to the immense challenges and limitations of recycling and
recovery activities, a fully CE might be just as illusory as a “perpetual
motion machine” (Cullen, 2017). Even if a perfect circularity of mate-
rials flows were possible, this would require a capping global resource
use at a certain sustainable level, so the economy can run only on re-
covered and renewable resources. Yet considering the large unmet
needs of over 45% of the global population which remains in poverty
(World Bank, 2019), capping material resource use has
critical geopolitical dimensions and necessitates an essential re-
consideration of normative questions regarding global justice, well-
being and world-wide wealth redistribution (Arnsperger and
Bourg, 2017;Bengtsson et al., 2018;Schröder et al., 2019a).
Furthermore, there is insufficient investigation on whether and how
the CE could lead to an absolute, global decoupling of economic growth
from environmental degradation (Antikainen et al., 2018). The question
of growth is perhaps the largest elephant in the room for the CE. While
proponents in the public and private sector argue that a CE would lead
to over 600 billion euros in yearly economic gains for Europe alone
(Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2015), this relationship is very unclear
(Korhonen et al., 2018a). Due to the inevitability of entropy and the
inexistent evidence of absolute decoupling, there is no reason to think
that a CE can operate in a context of continued economic growth
(Hickel and Kallis, 2019;Jackson, 2016;Mayumi and
Giampietro, 2019;Parrique et al., 2019;Ward et al., 2016). As capit-
alism cannot operate in a context of degrowth, this would mean that a
fully CE is also inherently incompatible with the current productivist
economic system
(Arnsperger and Bourg, 2017;Audier, 2019;
Kallis et al., 2018;Latouche, 2009).
3.1.2. Challenge 2: the materials, energy and biodiversity nexus
The relationship between materials, energy, biodiversity, and cir-
cularity is a critical area that needs further research. Tackling climate
change, biodiversity loss and resource scarcity indeed involves many
complex trade-offs and synergies (Bleischwitz and Miedzinski, 2018).
Energy plays a key role in the cycling of material flows as it is
needed to recycle, repair, refurbish or remanufacture any product or
material (Cullen, 2017). Wastes (such as end-of-life tyres, biofuel pel-
lets, food waste, and wastewater) can also play a key role in energy
provision (through energy-from-waste operations) and by doing so,
they reduce dependence from fossil fuels (Lehmann, 2018). However,
energy recovery competes with higher value recovery options (such as
recycling, composting or refurbishing) and generates significant
greenhouse gas emissions (Bihouix, 2014). A mismanaged CE transition
could thus lead to an increase in energy demand and greenhouse gas
emissions (Monsaingeon, 2017).
Furthermore, transitioning to fully renewable energy grid will re-
quire a large amount of material resources to build the new infra-
structure such as wind turbines, solar panels, smart grids, electric cars,
trains and buses etc. (Moreau et al., 2019;Nieto et al., 2019; Reuter
et al., 2019). This will inevitably increase demand for material re-
sources, many of which could become inaccessible in less than 80 years,
especially cobalt, lithium and nickel (Aurez et al., 2016;Fressoz and
Bonneuil, 2016;Suh et al., 2017). Yet, these scarce critical raw mate-
rials used for renewable energy currently have very low recycling rates
so various CE strategies are needed to prevent material shortages, such
as refurbishing, recycling, lifetime extension and consumption reduc-
tion (Bengtsson et al., 2018;Bihouix, 2014;Lapko et al., 2019;
Monsaingeon, 2017).
On the other hand, it is also worth noting that the CE could be an
avenue for energy saving for some material resource flows as many
secondary materials (mainly metals) can be obtained at much lower
energy costs compared to virgin ones (Aurez et al., 2016). Moreover,
improving waste management and eliminating landfilling can lead to
lower methane emissions, thus contributing to climate change mitiga-
tion (Hawken, 2017;Jurgilevich et al., 2016). The interactions between
CE, energy, climate change and material resources are henceforth
complex and need further research to build sustainable pathways to-
wards zero-carbon circular economies (Bleischwitz and
Miedzinski, 2018).
The third dimension to the abovementioned resource nexus between
materials and energy is biodiversity.
A zero-carbon CE can lead to
increased demand for natural resources such as wood, bio-fuels, bio-
polymers, natural fibres, and land for wind, solar and tidal energy
(Heck et al., 2018;Suh et al., 2017). This is especially the case if bio-
technology, biomaterials and bio-based energy play a central role in a
decarbonized “circular bioeconomy” (OECD, 2018). It is thus essential
to balance an increased demand for natural resources and renewable
energy with efforts in biodiversity conservation and restoration to
maintain the biophysical health of the planet and the ecosystem ser-
vices on which life depends (von Weizsäcker and Wijkman, 2017).
There is a generally recognized planetary boundary that identifies the
need to conserve at least 75% of the earth's natural ecosystems
Figure for 2015 considering a World Bank global aggregation measure that
uses 2011 PPP and $5,50/day poverty line (World Bank, 2019).
Productivism is as system based on ever-expanding productivity and eco-
nomic growth as the main purpose of human organization, it includes
(footnote continued)
capitalism but also state communism as implemented in the USSR
(Audier, 2019).
It is worth noting that many other resource nexus perspectives exist. The
academic literature typically speaks of a water, food, energy nexus (Del Borghi
et al., 2020), a water, food, energy, land and materials nexus (Bleischwitz and
Miedzinski, 2018) and more recently an urban nexus of “food, water, energy
and waste treatment systems” (S. Lehmann, 2018, p47) . Here a new nexus
approach is formulated based on the interactions, synergies and interrelations
which are most relevant for a circular society.
M. Calisto Friant, et al. Resources, Conservation & Recycling 161 (2020) 104917
(Steffen et al., 2015). Currently, only 62% of natural ecosystems remain
and the transition to a circular and zero-carbon economy could further
worsen this situation, especially if the complex interactions between
energy, biodiversity and material resources are not adequately dealt
with (Bihouix, 2014;Heck et al., 2018;Raworth, 2017).
Moreover, biodiversity provides with key solutions to global pro-
blems by reducing soil erosion, improving human health, contributing
to climate change adaptation (through ecosystem-based disaster risk
reduction strategies), climate change mitigation (through carbon se-
questration), improving water quality and quantity (through watershed
conservation and restoration), improving soil health (through re-
generative agriculture), reducing air pollution (through urban
greening), improving waste-water treatment (through constructed
wetlands), and inspiring human creativity and innovation
(Benyus, 1998;Delannoy, 2017). These nature-based solutions must
thus be better integrated with regenerative and restorative CE practices
(Del Borghi et al., 2020;Jurgilevich et al., 2016;Reynaud et al., 2019).
Moreover, a CE can also lead to reduced demand for goods through
longer use-rates, reuse, repair, recycling, and refurbishing strategies as
well as simple-living behaviours, all of which can significantly reduce
environmental pressures (Bengtsson et al., 2018; Jackson, 2016; ; ). The
interactions between energy, biodiversity and material resources are
graphically represented in Fig. 2.
3.1.3. Challenge 3: evaluating and assessing the full impacts of a circular
Holistically assessing and evaluating the sustainability impacts of
circular systems is another large challenge. Research has found that
many production systems that define themselves as circular can lead to
greater environmental impacts than their linear counterparts (such as
biofuels and biopolymers) (Hobson and Lynch, 2016;
Monsaingeon, 2017;Velis, 2018;Zink and Geyer, 2017). Moreover, a
CE approach that focuses on eco-efficiency creates a rebound effect,
where reduced costs for one product or service leads to increased de-
mand for it, while also creating saving that incentivize consumption in
other areas (Zink and Geyer, 2017). Thus, efficiency gains lead to
higher levels of overall resource consumption in the economy
(Junnila et al., 2018). This is known as the Jevon's paradox and it has
key implications in the realization of a CE that does not end up causing
more negative than positive impacts (Kjaer et al., 2019). Even some
product-service systems (PSS), which promote the access to products
and services (as opposed to ownership), have had limited environ-
mental benefits due to the abovementioned rebound effect (Hobson and
Lynch, 2016;Junnila et al., 2018;Kjaer et al., 2019).
