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The circular economy (CE) aims at cycling products and materials in closed technical and biological loops. Cradle to cradle (C2C) operationalizes the CE with a product design concept rooted in the circulation of “healthy” materials because contamination of materials with substances of concern hampers cycling and may pose risks to people in contact with them. Extant research shows that barriers often hinder organizations from successfully pursuing cradle-to-cradle product innovation (CPI). Innovation community theory helps to explain how to overcome barriers and further the innovation process by taking a microlevel perspective on intra- and interorganizational collaboration of individual promotors (or champions). We elaborate innovation community theory with a longitudinal embedded case study of a C2C frontrunner company with the goal to get a precise understanding of how promotors collaborate in the CPI process. Our contribution is threefold:We identify eight collaboration mechanisms used between promotors to sequentially overcome a hub firm’s individual, organizational, value chain, and institutional level barriers to circularity. Second,wedifferentiate these mechanisms according to their cooperative and coordinative facets and put emphasis on the coordinative functions of those mechanisms linked to the C2C standard. Third, we highlight the importance of promotors at the linking level who facilitate the CPI process as intermediaries.
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DOI: 10.1111/jiec.13081
RESEARCH AND ANALYSIS
Orchestrating cradle-to-cradle innovation
across the value chain
Overcoming barriers through innovation communities, collaboration mechanisms,
and intermediation
Erik G. Hansen Julia C. Schmitt
Institute for Integrated Quality Design,
Johannes Kepler University Linz, Linz, Austria
Correspondence
Erik G. Hansen, Institute for Integrated Quality
Design, Johannes Kepler University Linz,
Altenberger Straße 69 Science Park3, 4040
Linz, Austria.
Email: erik.hansen@jku.at
Funding information
This article is part of the research project on
Cradle-to-Cradle InnovationProcesses (CCIP)
of the Endowed Institute for Integrated Quality
Design which is funded by Quality Austria
(Quality Austria - Trainings, Zertifizierungs und
Begutachtungs GmbH, Vienna), the State of
Upper Austria and Johannes Kepler University
(JKU) Linz
Editor Managing Review: Luk VanWassenhove
Abstract
The circular economy (CE) aims at cycling products and materials in closed techni-
cal and biological loops. Cradle to cradle (C2C) operationalizes the CE with a product
design concept rooted in the circulation of “healthy” materials because contamination
of materials with substances of concern hampers cycling and may pose risks to people
in contact with them. Extant research shows that barriers often hinder organizations
from successfully pursuing cradle-to-cradle product innovation (CPI). Innovation com-
munity theory helps to explain how to overcome barriers and further the innovation
process by taking a microlevel perspective on intra- and interorganizational collabo-
ration of individual promotors (or champions). We elaborate innovation community
theory with a longitudinal embedded case study of a C2C frontrunner company with
the goal to get a precise understanding of how promotors collaborate in the CPI pro-
cess. Our contribution is threefold: We identify eight collaboration mechanisms used
between promotors to sequentially overcome a hub firm’s individual, organizational,
value chain, and institutional level barriers to circularity. Second, we differentiate these
mechanisms according to their cooperative and coordinative facets and put emphasis
on the coordinative functions of those mechanisms linked to the C2C standard. Third,
we highlight the importance of promotors at the linking level who facilitate the CPI
process as intermediaries.
KEYWORDS
circular economy, cradle-to-cradle product design, industrial ecology, innovation community,
innovation intermediary, network orchestration process
1INTRODUCTION
The circular economy (CE) aims to be a restorative system (Morseletto, 2020) by keeping products, components, and materials in closed technical
and biological loops at their highest utility and value (Bocken, Olivetti, Cullen, Potting, & Lifset, 2017; Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2013). This
This is an open access article under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits use, distribution and reproduction in any medium, provided
the original work is properly cited.
© 2020 The Authors. Journal of Industrial Ecology published by Wiley Periodicals LLC on behalf of Yale University
Journal of Industrial Ecology 2020;1–21. wileyonlinelibrary.com/journal/jiec 1
2HANSEN AND SCHMITT
requires radical innovation along the entire product lifecycle (Ghisellini, Cialani, & Ulgiati, 2016). Cradle to cradle (C2C) is a circular product design
concept with attached certification system focusing on material circularity and health that has gained some attention in the market (Braungart,
McDonough, & Bollinger, 2007). But the requirements for C2C product innovation (CPI), such as the elimination of toxic substances from the supply
chain, cause considerable complexity and represent barriers for a large-scale diffusion. Extant research on CE barriers has identified these chal-
lenges, but often remains silent on their resolution (e.g., Kirchherr et al., 2018; Paletta, Leal Filho, Balogun, Foschi, & Bonoli, 2019).
It has become evident that collaboration in networks is at the core of product-level circularity (e.g., Hansen & Revellio, 2020; Konietzko, Bocken,
& Hultink, 2020). As research in both product-level circularity and broader industrial ecology shows, such interorganizational collaboration requires
careful network orchestration (Boons & Baas, 1997; Korhonen, Nuur,Feldmann, & Birkie, 2018) and facilitation (Paquin & Howard-Grenville, 2012;
Patala, Salmi, & Bocken, 2020).
We are interested in the microfoundations of network orchestration to make “the problem-solvers visible” (Andrews, 2000, 37). This means,
analyzing “the interactions of individuals, processes, and structures that contribute to the aggregation and emergence of collective constructs”
(Felin, Foss, Heimeriks, & Madsen, 2012, 1353). Innovation community theory (Fichter, 2009) enables this perspective by explaining how individual
promotors1collaborate across intra- and interorganizational boundaries, jointly overcome innovation barriers, and ultimately drive the innovation
process across a network of firms. This theory was also recently adopted in industrial symbiosis research (Kokoulina, Ermolaeva, Patala, & Ritala,
2019). Still, the specific collaboration mechanisms used in such communities for resolving CPI barriers remain so far unexplored. This article tackles
this void by questioning: How do individual promotors from organizations across the value chain develop an innovation community, collaborate over time,
and set aside barriers to CPI?
We conduct a longitudinal embedded case study of the CE frontrunner firm Werner & Mertz (W&M) which has successfully developed C2C
products. We contribute by providing a process perspective on the mechanisms of promotor collaboration showing how promotors configure them
over time to resolve a hub firm’s individual, organizational, value chain, and institutional barriers. We then differentiate cooperative and coordina-
tive facets of these mechanisms (Gulati, Wohlgezogen, & Zhelyazkov, 2012) and emphasize the role of the C2C standard in coordination. We also
highlight the role of an intermediary as important promotor in the innovation community.
2LITERATURE REVIEW
2.1 Circular economy from a cradle-to-cradle perspective
As an umbrella concept, the CE borrows from C2C by differentiating between biological and technical loops (Blomsma & Brennan, 2017). Products
with inherent dissipative losses (materials of consumption) should be designed to be biodegradable; other products (materials of service) should be
designed for continuous and safe cycling without material downgrading (Braungart et al., 2007). Organizations can adopt the CE from two perspec-
tives (Urbinati, Chiaroni, & Chiesa, 2017): downstream practices address the service offerings in the market for (longer) use and reuse of products.
Upstream practices involve circular product design (den Hollander, Bakker, & Hultink, 2017) and related supply reconfigurations. Product redesign
is important as perpetual cycling in biological and technical metabolisms is often hampered because products, components, and materials were not
designed for a CE (Braungart et al., 2007). On the material level, the goal is to prevent technical contamination stemming from source material impu-
rities or contaminants from related processes, as this leads to material downgrading in subsequent use cycles or harms people and the environment
(Baxter, Aurisicchio, & Childs, 2017). Material toxicity should be identified and safe alternatives developed (Goldberg, 2017). The development and
application of such high-quality technical nutrients becomes economically viable in a closed-loop scheme (Braungart et al., 2007).
2.2 Cradle-to-cradle product design and certification
While CE research and practice frequently addresses product design, the particular aspect of preventing technical contamination is often neglected.