The development of clear indicators and assessment mechanisms to
measure circularity, while accounting for this rebound effect, is thus a
complex issue that needs to be resolved to ensure that circularity claims
actually lead to ecological benefits (Antikainen et al., 2018;
Corona et al., 2019;Manninen et al., 2018). While some CE impact
studies exist in China and Northern Europe, more research is needed to
fully understand the outcomes of circular projects and solutions
(Kalmykova et al., 2018;Saavedra et al., 2018;Winans et al., 2017) and
especially for result-orientated PSS, which could have a high sustain-
ability potential if they are well designed and implemented (Kühl et al.,
The ecological footprint indicator might be a useful tool in this re-
gard, as it allows the measurement of the overall impacts of human
activities, beyond punctual eco-efficiency improvements (Junnila et al.,
2018;Kaźmierczyk, 2018;Rijnhout et al., 2018). The better integration
of circularity and footprint indicators is thus key to ensure circularity
interventions actually reduce the pressure on the Earth's biophysical
limits (Arnsperger and Bourg, 2017;Bruel et al., 2019;Temesgen et al.,
3.1.4. Challenge 4: governance, social justice, and cultural change
Another important challenge, which is often under-addressed in the
CE literature to date, is the social dimension, especially with regards to
issues of governance, justice, and cultural change (Geissdoerfer et al.,
2017;Hobson, 2019;Korhonen et al., 2018a;Millar et al., 2019;
Moreau et al., 2017;Schröder et al., 2019a;Temesgen et al., 2019). A
Scopus search reveals that less than 17% of articles on the CE are from
social science and humanities (of a total of 4901 articles on the CE:
Fig. 2. Interactions of the Energy, Materials, Biodiversity Nexus (synergies are marked in green arrows, interactions with possible trade-offs are marked with red
arrows). (For interpretation of the references to color in this figure legend, the reader is referred to the web version of this article.)
M. Calisto Friant, et al. Resources, Conservation & Recycling 161 (2020) 104917
2316 are in environmental sciences, 1753 are in engineering, 1191 are
in energy sciences, and only 804 are in social sciences or humanities).
By overlooking social considerations, CE research is proposing a tech-
nological path to sustainability that many have criticized for being
overly optimistic regarding the speed of technological transitions and
the capacity of society to integrate disruptive innovations, which
challenge vested interests (Bihouix, 2014;Feola, 2019a;Fressoz and
Bonneuil, 2016;Jackson, 2016;Latouche, 2009).
This approach also fails to recognize the massive socio-cultural change
that a CE entails by transforming consumption and production structures
based on materialism, convenience, and ownership to ones based on col-
laborative consumption, sharing economies and use-value (Frenken, 2017;
Hobson, 2019;Lazarevic and Valve, 2017;Pomponi and
Moncaster, 2017). When some of those social and cultural topics are ad-
dressed in the literature, it is dominantly done through commercial ap-
proaches, such as new business models for the private sector rather than
from the perspective of a transformative social and solidarity economy
(with some notable exceptions such as Baruque-Ramos et al., 2017;Chaves
Ávila and Monzón Campos, 2018;Gutberlet et al., 2017;Hobson and
Lynch, 2016;Moreau et al., 2017;Schröder et al., 2019a). Yet this is a key
topic as evidenced by the work of Kirchherr et al. (2018) which found that
practitioners see cultural barriers as the main barriers to a CE transition.
Moreover, there is a general lack of discussion regarding social and
environmental justice aspects related to the CE. In a review of 114
definitions, Kirchherr et al. (2017) found that only 18–20% include
social equity considerations. Critical questions regarding, who controls
CE technologies and patents, and how the economic costs and benefits
should be distributed both within and between countries, have thus
received very little attention. Those are nonetheless vitally important
questions that will determine whether the CE will lead to more mean-
ingful jobs, closer communities, greater social equity and global soli-
darity or rather to increased precarity, inequality, and neo-colonialism
(Arnsperger and Bourg, 2017;Bihouix, 2014;Schröder et al., 2019a).
All in all, the CE could become a profitable industry owned by a few
corporations in a handful of countries rather than a transformative
movement that benefits all of humankind (Monsaingeon, 2017).
In his latest book, Thomas Piketty proposes a CE that circulates
property and capital to redistribute resources and counter capitalism's
inherent accumulative tendencies (Piketty, 2019). Further discussion
on this form of CE is necessary to foster a circularity transition that is
socially, economically and ecologically sustainable.
The governance and political considerations of a CE also deserve
greater attention and study. Power plays a key role in the future of a
zero-carbon CE transition as it determines who controls the discourse,
who takes decisions and who will benefit from them (Hobson and
Lynch, 2016;Lazarevic and Valve, 2017;Schröder et al., 2018). This is
why it is key to establish a democratic and deliberative governance
system for a CE to ensure that everyone is involved in its construction
and that its benefits reach the most vulnerable. Yet, those political
considerations are rarely taken into account by the literature on CE,
which has mostly dealt with design, technological, managerial or
business-led solutions (as evidenced by Fratini et al., 2019;Millar et al.,
2019;Moreau et al., 2017). The Gilet Jaune movement illustrates the
risks with a sustainability transition that does not sufficiently include
political and social justice elements (Deléage, 2019;Laurent, 2019).
3.1.5. Challenge 5: alternative visions of circularity
There is limited research on alternative approaches to circularity such
as degrowth (Kallis et al., 2018), steady-state (Daly, 1977), and simple
living/voluntary simplicity (Alexander, 2015) concepts, which have a rich
academic literature and share the same objective regarding the necessity
to transform towards regenerative socio-economic structures which are
compatible within the earth's system boundaries. Academics have indeed
found core synergies between these concepts; especially literature on
degrowth, which could complement the CE's lack of social dimension and
system-wide thinking on entropy and biophysical limits (D'Amato et al.,
2019;Ghisellini et al., 2016;Hobson and Lynch, 2016;Schröder et al.,
2019b). Degrowth and simple living scholars also help conceive of cir-
cularity through a lens of sufficiency, conviviality, and social justice ra-
ther than being overly focused on technological innovation and eco-effi-
ciency (Alexander, 2015;Caillé, 2015;Kothari et al., 2019). This
sufficiency approach has recently gained some support in the CE litera-
ture as it can lead to a slowing of resource loops, with significant sus-
tainability benefits (Bengtsson et al., 2018;Bruel et al., 2019;
Hayward and Roy, 2019;Hobson and Lynch, 2016;Schröder et al.,
2019b). Yet a recent review of 327 academic articles on the CE found that
less than 10% of articles include this approach (Homrich et al., 2018).
There is also little work on indigenous discourses on circularity and
alternative concepts from the Global South such as “ubuntu”
(Shumba, 2011), “ecological swaraj” (Kothari et al., 2014), “buen vivir”/
“suma qamaña” (Calisto Friant and Langmore, 2015) and the “Buddhist
middle path” (Rinzin, 2006), which also share the goal of building re-
generative systems that respect, sustain and restore the natural cycles of
the earth. After all, circularity, in traditional hunter-gatherer, agri-
cultural and pastoral societies, has existed for much of humankind's
presence on planet earth and still exists in many parts of the world today
(Giampietro, 2019). This has yet to be recognized by the literature,
which is hence missing the opportunity to build key synergies and learn
from radically different epistemological and ontological frameworks.