It is the particular strength of the C2C design philosophy and practice to operationalize designing-out technical contamination. In contrast to the
long tradition of relative eco-design approaches, C2C is considered a more absolute approach (den Hollander et al., 2017). While several special-
ized standards have emerged addressing aspects of the CE (e.g., Recycled Content Standard, SCS Global Services, 2014), C2C has been formalized
into what can be considered the first comprehensive product certification standard. It currently covers approximately 391 certified products by
187 manufacturers worldwide (Ünal & Shao, 2019). How extensive it is implemented varies along motives (Smits, Drabe, & Herstatt, 2020)anda
firm’s ability to absorb external knowledge (Schmitt & Hansen, 2018). The C2C certified products standard (C2CPII, 2016) supports companies’
innovation processes by breaking the overarching design philosophy down into specific criteria. We focus on product-level criteria: Material reuti-
lization requires changes in product design and related processes for biological or technical cycling. Material health is about preventing technical
1The word “promotor” in this article follows the usage in related literature but its meaning matches the English word “promoter”.
HANSEN AND SCHMITT 3
contamination by banning substances of concern (SoC) that are evaluated—based on the latest scientific evidence—as carcinogenic, mutagenic, or
reprotoxic (CMR), persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic (PBT), endocrine disrupting, or having respiratory, allergic, or immune effects (in partic-
ular, volatile organic compounds evaporating from products designed for indoor use). To this end, companies have to specify all material content
above the 100-ppm threshold with reference to the Chemical Abstracts Service (CAS) number2. This C2C approach covers a much broader scope
of SoC and represents a factor 10 increase of resolution as compared to the 1,000-ppm threshold for the rather narrow list of Substances of Very
High Concern by the European REACH regulation on the Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Restriction of Chemicals (European Commis-
sion, 2006, Annex II). The site-specific criteria water stewardship,renewable energy and carbon management,andsocial fairness assess the ecological
and social performance of production facilities in relation to the product. The C2C standard also differs from other product certifications by its five
performance levels (i.e., Basic, Bronze, Silver, Gold, and Platinum) for stimulating innovation and continuous improvement.
2.3 Cradle-to-cradle product innovation and related barriers
In this article, we apply an innovation management perspective to C2C. CPI is part of the broader concept of sustainability-oriented innovation
in which product, service, and business model development become an integral part of innovation management to improve the product lifecycle
(Hansen, Grosse-Dunker, & Reichwald, 2009). We focus on the product (and associated materials) and related process innovations aimed at closing
product lifecycles. Circularity has made innovation even more complexby calling for companies to radically rethink their products and consider loop
closure already at the design stage (de Pauw, Karana, Kandachar, & Poppelaars, 2014; Go, Wahab, & Hishamuddin, 2015). Providing clear targets
in early design phases supports the innovation process (de Marchi, 2012). As absolute product design approach, the C2C certification standard
provides such targets by offering an ideal state. Disagreement exists about whether such checklists constrain creativity at the innovation front-end
(de Koeijer, Wever, & Henseler, 2017) or further it (den de Pauw, 2015; Hollander et al., 2017).
In any case, there are considerable barriers to CPI that make many organizations fail. According to Guldmann and Huulgaard (2020), barriers to
circularity are located on four levels (see Table 1for details):
Individual barriers relate to restricted mindsets resulting in a lack of commitment for promoting a CE (Kirchherr et al., 2018). The need for new
competences (e.g., product designers) can lead to employee resistance to change (Sandberg & Aarikka-Stenroos, 2014).
Firm-level barriers cover the difficulties to obtain project support (Guldmann, 2018). Business models and production technologies are often
optimized for linear product concepts (de Jesus & Mendonça, 2018).
Value chain barriers can relate to underdeveloped supply networks, with actors unwilling to provide or return suitable materials (Mont, Plepys,
Whalen, & Nußholz, 2017) often because of (intellectual) property concerns (Preston, 2012). Product redesign may involve developing suppli-
ers and other partners (Seuring & Müller, 2008), but time for interorganizational partnerships is often missing (Guldmann & Huulgaard, 2020).
Customers may lack awareness (Mont et al., 2017).
Institutional barriers include regulatory constraints, lack of governmental incentives, or low prices of primary raw materials (Kirchherr et al.,
2018; Mont et al., 2017).
In general, overcoming barriers to CPI requires collaboration across multiple levels. Existing literature therefore highlights networks for CE
implementation (Franco, 2017; Konietzko et al., 2020). Networks form around known partners and required technical capabilities and are governed
by collaborative structures among co-specialized equals with fair value capture for all involvedfirms (Konietzko et al., 2020). Still, customer-supplier
relationships and relative size and power of a hub firm determine suppliers’ willingness to collaborate for CPI (Franco, 2017).
While collaboration in networks is central for CPI, its microfoundations covering the role of individuals, processes, and their interactions (Felin
et al., 2012), remain mostly absent. We focus on innovation communities with informal links between individuals across organizations and differen-
tiate it from the broader innovation network covering the organizations themselves. The community as a team then takes the role of an aggregated
orchestrator of the innovation network (Klerkx & Aarts, 2013).
2.4 Overcoming barriers with innovation communities
We are interested in the humanistic side of network development as represented by individual champions in building-up industrial symbiosis net-
works (Hewes & Lyons, 2008; Kokoulina et al., 2019) and the collaboration of individuals in learning action networks to advance corporate sus-
tainability (Clarke & Roome, 1995; Clarke & Roome, 1999). Implicit in these early works is the importance of network embeddedness, that is,
the strength of often informal relationships among members, their cognitive proximity, and the social capital developed among them (Nambisan
2The Chemical Abstracts Service (CAS) number is a unique identifier of everychemical substance known in the public domain.
4HANSEN AND SCHMITT
TAB LE 1 Overview on circular economy barriers
Level Barrier Explication/details Sources
Individual Linear thinking patterns and cultural
behavior
Thinking in produce-buy-own-waste patterns (e.g., habit of
consuming single-use packaging) and aesthetic preferences (e.g.,
bias against recyclate material due to their shaded color).
Gong, Putnam, You, and Zhao, 2019;Guldmannand
Huulgaard, 2020; Kirchherr et al., 2018; Paletta
et al., 2019; Vermunt, Negro, Verweij, Kuppens,
and Hekkert, 2019
Lack of CE related knowledge Lacking CE knowledge and technical capabilities of workers,
particularly in SMEs.
Guldmann and Huulgaard, 2020; Kumar, Sezersan,
Garza-Reyes, Gonzalez, and AL-Shboul, 2019;
Vermunt et al., 2019
Reservations against CE Hesitant approach and missing commitment to promote CE
internally.
Guldmann and Huulgaard, 2020; Kirchherr et al.,
2018; Kumar et al., 2019
Firm Lacking strategic alignment Focus on linear economy strategies and a narrow focus of
sustainability strategies (e.g., efficiency). This also relates to a
reluctance to involve external stakeholders.
de Jesus and Mendonça, 2018; Guldmann and
Huulgaard, 2020; Kirchherr et al., 2018;Mont
et al., 2017
Circular knowledge differs from
existing organizational knowledge
Institutionalized organizational memory (e.g., behavioral norms
and success metrics), lacking organizational knowledge on CE
(e.g., circular design, material flows), and difficulties in finding
qualified employees hinder firms to implement circularity.
Guldmann and Huulgaard, 2020; Kirchherr et al.,
2018; Mont et al., 2017; Rizos, Behrens, Kafyeke,
Hirschnitz-Garbers, and Ioannou, 2018; Tura
et al., 2019; Vermunt et al., 2019
Difficult to attain top management
support
Reluctance of managers toward sustainability topics due to their
conservative and risk averse decision-making behavior.
Guldmann and Huulgaard, 2020; Kumar et al.,
2019; Rizos et al., 2018
Difficult to establish
cross-functional collaboration
Silo thinking in departmental structures and routines inhibit
effective CE projects.
Boons and Lüdeke-Freund, 2013; Gong et al., 2019;
Tur a et al., 2019; Guldmann, 2018
Incentive structure supporting linear
business models
Evaluation and performance measurement tools are optimized for
a linear economy and lead to misaligned incentives for a CE.
de Jesus and Mendonça, 2018; Guldmann and
Huulgaard, 2020; Vermunt et al., 2019
Higher management complexity and
related costs
Increase of transaction costs due to more horizontal and vertical
business relationships in the value chain.
de Jesus and Mendonça, 2018
Cannibalization concerns due to
product life time extensions
Repaired, reconditioned, and remanufactured products could
decrease sales of new products.
Guldmann and Huulgaard, 2020; Mont et al., 2017
Product design issues Current products are not designed for easy disassembly, repair,
and remanufacturing. Little attention for end-of-use phase
during product design and a lack of design tools for circular
solutions.