Moreover, indigenous discourses often have the added value of being
radically pluralistic and ecocentric as opposed to the anthropocentrism
and ethnocentrism of most western environmental discourses
(Kothari et al., 2019). They thus open up entirely new forms of con-
ceiving democracy, waste, well-being, society and nature (Calisto Friant
and Langmore, 2015;D'Alisa et al., 2014;Kothari et al., 2019).
Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism also have strong ecological
components, which have not been sufficiently related to the CE
(Subramanian et al., 2018). Confucianism and Taoism played a key role in
the early adoption of the CE in China as part of the creation of a “har-
monious society” and an “ecological civilization” (Jin, 2008;
Naustdalslid, 2014). Japan has also been implementing circular policies
since the early 2000s through its innovative “Fundamental Plan for Es-
tablishing a Sound Material-Cycle Society” (Hara and Yabar, 2012;
Hotta, 2011;Takahashi, 2020) and more recently with the “regional
circular and ecological sphere” policy, which addresses key territorial and
socio-ecological synergies (Japanese Ministry of the Environment, 2018).
The Buddhist inspired Gross National Happiness Index (GNI) of Bhutan
also deserves greater attention as it shows how new metrics that go be-
yond the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) can be developed and adapted to
include key circularity criteria (Rinzin et al., 2007;Verma, 2017). Yet,
more remains to be written on the philosophical components of a CE and
how they can relate to different worldviews.
Overall, the research on degrowth and non-western visions of sus-
tainability could bring key insights in the first and most important
“loops” in the CE value-retention hierarchy: refuse, reduce, reuse and
repair (Reike et al., 2018), all of which can lead to the sustainable
slowing of resource cycles (Homrich et al., 2018).
3.2. Timeline of circularity thinking
A timeline of the CE thinking and its related concepts, based on a
broad understanding of the EC as an umbrella concept (Homrich et al.,
2018), is presented in Fig. 3. The timeline builds on the categorizations
proposed by Reike et al. (2018) and by Blomsma and Brennan (2017),
which were expanded to include a plurality of concepts from western
and non-western perspectives alike. Fig. 3 thus allows to better situate
the concept, both in its rich historical origins and in its complex theo-
retical diversity. This helps illustrate the manifold conceptualizations of
Based on a Scopus search for “circular economy” (abstract, keyword, title)
conducted on the 11th of November 2019.
M. Calisto Friant, et al. Resources, Conservation & Recycling 161 (2020) 104917
Fig. 3. Timeline of Circularity Concepts and Ideas (please see supplementary material for details).
M. Calisto Friant, et al. Resources, Conservation & Recycling 161 (2020) 104917
circularity as well as the reformist vs transformational circularity
schools of thought, which shape the current debate on the topic
(Reike et al., 2018). The 72 concepts in this timeline are further ana-
lysed in Sections 4.1 and 4.2 to classify them based on their key socio-
ecological considerations and to examine how they address the complex
challenges that the CE concept is presently facing.
The first period is a preamble stage (1945 to 1980), where discus-
sions regarding resource limits and the ecological impacts of human
activities became widespread thanks to key publications such as “The
Tragedy of the Commons” (Hardin, 1968), “the Limits to Growth”
(Meadows et al., 1972), and “Overshoot” (Catton, 1980). This phase is
also ripe with a diversity of transformative proposals from various
perspectives including Gandhian economics (Kumarappa, 1945), Bud-
dhist economics (Schumacher, 1973), socialism (Commoner, 1971),
anarchism (Illich, 1973), ecological economics (Daly, 1977;Georgescu-
Roegen, 1971), political ecology (Gorz, 1980), and eco-design
(Papanek, 1972). During this time, Boulding (1966) wrote “The Eco-
nomics of the Coming Spaceship Earth”, which is often considered to be
the first reference to a CE-like system (Antikainen et al., 2018;
Geissdoerfer et al., 2017;Murray et al., 2017;Prieto-Sandoval et al.,
2018;Winans et al., 2017). He calls for a “spaceman economy”, where
“all outputs from consumption would constantly be recycled to become
inputs for production” (Boulding, 1966, p5). These concepts had a
strong understanding of planetary limits and gave a great attention to
all the issues discussed in Section 3.1, including decoupling (challenge
1), resource trade-offs (challenge 2), rebound effects (challenge 3),
social justice (challenge 4) and alternative visions of sufficiency
(challenge 5).
During this preamble stage, a body of technical literature on waste
management was also developed, which represents Circularity 1.0 ap-
proaches that deal with waste as a problem to be managed through end-
of-pipe technologies (Reike et al., 2018). This is thus when the first
waste management and recycling systems were developed for various
waste streams (Reike et al., 2018;Takahashi, 2020). These concepts
were mostly focused on specific technological innovations and thus
didn't address the main challenges evidenced in Section 3.1.
Circularity 2.0, represents the beginning of an “excitement period”
(1980–2010) (Blomsma and Brennan, 2017, p608), where a diversity of
innovative ideas start to see waste as a valuable input for other processes
(Reike et al., 2018). It is the time when the concept of a CE was first
coined by Pearce and Turner (1989) and when many related ideas, po-
licies, and business models emerged, including “industrial ecology”
(Frosch and Gallopoulos, 1989), “industrial symbiosis” (Chertow, 2000),
“product-service system” (Goedkoop et al., 1999), “reverse logistics”
(Rogers and Tibben-Lembke, 1998), and “extended producer responsi-
bility” (Lindhqvist, 2000). These ideas often take inspiration from nature
to build new technologies and innovations that connect the output and
input sides of the economy and make industries work like natural eco-
systems. Since this period coincides with the growth of neoliberalism,
most of these ideas were established and implemented through market-
driven approaches and public-private partnerships (Monsaingeon, 2017)
which didn't give much attention to the main challenges discussed in
Section 3.1, except for challenge 2 on the resource nexus.
With Circularity 3.0 (1990-present) the beginning of a compre-
hensive socio-economic approach to waste, resources, production and
consumption emerged; which often builds on the objectives of the Rio
Declaration on Environment and Development (UN, 1992). During this
period the original CE concept was further developed by new ideas
including “the natural step” (Robèrt, 2002), “the performance
economy” (Stahel, 2010), “cradle to cradle” (McDonough and
Braungart, 2002), and “natural capitalism” (Hawken et al., 1999).
However, from about 2010 onwards, it is also a “validity challenge
period” (Blomsma and Brennan, 2017, p.609), where many incon-
sistencies and conceptual challenges of the CE must be resolved. From
this point, the concept can either cohere, by resolving its theoretical
challenges, collapse, as inconsistencies become insurmountable, or
persist as a contention, as different positions end up “agreeing to dis-
agree” (Blomsma and Brennan, 2017, p.609).
In this critical moment, two broad movements of the CE concept can
be seen: first, Circularity 3.1, which represents reformist discourses that
operate within the boundaries of the capitalist system (e.g.,
Allwood et al., 2011;Fullerton, 2015;Pauli, 2010;Rifkin, 2013), and
second, Circularity 3.2, which represents transformational discourses
seeking wholesale transformation of the socio-economic order (e.g.,
Arnsperger and Bourg, 2017;Kothari et al., 2014;Latouche, 2018;
Trainer and Alexander, 2019). Both discourse types include issues of
planetary boundaries, the rebound effect, social justice, and good
governance (as discussed in challenges 2, 3 and 4), however, they vary
in their views regarding the capacity of capitalism to overcome resource
limits and decouple ecological degradation from economic growth (as
evidenced in challenge 1) as well as topics of epistemological and on-
tological pluralism (challenge 5) (please see the supplementary mate-
rials for more details on each concept in the timeline).