Guldmann and Huulgaard, 2020;Gongetal.,2019;
Kirchherr et al., 2018; Kumar et al., 2019;Mont
et al., 2017;Franco,2017; Veleva and Bodkin,
2018
(Continues)
HANSEN AND SCHMITT 5
TAB LE 1 (Continued)
Level Barrier Explication/details Sources
Technological lock-in due to existing
long-term investments
Lock-in to existing production infrastructure and limited
availability of technologies that can support further lifetimes.
de Jesus and Mendonça, 2018; Kumar et al., 2019;
Paletta et al., 2019; Vermunt et al., 2019
High up-front investments needed Often substantial initial capital requirements (e.g., new factory
equipment or pre-financing of leasing models).
de Jesus and Mendonça, 2018; Kirchherr et al.,
2018; Kumar et al., 2019; Mont et al., 2017;
Preston, 2012; Rizos et al., 2018
Additional labor costs Circular services (e.g., disassembly, repair, sorting, recycling) incur
extra labor costs.
Mont et al., 2017;Vermunt et al., 2019
Difficult access to funding Shareholders and financiers lack awareness for CE initiatives.
Return on investments of CE projects is uncertain and cannot be
measured properly with existing key performance indicators.
Bening, Eckle, Prüss, and Blum, 2018;deJesusand
Mendonça, 2018; Guldmann and Huulgaard,
2020; Gong et al., 2019; Vermunt et al., 2019
Pricing issues and liquidity risks Uncertainties about the residual value of circular products and
pricing models for leasing business models. Leasing cash flows
are spread over longer time periods and can incur liquidity risks.
Mont et al., 2017
Value chain Dispersed, complex value chains Value chains are dispersed over several tiers and countries with
divergent regulations. This hinders alignment and collaboration.
Guldmann and Huulgaard, 2020;Montetal.,2017;
Preston, 2012; Rizos et al., 2018
Contradicting vested interests and
lacking cooperation across the
value chain
Incorporating CE practices requires multiple up- and down-stream
firms to adjust operations and product portfolio. Limited
willingness to cooperate with multiple value chain tiers
complicates inter-organizational collaboration (e.g., OEMs’
circular business models such as repair might conflict with their
suppliers’/retailers’ interests).
de Jesus and Mendonça, 2018;Guldmannand
Huulgaard, 2020; Kirchherr et al., 2018;Kumar
et al., 2019; Mont et al., 2017; Preston, 2012;
Vermunt et al., 2019;Beningetal.,2018
Supply chain lock-in Contracts and strong dependencies with suppliers not supporting
circularity (e.g., either due to non-willingness or lock-in in
production facilities optimized for linear concepts).
Kirchherr et al., 2018;Montetal.,2017; Vermunt
et al., 2019
Underdeveloped supply network Suppliers with CE competencies or product portfolio are often not
available or have still instable process capabilities. Building up
new partnerships and mutual trust takes time.
Guldmann and Huulgaard, 2020; Kumar et al.,
2019; Mont et al., 2017; Preston, 2012;Tura
et al., 2019; Vermunt et al., 2019; Franco, 2017;
Veleva and Bodkin, 2018
Lacking information exchange Difficulty to trace materials and organize information flows. As
firms fear IP infringements and competitive losses, they are
reserved against sharing information regarding material
composition (including concentrations of hazardous
substances).
Gong et al., 2019; Paletta et al., 2019; Preston,
2012; Rizos et al., 2018; Turaet al., 2019
Low quality of recycling material
streams
Technical contamination reduces quality and mechanical
performance of recyclates (e.g., material mixes, hazardous
additives, multi-layer materials).
Baxter et al., 2017; Bening et al., 2018; Guldmann
and Huulgaard, 2020; Kirchherr et al., 2018;
Mont et al., 2017; Paletta et al., 2019
(Continues)
6HANSEN AND SCHMITT
TAB LE 1 (Continued)
Level Barrier Explication/details Sources
Limited standardization hinders life
time extensions
Lacking standardization (e.g., on components) restricts lifetime
extensions like repair services but also deteriorates reverse
material streams (e.g., additives contaminating materials).
Baxter et al., 2017; Bening et al., 2018; Kirchherr
et al., 2018; Paletta et al., 2019
Imponderability of organizing
product take back
Difficulties in organizing take back logistics, unpredictable volume,
and systemic contamination of returned products (e.g., due to
end-customer misbehavior, or inefficient collection and sorting
systems).