4. Synthesis and reflection
Now that the core challenges, the conceptual origins and the di-
versity of the CE have been reviewed, the next section synthesizes and
reflects on these findings to analyse and differentiate the plurality of
circularity discourses. The conceptual challenges highlighted in
Section 3.1 are an effective starting point to unpack this diversity. They
are thus the basis used for distinguishing circularity discourses ac-
cording to their level of complexity (Section 4.1). This leads to the
circularity discourse typology which allows for a clearer differentiation,
navigation and comprehension of this contested paradigm
(Section 4.2).
4.1. Classification of circularity discourses according to their level of
Table 1 shows the different levels of complexity of circularity dis-
courses depending on the extent to which they address the challenges
reviewed in Section 3.1:
Columns (a) and (b), represent spatial and temporal scales, the
importance of which was evidenced in challenges 1 and 3 discussing
global resource limits and the rebound effect.
Column (c) shows which pillars of sustainability (people, planet,
are included. The significance of this was seen in
challenge 4, where the importance of social justice and political
considerations was highlighted.
Column (d) distinguishes ontological (anthropocentric vs eco-
centric) and epistemological perspectives (ethnocentric vs plural),
which were discussed in challenge 5.
Column (e) relates to the complex interlinkages of the resource
nexus, which was discussed in challenge 2.
Column (f) refers to the questions of economic growth, capitalism
and decoupling, which was analysed in challenge 1.
Columns (g) and (h) reflect the core objectives and narratives and
column (i) shows where each circularity concept group from the
timeline (Fig. 3) fits.
To distinguish discourses that go beyond market-based solutions
and economic considerations and see circularity as a holistic social
transformation, the term circular society is proposed; this applies to
complexity levels 4 and 5. A circular society defines discourses with a
vision of circularity where not only resources are circulated in
The people, planet, prosperity (PPP) framework represent a broad con-
sensus on the core pillars of sustainability as evidenced by the review of
Vermeulen (2018).
M. Calisto Friant, et al. Resources, Conservation & Recycling 161 (2020) 104917
Table 1
Circularity discourse complexity.
Complexity level a) Temporal scale b) Spatial
c) Sustainability
factors included
d) ontology and
e) Perspective on the
resource nexus
f) Views on
capitalism and
g) Main goal/objective h) Narrative i) Circularity
concept group
5. Very long term:
(beyond 50
planet Earth
People, Planet,
Ecocentric and
Changing consumption
and production patterns
to keep energy,
biodiversity and
material resources
within safe planetary
Sceptical regarding
the possibility of
decoupling and the
sustainability of
Maintaining socio-
ecological health and
wellbeing for present
and future generations
of human and non-
human life
The earth is borrowed from
future generations of living
beings, humans must
preserve, respect, restore
and share it in a fair manner,
even if that entails changing
lifestyles and consumption
Circularity 3.2
and most
4. Long term: 1 to 2
(20–50 years)
planet Earth
People, Planet,
and ethnocentric
Balancing trade-offs
and synergies to keep
energy, biodiversity and
material resources
within safe planetary
Believe in the
possibility of
decoupling and the
sustainability of
Preserving social well-
being and the
biophysical health of the
earth system in line with
the SDGs
Humans must ensure justice,
fairness and participation in
the sustainable stewardship
of the earth, even if that
entails redistributing and
changing consumption
Circularity 3.1
3. Long term: one
(10–25 years)
planet Earth
and ethnocentric
Balancing trade-offs
and synergies to keep
energy, biodiversity and
material resources
within safe planetary
Believe in the
possibility of
decoupling and the
sustainability of
Maintaining the
biophysical health of the
earth system
Reducing humanity's overall
ecological footprint and
balancing resource limits
and constraints is key to
ensure the stability of the
biosphere and long-term
economic prosperity
Circularity 2.0
2. Mid-term: 1 to 2
planning cycles
(5 to 10 years)
park, city)
and ethnocentric
Optimizing and
securing material,
natural and energy
resources, especially for
critical raw materials
Believe in the
possibility of
decoupling and the
sustainability of
Securing and preserving
critical resources and
Strategically maximising
eco-efficiency and balancing
resource use is necessary to
maintain resource security
and ensure geopolitical
Circularity 1.0
and 2.0
1. Short term: single
product life cycle
(1 to 2 years)
service, or
and ethnocentric
Optimising material
and energy resource
flows in product design.
Believe in the
possibility of
decoupling and the
sustainability of
Capturing opportunities
to lower both
environmental impacts
and economic costs.
Ensuring optimum resource
efficiency through eco-
innovation leads to win-win
solutions that reduce
ecological harm and increase
economic value
Circularity 1.0
and 2.0
M. Calisto Friant, et al. Resources, Conservation & Recycling 161 (2020) 104917
sustainable loops, but also wealth, knowledge, technology and power is
circulated and redistributed throughout society (see Fig. 4). These
discourses thus comprehensively include the three pillars of sustain-
ability and see circularity as a holistic transition, where issues of poli-
tical empowerment and social justice also have to be addressed. The
term circular economy, in contrast to this, focuses on circulating re-
sources alone and applies for complexity levels 1 to 3, which largely
deal with circularity through a technical lens of ecological and material
efficiency alone. Moreover, when discussing CE as a general umbrella
concept, this article uses term circularity to comprehensively include all
its historically related concepts and ideas (as seen in Fig. 3). Con-
sidering the importance of “policy labels, keywords and framing” for
sustainability transitions (Silva et al., 2016, p. 224), these differentia-
tions can help acknowledge and address the complex ecological, so-
ciological and political implications of a circular future.
4.2. Development of a circularity discourse typology
While many are proposing a “deliberately vague but un-
controversial” (Lazarevic and Valve, 2017, p60) discourse on the CE as
a strategy to gain widespread support in the short term, this could lead
to a depoliticised CE, which does little towards tackling the systemic
socio-ecological challenges of the Anthropocene (Korhonen et al.,
2018b;Millar et al., 2019;Valenzuela and Böhm, 2017). Thus, it is key
to propose alternative visions, which tackle the key conceptual chal-
lenges evidenced in Section 3. As Latouche (2018) rightly pointed out,
the core challenge for global sustainability is to “decolonize the ima-
ginary” and allow other futures to emerge. In the same manner,
Korten (2015) speaks of “changing the story to change the future”,
Escobar (2018) argues for a “pluriversal imagination” needed for en-
tirely different forms of “world making”, and Feola (2019b) calls for the
“unmaking of capitalism” to “make space” for a diversity of alter-
natives. A typology of circularity discourses must thus not only help
better distinguish different circular discourses but also allow for an
expansion of the imaginary regarding other possible circular futures.
While other classifications of environmental discourses have been
developed previously, none has been specifically designed to compre-
hensively distinguish circularity discourses. Other environmental dis-
course typologies include Dryzek's (2013), which divides reformist
versus radical positions with prosaic versus imaginative positions
leading to four core discourses: environmental problem solving (prosaic
and reformist), green radicalism (imaginative and radical), survivalism
(prosaic and radical), and sustainability (imaginative and reformist).
Schwarz and Thompson (1990) build on the cultural theory of risk
by adding a vision on the fragility of nature to the divide between
cultural rationalities This leads to four core environmental discourses:
fatalist, who see nature as capricious (unpredictable and un-
controllable), individualist, who see nature as benign (resilient and
abundant), egalitarians, who see nature as ephemeral (fragile and
limited), and hierarchists, who see nature as tolerant (resilient but only
up to some extent) (Schwarz and Thompson, 1990).
Mann (2018) differentiates between prophets who call for urgent
cut-backs in consumption to stay within planetary limits and wizards
who propose optimistic technological solutions. Moreover,
Audet (2016) distinguishes between technocentrist and localist transition
discourses, the first being focused on scientific innovation, and the later
on bottom-up social transformation.
Nevertheless, none of the abovementioned discourse typologies
applies perfectly to circularity, as they are either too narrow, leaving
some circularity discourses out; or too general and do not allow for a
clear differentiation of the circularity concepts presented in Fig. 3. The
typology of CE discourses presented in Fig. 5 draws inspiration from the
division of environmental discourses developed by the above authors
and adapts them to the CE by integrating the results of this research.
The first typological axis was developed from challenge 4, on social
justice and governance, which many authors have identified as one of the
most important issues for a circular future (Geissdoerfer et al., 2017;
Hobson, 2019;Korhonen et al., 2018a;Millar et al., 2019;Moreau et al.,
2017;Schröder et al., 2019a;Temesgen et al., 2019). This axis thus builds
on the distinction between circular society and circular economy presented in
Section 4.1 by dividing holistic from segmented discourses. Holistic discourses
comprehensively integrate the social, ecological and political considerations
of circularity (like circular society visions). Segmented discourses, on the other
hand, have a homogeneous perspective and a uniform focus on only eco-
nomic and technical components of circularity (like circular economy vi-
sions). This differentiation is similar to Dryzek's (2013) distinction between
prosaic vs imaginative discourses but it is specifically focused on the cir-
cularity challenges reviewed in this article, and especially the distinction
between circular economy and circular society concepts.
The second typological axis was developed from challenge 1 on capit-
alism, economic growth and decoupling (column (f) in Table 1). Recent
research has found that this could be the most crucial element to transition
discourses, as it deals with the ability, or inability, of the current socio-
economic system to prevent ecological collapse by decoupling economic
growth from environmental degradation (eco-economic decoupling)
(Feola, 2019a;Fergnani, 2019;Giampietro, 2019;Hickel and Kallis, 2019;
Parrique et al., 2019). The second typological differentiation thus distin-
guishes whether discourses are optimist or sceptical about the capacity of
technology and innovation to overcome the major ecological challenges of
the Anthropocene before an irreversible socio-ecological collapse occurs.
This differentiation is similar to the distinction between Mann's (2018)
prophets and wizards, but it adds a stronger systemic and political dimension
to it.
Fig. 4. Conceptual Differentiation between Circular Economy and Circular Society.
Eco-economic decoupling is defined here as the absolute decoupling of
environmental degradation from economic growth, meaning growing GDP
while reducing absolute environmental impacts from production and con-
sumption activities (Kjaer et al., 2019).
M. Calisto Friant, et al. Resources, Conservation & Recycling 161 (2020) 104917
4.2.1. Reformist circular society
Holistic and optimistic discourses propose a mix of behavioural and
technological change, leading to an abundant, fair, and sustainable
future where scarcity and environmental overshoot has been dealt with
by impressive social, economic, industrial and environmental innova-
tions. While they believe important socio-cultural change is necessary,
and new forms of public participation and inclusion are needed, they do
not see a fundamental contradiction between capitalism and sustain-
ability. Reformist Circular Society discourses thus argue that the current
system can be deeply reformed toward circularity and believe that so-
cial and economic innovation can lead to a sufficient level of eco-eco-
nomic decoupling to prevent a widespread ecological collapse.
Reformist Circular Society discourses promote a variety of circular so-
lutions such as industrial symbiosis, PSS, ecodesign and biomimicry,
and they integrate the 3 main components of sustainability in their
discourse, which is often framed around achieving the sustainable de-
velopment goals while remaining within safe planetary boundaries.
This discourse type considers solutions throughout all the value reten-
tion options of the CE, yet it gives a stronger focus to intermediate loops
such as R2 reuse/resell, R3 repair, R4 refurbish, R5 remanufacture, R6
re-purpose, and R7 recycle.
All Circularity 3.1 concepts fall within
this discourse type, as well as the positions of various NGOs and non-
profits like Circle Economy (Verstraeten-Jochemsen et al., 2018) and
the Club of Rome (von Weizsäcker and Wijkman, 2017) as well as cities
like Amsterdam (as evidenced by Fratini et al., 2019). Reformist Circular
Society has a lot in common to Dryzek's (2013) sustainability category of
discourses. The name of this discourse type derives from
Reike et al. (2018) reformist CE distinction combined with the circular
society concept as described in Section 4.1.
4.2.2. Transformational circular society
Holistic and sceptical discourses propose an entirely transformed
social system where individuals gain a renewed and harmonious con-
nection with the Earth and their communities. A general economic
downscaling and a philosophy of sufficiency leads to simpler, slower
and more meaningful lives. Local production is emphasized, especially
through cooperative and collaborative economic structures and by
using agroecological techniques and open-source innovations and
technologies that do not harm the biosphere nor deplete its limited
resources, such as 3D printing, solar panels, wind turbines, cooperative
P2P platforms, etc. This discourse type thus gives a stronger focus to the
shorter loops in the CE value retention hierarchy, especially R0 refuse,
R1 reduce, R2 reuse/resell, R3 repair, R4 refurbish, R5 remanufacture,
and R6 re-purpose. Transformational Circular Society discourses also
place a core emphasis on changing materialistic, anthropocentric, pa-
triarchal, individualistic and ethnocentric worldviews to more holistic,
plural, and inclusive ones. They also propose to redistribute global re-
sources from nations and social sectors that grossly overshoot their
ecological footprint to those that do not. Transformational Circular
Society discourses emphasize direct participation and citizen inclusion
in the democratic construction of the future, often through novel me-
chanisms of bottom-up governance. All Circularity 3.2 concepts and
most Precursors fall in the Transformational Circular Society discourse
Fig. 5. Circularity discourse typology.
This article follows the value-retention hierarchy (also called R-hierarchy,
R-imperatives or simply R's) established by Reike, Vermeulen and
Witjes (2018): R0 refuse, R1 reduce, R2 reuse/resell, R3 repair, R4 refurbish, R5
remanufacture, R6 re-purpose, R7 recycle materials, R8 recover energy, R9 re-
M. Calisto Friant, et al. Resources, Conservation & Recycling 161 (2020) 104917
type, as well as various social movements, such as the Great Transition
Initiative and the Transition Towns Network (as evidenced by Feola and
Jaworska, 2019), local bottom-up circular initiatives such as De Ceuvel
in Amsterdam (as evidenced by Hobson, 2019) and R-Urbain in Paris
(as evidenced by Marin and De Meulder, 2018), and many indigenous
movements form the Global South (Kothari et al., 2019). These dis-
courses are similar to Dryzek's (2013) green radicalism as well as
Schwarz and Thompson's (1990) egalitarians. The name of this discourse
type derives from Reike et al. (2018) transformational CE distinction
combined with the circular society concept as described in Section 4.1.
4.2.3. Technocentric circular economy
Segmented and optimistic discourses propose an era of green-
growth and technological advancements, which allow for increasing
levels of prosperity while reducing humanity's ecological footprint.
These discourses thus expect that circular innovations can lead to an
absolute eco-economic decoupling to prevent ecological collapse. To
do so many win-win solutions are promoted such as PSS, EPRs,
biomimicry reverse logistics, industrial symbiosis, remanufacturing,
refurbishing, big data, and eco-design, as well as controversial in-
novations such as carbon capture and storage, artificial intelligence,
geoengineering, and synthetic biology. This discourse type thus gives
a stronger focus to the larger loops in the CE value retention hier-
archy, especially R4 refurbish, R5 remanufacture, R6 re-purpose, R7
recycle, R8 recover energy and R9 re-mine. These discourses are
common in European government policies (as evidenced by
Colombo et al., 2019;Kaźmierczyk, 2018;Pardo and
Schweitzer, 2018;Repo et al., 2018;Rijnhout et al., 2018), CE de-
velopment plans in cities such as London (as evidenced by
Fratini et al., 2019), corporate strategies such as Apple's (as evi-
denced by Valenzuela and Böhm, 2017;Vonk, 2018), business con-
sultancies such as McKinsey and some international organizations
including the World Economic Forum, the International Resource
Panel, and the OECD (IRP, 2019;OECD, 2018;WEF et al., 2016).