Baxter et al., 2017; Bening et al., 2018; Mont et al.,
2017; Paletta et al., 2019; Franco, 2017
Uncertain market development Limited market for low quality recyclates; irregular peaks and
limited resilience of waste and recycled material markets.
Bening et al., 2018; Guldmann and Huulgaard,
2020; Paletta et al., 2019; Veleva and Bodkin,
2018
Lacking consumer interest and
awareness
Resistance from customers toward circular product offerings are
related to perceived lower product value due to past use, loss of
ownership, or customers simply not understanding the added
value of circular products.
Baxter et al., 2017; Boons and Lüdeke-Freund,
2013; de Jesus and Mendonça, 2018; Kirchherr
et al., 2018; Mont et al., 2017; Preston, 2012;
Ranta, Aarikka-Stenroos, Ritala, and Mäkinen,
2018; Vermunt et al., 2019
Institutional Regulatory barriers and
administrative burdens
Absence of a binding legislative framework encouraging
companies to pursue circular innovation. Policies incentivize
recycling, or incineration over higher level circular strategies
such as reuse and refurbishment. Also inconsistent regulations
regarding waste, by-products, and secondary materials.
Bening et al., 2018; Guldmann and Huulgaard,
2020; Kirchherr et al., 2018; Kumar et al., 2019;
Mont et al., 2017; Paletta et al., 2019; Rizos et al.,
2018; Turaet al., 2019
Inappropriate taxation on resource
use
Low taxes on primary raw materials but high ones on labor costs
hinder R-strategies and lead to price differences between virgin
raw materials and recycled materials.
Bening et al., 2018; Guldmann and Huulgaard,
2020; Kirchherr et al., 2018; Mont et al., 2017;
Preston, 2012
Lack of institutional support for CE Missing eco-design guidelines, lacking subsidies for scaling-up CE
solutions, or unsustainable public procurement policies.
Bening et al., 2018; Gong et al., 2019; Guldmann
and Huulgaard, 2020; Kirchherr et al., 2018;
Kumar et al., 2019; Paletta et al., 2019; Rizos
et al., 2018; Veleva and Bodkin, 2018
Note.CE=circular economy; SME =small and medium sized enterprise; OEM =original equipment manufacturer; IP =intellectual property.
HANSEN AND SCHMITT 7
Hub firm Promotors
Value chain level Framing / linking levelFirm level
Technology broker
Political actors
Expert
promotor
Relationship
promotor
Power
promotor
Industry
associations
Process
promotor
Government
agencies
R&D organization
Supplier
Manufacturer
User innovator
Promotors
Promotors
Promotors
Promotors Promotors Promotors
FIGURE 1 Generic innovation promotor community (based on Fichter, 2009)
& Sawhney, 2011; Velenturf & Jensen, 2016). Based on Witte (1973,1977), community theory takes these microlevel perspectives a step further
and theorizes about the close but informal collaboration of individual promotors or champions in overcoming complexity and innovation barriers
(Hauschildt & Kirchmann, 2001).
2.4.1 Levels of innovation communities
Fichter (2009) developed a multilevel promotor concept of innovation communities in the sustainability context (see Figure 1). Similar to the multiple
levels of CE barriers, innovation communities consist of individuals on three levels (Fichter, 2009; Klerkx & Aarts, 2013):
The firm level is represented by the hub (or focal) firm which is the orchestrator of a goal-oriented, hub-and-spoke innovation network (Dhanaraj
& Parkhe, 2006; Paquin & Howard-Grenville, 2012). It covers employees from R&D and other functions with a stake in the innovation process. In
the context of this paper, the goal is to develop C2C products.
The value chain level consists of actors further upstream (i.e., suppliers) and down-stream. In CPI this includes loop-closing firms such as collectors
and recyclers. Suppliers may act as loop-closing firms themselves by diversifying their material sources through partnerships with downstream
actors (Boons, 2002).