These institutions focus mostly on new technologies, innovations and
business models as avenues for green growth, without mentioning
social justice and participatory governance. Circularity 1.0 and 2.0
concepts fall within the Technocentric Circular Economy discourse
type, which has a lot in common with Audet's (2016) technocentrist
discourses. The name, of this discourse type, in fact, derives from
Audet's (2016) technocentrists, combined with the circular economy
concept as described in Section 4.1.
4.2.4. Fortress circular economy
Segmented and sceptical discourses have a vision of a future where
scarce resources, overpopulation and biophysical limits require strong
cohesive measures. These discourses thus seek to impose sufficiency,
population controls and resource efficiency from the top down to ra-
tionally confront global scarcity and limits, yet they do not deal with
questions of wealth distribution and social justice. This is evident in the
texts of precursors such as Catton (1980),Ehrlich (1968), and
Hardin (1968), all of which build on Malthusian theories of over-
population and resource scarcity to advocate for strong population
control and materials efficiency strategies. This discourse type thus
considers solutions throughout the entire CE value retention hierarchy
(R0-R9). These positions have often been criticised as sexist, elitist, and
ethnocentric as they involve white, male, scientists from the Global
North imposing sufficiency and limits to populations, which for the
most part, had very little to do with the crisis at hand (Dryzek, 2013;
Fressoz and Bonneuil, 2016). These type of discourses have also his-
torically existed in authoritarian regimes such as in Nazi Germany and
the German Democratic Republic, which developed "Kreislauföko-
nomie" (circulatory economy) policies to conserve and recycle resources
in conditions of geopolitical conflict, economic strife and resource
scarcity (Corvellec et al., 2020). More recently, the ecological concerns
and resource limits of the 21st century have led to a growing “disaster
in which investors, entrepreneurs and venture capitalists
see green solutions and business models as new opportunities for capital
expansion (Fletcher, 2019,2012). Many states and corporations are
thus already using a framing of scarcity to grab land and resources in
the Global South and develop infrastructures and technologies to ensure
resource security (Cavanagh and Benjaminsen, 2018;Mehta et al.,
2019). There is also a growing number of NGOs, think tanks and gov-
ernments using a discourse of climate change, scarcity and over-
population to protect geopolitical power, resources and prosperity from
migrant people from the Global South (Hendrixson and
Hartmann, 2019). This narrative is clear in a Pentagon-commissioned
report arguing that wealthy nations may “build defensive fortresses
around their countries […] to hold back unwanted starving im-
migrants” and preserve their resources (Schwartz and Randall, 2003 p.
18). Fortress Circular Economy discourses are similar to Schwarz and
Thompson's (1990) fatalists, and Dryzek's (2013) survivalists. Moreover,
like fatalists and survivalists, the proponents of this discourse type do not
always engage in mainstream debate since they have rather cynically
realist visions. Yet, they might often be the underlying focus of many
business and government discussions on circularity, especially when
they are based on a narrative of geopolitical resource security, over-
population and economic competitiveness.
4.2.5. Circularity discourses and concepts through history
Table 2 presents the position of each concept from the timeline in
relation to the discourse typology. The most widespread discourse in
the literature is Transformational Circular Society (42% of reviewed
concepts), followed by Reformist Circular Society (28% of reviewed
concepts), Technocentric Circular Economy (26% of reviewed concepts)
and Fortress Circular Economy (4% of reviewed concepts). On the other
hand, revising 120 academic, government and practitioner definitions
of the CE reveals that 101 of them (84%) fall in the Technocentric Cir-
cular Economy discourse type, 14 in Reformist Circular Society (12%), 3
in Fortress Circular Economy (2.5%), and 2 in the Transformational Cir-
cular Society (1.5%) (please see supplementary materials for details).
There is thus a discrepancy between the diversity of holistic CE-related
concepts in the literature, and the most common definitions of the CE
term, which are generally situated within segmented and optimist dis-
course types. The present status quo of the CE discourse is thus in the
Technocentric Circular Economy discourse type, despite of the significant
literature on other circular discourses. This is in line with results of
D'Amato et al. (2019), which found that academics had a more de-
growth or post-growth oriented perspective on circularity than main-
stream CE propositions (D'Amato et al., 2019).
It is also worth noting that there has been a shift in circularity
discourses through time. A plurality of Transformational Circular Society
discourses prevailed in the 1960s and 1970s, as most precursors had a
strong understanding of planetary limits and comprehensively ad-
dressed the main social and systemic challenges of a circular future.
Later, in the 1990s and early 2000s, Technocentric Circular Economy
discourses of circularity 1.0 and 2.0 became dominant and focused on
sophisticated technical innovations instead of wholescale socio-political
transformations. This is closely synchronous with the rise of neoliber-
alism and its market-based approach to environmental issues. Since the
2008 economic crisis, Reformist and Transformational Circular Society
discourses have become more widespread, showing a slowing faith in
the market and a re-examination of the socio-political dimensions of
The term “disaster capitalism” originates from Naomi Klein, which defines
it as “orchestrated raids on the public sphere in the wake of catastrophic events,
combined with the treatment of disasters as exciting marketing opportunities”
(cited in Fletcher, 2012, p.99) this crisis-driven narrative have been used to
control natural resources and commodify nature (Fletcher, 2019,2012).
M. Calisto Friant, et al. Resources, Conservation & Recycling 161 (2020) 104917
5. Discussion
This paper's approach involved first investigating the current limits
of the discussion on the CE (Section 3.1), and then recognising that the
term is actually much older and much more diverse than what is usually
conceived (Section 3.2). Through this broader view of circularity as an
umbrella concept, the authors developed a new circularity discourse
typology, which attempts to unpack and navigate the full complexity of
its ideas (Section 4). This section reflects on the conceptual and
methodological implications of this research.
5.1. Conceptual implications of each circularity discourse type
Each one of the above circularity discourse types has different
conceptual strengths and weaknesses, especially in relation to the 5
main challenges identified in Section 3.1 (1. growth, entropy and de-
coupling, 2. materials-energy-biodiversity nexus, 3. CE impact-assess-
ment and the rebound-effect, 4. socio-political implications of the CE, 5.
alternative visions of circularity) as well as the 5 levels of complexity
presented in Section 4.1 (please see Table 1).
Technocentric Circular Economy discourses focus on implementable
technical innovations, which can transform the industrial production
system without having to change social-economic power relations.
Technocentric Circular Economy visions are thus practical and applicable,
which makes them appealing for a broad range of actors seeking win-
win solutions to reconcile environmental and economic objectives.
However, Technocentric Circular Economy discourses fail to deal with all
challenges identified in Section 3, as they do not address issues of en-
tropy, planetary limits, rebound effects, and the social implications of
circularity, and only sometimes deal with challenge 2 on the resource
nexus. They thus fall within complexity level 1 to 3 of Table 1, de-
pending on their spatial and temporal scale and their perspective on the
resource nexus. Technocentric Circular Economy discourses might hence
be unappealing to social and environmental groups seeking a more
holistic, inclusive and systemic response to the socio-ecological chal-
lenges of the 21st century.
Reformist Circular Society discourses answer many of these concerns,
particularly in terms of social justice, participatory governance and the
Table 2
Concepts within each circularity discourse type.
Discourse Concepts from the Timeline
Reformist Circular Society (20 concepts) N. 20 Circularity 3.1 concepts:
1. Rio Declaration on Environment and Development
(UN, 1992)
2. Regenerative design (Lyle, 1994)
3. Natural Capitalism (Hawken et al., 1999)
4. Sound Material-Cycle Society (Government of
Japan, 2000)
5. Cyclical Economy (Young et al., 2001)
6. Materials Matter (Geiser, 2001)
7. Cradle to Cradle (McDonough and Braungart, 2002)
8. The Natural Step (Robèrt, 2002)
9. Performance Economy (Stahel, 2010)
10. Blue economy (Pauli, 2010)
11. Material Efficiency (Allwood et al., 2011)
12. Third industrial revolution (Rifkin, 2013)
13. Eco-system economy (Scharmer and Kaufer, 2013)
14. Regenerative capitalism (Fullerton, 2015)
15. Sharing Economy (Frenken, 2017)
16. Doughnut Economics (Raworth, 2017)
17. Symbiotic Economy (Delannoy, 2017)
18. Social Circular Economy (Social Circular Economy, 2017)
19. Spiral Economy (Ashby et al., 2019)
20. Coviability (Barrière et al., 2019)
Transformational Circular Society (30
N. 13 precursor concepts:
1. Gandhian economics (Kumarappa, 1945)
2. The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth
(Boulding, 1966)
3. The entropy law and the economic process (Georgescu-
Roegen, 1971)
4. The Closing Circle (Commoner, 1971)
5. Social Ecology (Bookchin, 1971)
6. Ecological Design (Papanek, 1972)
7. Limits to Growth (Meadows et al., 1972)
8. Small is Beautiful (Schumacher, 1973)
9. Conviviality (Illich, 1973)
10. Steady-state economics (Daly, 1977)
11. Permaculture (Mollison and Holmgren, 1978)
12. Décroissance (Gorz, 1980)
13. Deep Ecology (Næss and Rothernberg 1989)
N. 17 Circularity 3.2 concepts:
1. Transition Movement (Hopkins, 2008)
2. Degrowth (Latouche, 2009)
3. Eco-socialism (Löwy, 2011)
4. Laudato Si’ (Pope Francis, 2015)
5. Transition design (Irwin, 2015)
6. Economy for the Common Good (Felber, 2015)
7. Post-growth (Jackson, 2016)
8. Permacircular Economy (Bourg, 2018),
9. Voluntary Simplicity (Trainer and Alexander, 2019)
10. Convivalism (Caillé, 2019)
11. Buen Vivir/ Sumark Kawsay (Government of
Ecuador, 2008)
12. Ubuntu (Shumba, 2011)
13. Ecological Civilization (Zhang et al., 2011)
14. Ecological Swaraj (Kothari et al., 2014)
15. Suma Qamaña / Vivir Bien (Artaraz and Calestani, 2015)
16. Buddhist, Confucian and Taoist ecology (Arler, 2018)
17. Radical Pluralism/ Pluriverse (Kothari et al., 2019)
Technocentric Circular Economy (19
N. 15 concepts from Circularity 2.0:
1. Industrial Ecology (Frosch and Gallopoulos, 1989)
2. Circular Economy (Pearce and Turner, 1989)
3. Eco-design /Design for environment (Ryan et al., 1992)
4. Cyclic Economy (Tibbs, 1993)
5. Industrial Metabolism (Ayres and Simonis, 1994)
6. Cleaner Production (Baas, 1995)
7. Reverse Logistics (Rogers and Tibben-Lembke, 1998)
8. Eco-industrial parks and networks (Côté and Cohen-
Rosenthal, 1998)
9. Biomimicry (Benyus, 1998)
10. Product Service System (Goedkoop et al., 1999)
11. Extended Producer Responsibility (Lindhqvist, 2000)
12. Industrial Symbiosis (Chertow, 2000)
13. Closed-loop Supply Chain (Guide et al., 2003)
14. Biobased Economy / Bioeconomy (OECD, 2004)
15. The Biosphere Rules Unruh, 2008
N. 4 Circularity 1.0 concepts:
1. Waste-Water Treatment (Holcomb, 1970)
2. Integrated Solid Waste Management and Recycling
(Levick and Davies, 1975)
3. Bio-Digestion (Hughes, 1975)
4. Energy Recovery (Boyle, 1977)
Fortress Circular Economy (3 concepts) N. 3 precursor concepts:
1. The tragedy of the Commons (Hardin, 1968)
2. The Population Bomb (Ehrlich, 1968)
3. Overshoot (Catton, 1980)
M. Calisto Friant, et al. Resources, Conservation & Recycling 161 (2020) 104917
resource nexus (challenges 2 and 4) and sometimes acknowledge the
issues revolving around the rebound effect (challenge 3). Reformist
Circular Society discourses thus perhaps have the most largely appealing
vision of circularity, as they add a human dimension and seek to re-
concile capitalism with a just and sustainable future for all. However,
these discourses fail to confront questions of entropy, economic growth,
decoupling and epistemological and ontological pluralism (challenges 1
and 5). Reformist Circular Society discourses are thus within complexity
level 4 of Table 1 and might be unappealing to social movements with
plural and ecocentric perspectives.
Transformational Circular Society discourses address all the 5 chal-
lenges identified in Section 3 by seeking a wholescale transformation of
the entire socio-economic system and not just its industrial model. They
are thus in complexity level 5 of Table 1.Transformational Circular
Society discourses have a rational analysis of current planetary limits
and the structural contradictions of the capitalist system and propose a
utopic vision that is appealing for many social and environmental
movements. However, they might be disregarded by mainstream de-
bates for being overly idealist regarding the likelihood of fundamental
socio-cultural change and the probability of a post-capitalist future.
In contrast to this, Fortress Circular Economy discourses are neither
optimist about the possibility of eco-economic decoupling nor about
fundamental socio-cultural change. They address some systemic chal-
lenges (1, 2 and 3), but instead of proposing socially desirable solutions,
they seek to manage and/or take advantage of the crisis in a top-down
manner. Fortress Circular Economy discourses are thus clearly not as
universally desirable as they do not address social, cultural and gov-
ernance considerations (challenges 4 and 5). However, they nonetheless
play a key role in shaping circularity debates, especially in geostrategic
policy and business circles as they are the most realistic of all discourses
due to their rational and unidealistic understanding of systemic con-
ditions. As the socio-ecological crisis of the Anthropocene worsens and
climate change intensifies, Fortress Circular Economy positions might
become much more widely accepted, especially in a context where “it is
easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism”
(Fisher, 2009). Yet, these discourses can easily lead to a divided and
unequal world of haves and have-nots; a type of eco-apartheid
(Malleson, 2016) (or fortress Europe/North America)where only a few
nations can invest in new circular solutions and gain access to the
technologies and means to a materially affluent life
(Monsaingeon, 2017;Valenzuela and Böhm, 2017). In fact, in a 2019
report, Philip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty
and human rights, has already spoken of a “climate apartheid scenario
in which the wealthy pay to escape overheating, hunger, and conflict,
while the rest of the world is left to suffer” (Alston, 2019, p. 14).
Considering the strengths and weaknesses of each circularity dis-
course, there is great value in opening up the debate on circularity to
allow for a more complex discussion of the core challenges of a circular
future. Indeed, some discourses might lack realism, while others might
lack feasibility. A cross-pollination of ideas and perspectives is thus
beneficial to develop better policies, practices and research projects.
Future transdisciplinary research and participatory policymaking with
deliberative mechanism can help bring all discourses to the table and
establish more inclusive, legitimate, achievable and sustainable circular
futures. On the other hand, if a more plural debate on circularity is not
held, there is a high risk that a depoliticised discourse of circularity
dilutes the complexity of the present socio-ecological crisis. This simple
and uncontroversial discourse of circularity could create many new
business opportunities for some, by expanding capital accumulation
into the realm of waste materials and bio-resources. Yet, it will likely
create a rebound effect and, thus, do very little towards actually re-
ducing humanity's ecological footprint. Moreover, it can lead to the
enclosure, commodification, and marketization of nature and the
commons, which replicates global environmental injustices and ends up
making circularity “a luxury” (Schröder et al., 2019b, p13).
5.2. Methodological implications and challenges of building a discourse
There are inevitable simplifications involved in the development of
a discourse typology. Each concept within the typology is thus much
more diverse than can be evidenced in this research. For instance, there
is a large diversity of visions of Degrowth (Kallis et al., 2018) and the
Bioeconomy (Hausknost et al., 2017). This discourse typology cannot
distinguish all the intricate sub-types within each discourse, rather it
shows their commonalities and simplifies their complexity so they can
be understood in relation to other discourses. Further research can
build on this to analyse how different academic, public and private
discourses fit within this discourse typology. In addition to this, Table 1
can help distinguish the diversity of Technocentric Circular Economy
proposals, by classifying them in complexity levels 1 to 3.
Some discourses might not always be easily distinguishable black or
white propositions and could present multiple shades and nuances.
Indeed, some discourses could be “hybrids”, which include elements of
a number of the 4 discourse types presented in this article. Further case
study research on specific circular sectors or stakeholders, using this
typology should acknowledge this complexity in their analysis of cir-
cular discourses, policies and practices. A particular stakeholder might
thus have a prominently Technocentric Circular Economy discourse with
moderate notes of Reformist Circular Economy. Moreover, some actors
might have discrepancies between their practices and their discourses,
such as having a Reformist Circular Society discourse and Fortress Circular
Economy practices. Future research can address these complexities by
combining this typology with methodological tools such as Q-methods
and corpus-based discourse analysis.
While 26 of the 72 concepts in the timeline (36%) were from non-
academic origins
, and various circularity positions from government,
civil society or business practitioners were reviewed (E.g.,
European Commission, 2015;IRP, 2019;OECD, 2018;Schwartz and
Randall, 2003;Verstraeten-Jochemsen et al., 2018;von Weizsäcker and
Wijkman, 2017;WEF et al., 2016), the majority of literature in this
research originates from academia. This represents another limitation
of this paper. Future research can use the typology as a theoretical
framework to analyse discourses from the public and private sectors.
This could help uncover different circularity discourses and better un-
derstand their main strengths and weaknesses as well as test, improve
and update the discourse typology here proposed. Considering that the
CE is still a contested concept with many public and private actors
competing to influence its meaning and interpretation, this is a parti-
cularly important avenue for future research.
A final limitation of this research is that it is mostly based on desk
research. Another method to build a discourse typology could be
Fisher attributes this quote to both Fredric Jameson and Slavoj Žižek
(Fisher, 2009)
It is worth noting that the timeline does not strictly follow the dates pro-
posed by Reike et al.(2018) or Blomsma and Brennan (2017) as it is a new
proposition. Moreover, each time period overlaps, showing that ideological
phases do not necessarily have strict start and end date but rather gradients
with moments of prominence and decline. A detailed and interactive version of
this timeline is available in the following web-page:
Waste-Water Treatment, Solid Waste Management and Recycling, Bio-
Digestion, Energy Recovery, Cyclic Economy, Reverse Logistics, Biomimicry,
Product Service System, Extended Producer Responsibility, Bioeconomy, Rio
Declaration on Environment and Development, Natural Capitalism, Sound
Material-Cycle Society, Cyclical Economy, The Biosphere Rules, Performance
Economy, Blue economy, Buen vivir/Sumak Kawsay, Regenerative capitalism,
Social Circular Economy, Transition Movement, Laudato Si', Economy for the
Common Good, Ubuntu, Ecological Civilization, Suma Qamaña/Vivir Bien.
M. Calisto Friant, et al. Resources, Conservation & Recycling 161 (2020) 104917
through a set of workshops and focus group discussions with various
practitioners and academics. The limitations of a participatory ap-
proach are the complexities in obtaining a diverse enough sample of
stakeholders and adequately covering discourses from many different
countries and continents. They can thus easily result in typologies that
only apply to certain cultural or geographical contexts or only represent
a limited range of discourses. Nonetheless, for future research on the
topic, there is significant potential to hold participatory workshops
where the discourse typology here developed is used as the theoretical
basis to analyse the discourse and practices of specific CE sectors and
actors. This would allow for innovative research that unpacks different
practitioner discourses of the CE and can help validate, adapt and im-
prove the discourse typology here developed.
6. Conclusions
As the CE concept is in a phase of “validity challenge”, it can still
take many different directions, which will determine whether it will
collapse, cohere or persist as a contention (Blomsma and
Brennan, 2017). Considering how widely adopted the concept has be-
come within both academic and non-academic sectors, there is a unique
opportunity to use it as a tool for transformative change. Yet, if cor-
porate and government actors continue to use a CE framing that doesn't
consider systemic socio-ecological implications, the term could easily
become discredited as a refurbished form of greenwashing. This paper
brings analytical tools to assess these discursive practices, untangle
their meaning, and expand the debate to a plurality of alternative cir-
cular futures.
Indeed, the circularity discourse typology can help both academics
and practitioners better analyse current policies and practices on cir-
cularity and sustainability transitions in general. By fostering plurality
and openness to other visions, the discourse typology can promote more
holistic and systemic thinking, which comprehensively includes dif-
ferent circular futures. Moreover, it can contribute to the democrati-
zation of governance and policy mechanisms by helping to situate and
include less prominent voices and discourses and to contrast current
practices and proposed actions with a plurality of alternatives. The final
scope of this research is thus to open the imaginary towards a plural
circular future in which many sustainable futures can be hospitably
One core challenge and implication of these results is that eviden-
cing discursive differences could bring opposing discourses apart, ra-
ther than together. Research on deliberative democracy and colla-
borative decision making has shown that a better understanding of
conflicting ideas can actually promote respect, trust, innovation, and
consensual cooperation (Calisto Friant, 2019;Dryzek et al., 2019;
Friend and Hickling, 2005;Schwarz and Thompson, 1990). By un-
packing and navigating different discourses of circularity, this article
thus hopes to promote greater inclusiveness, collaboration and plur-
alism in the debate and implementation of this contested paradigm.
The authors encourage the use, adaptation and improvement of this
discourse typology to further build on this work, which can be seen as a
continuous participatory thought process with other scholars and
practitioners. There is a particularly promising potential for innovative
future research, which builds on the discourse typology developed in
this paper from the perspective of many inter and trans-disciplinary
academic fields such as mission-oriented innovation policy, political
ecology, futures studies, science and technology studies, critical systems
thinking, and participatory action research. This can lead to the cross-
pollination of ideas and can help both academics and practitioners in
their development of policies and practices, which positively contribute
to the complex socio-ecological challenges of the 21st century.
Declaration of Competing Interest
The authors declare that they have no known competing financial
interests or personal relationships that could have appeared to influ-
ence the work reported in this paper.
This research was funded by the European Union's Horizon 2020
research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie
grant agreement No 765198. A previous version of this paper was
presented at the 25th International Sustainable Development Research
Society (ISDRS) Conference in Nanjing, China on the 27th of June 2019
and was published in its proceedings with the following title: “advan-
cing a critical research agenda on the circular economy”. We would like
to thank the anonymous reviewers for their detailed and helpfull
comments and suggestions and well as Ton Markus for the design of the
figures. We would also like to thank Pauline Deutz, Kieran Campbell-
Johnston, Kaustubh Thapa and Natasha Klein for their constructive
reviews of earlier versions of this paper. Finally, we would like to thank
our peers from the CRESTING project, the International Sustainable
Development Research Society and the Copernicus Institute of
Sustainable Development, which provided invaluable comments and
suggestions during workshops where earlier versions of this research
were presented.
Supplementary materials
Supplementary material associated with this article can be found, in
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