The framing and linking level includes actors facilitating the innovation process such as intermediary organizations and related consultants as
well as broader interest groups (e.g., industry associations). Innovation intermediaries are well known entities in innovation management (How-
ells, 2006), but even more important in environmental innovation (de Marchi, 2012), sustainability-oriented innovation (Clarke & Roome, 1995;
Gliedt, Hoicka, & Jackson, 2018; Hansen & Klewitz, 2012; Klewitz, Zeyen, & Hansen, 2012), sustainability transition (Mignon & Kanda, 2018),
and industrial ecology (Boons & Baas, 1997; Boons, Chertow, Park, Spekkink, & Shi, 2017; Patala et al., 2020; Zaoual & Lecocq, 2018). Interme-
diaries “assist the other promotors in achieving more focus in the vision they aim to realize” (Klerkx & Aarts, 2013, 206), create trust as basis for
relationship building and knowledge exchange, and can coordinate a network of firms efficiently (Walls & Paquin, 2015). Two types of interme-
diaries exist: those acting on neutral ground (Howells, 2006) to connect actors (Klewitz et al., 2012; Patala et al., 2020), and more interest-driven
ones, “getting their hands dirty” as “architects of collective exploration” (Agogué, Yström, & Le Masson, 2013, 17). They may even actively direct
partners to the desired sustainability outcome, sometimes even being the source of the innovation themselves (Agogué et al., 2013). Often they
are challenged to strike a balance between being a hands-off facilitator and a proactive change agent (Klerkx & Aarts, 2013). Standard-setting
8HANSEN AND SCHMITT
bodies are also important intermediaries for the (voluntary) self-regulation of industry (Howells, 2006). Rossi, Charon, Wing, and Ewell (2006)
highlight the role of close collaboration with assessors of the C2C certification system. Besides intermediaries, the framing and linking level also
covers political and regulatory bodies supporting and constraining innovation (Fichter, 2009).
While Fichter’s model above provides a static perspective, more recently interest has emerged in community dynamics by looking into how
innovation communities develop over time (Kokoulina et al., 2019; Muzzi & Albertini, 2015).
2.4.2 Types of promotors
To overcome barriers, firms need promotors. They are defined as “individuals who actively and intensively support the innovation process” (Fichter,
2009, 359). Five types of promotors exist (Fichter, 2009 based on earlier classifications by Chakrabarti & Hauschildt, 1989; Gemünden & Walter,
1995; Witte, 1977; see also Muzzi & Albertini, 2015):
1. The power promotor pushes innovation through hierarchical power.
2. The expert promotor contributes through expert knowledge.
3. The process promotor has deep knowledge about the organization, knows who is affected by an innovation, and is able to translate the different
languages spoken in the firm.
4. The relationship promotor (or network champion Klerkx & Aarts, 2013) facilitates building up innovation-related relationships inside and out-
side the company.
5. The universal promotor performs both power and expert roles and combines them with process and/or relationship roles in one person. Such
promotors can be critical for overcoming barriers.
2.4.3 Collaboration in the innovation community
An innovation community usually emerges around a specific, often radical, innovation project (Fichter, 2009; Muzzi & Albertini, 2015),butitmay
be extended in follow-up projects. Generally, the community is characterized by social cohesion and trust, with promotors considering themselves
a team to achieve joint goals (Klerkx & Aarts, 2013). It is based on actor learning and multidisciplinary ways of problem solving (Leising, Quist,
& Bocken, 2018). Good communication structures for exchanging information and knowledge help to access complementary competences and
resources. Even though promotors are intrinsically motivated, they need the community to acquire mutual support as they often face hard opposi-
tion (Fichter, 2009).
We are interested in the distinct collaboration mechanisms within an innovation community for CPI. A mechanism is “a process in aconcrete sys-
tem which is capable of bringing about or preventing some change in the system” (Bunge, 2004 see Hedström & Ylikoski, 2010, 51). When analyzing
collaboration, distinguishing between cooperation and coordination seems expedient (Gulati et al., 2012). Cooperation is about jointly pursuing
agreed-on goals, contributing resources such as knowledge, and sharing benefits. It is a behavioral outcome of partners’ motivation and commit-
ment (Gulati et al., 2012). Coordination refers to aligning actions and facilitating information sharing, for instance, through joint structures and
processes. High task uncertainty requires more extensive forms of coordination (Gulati et al., 2012).
Overall, we look at how cooperative and coordinative collaboration mechanisms between promotors in an innovation community—spanning
across organizational, value chain, and framing/linking levels—help to overcome CPI barriers. We elaborate this perspective in an in-depth case
study of a successful C2C innovator.
3METHODS
3.1 Research design
As we categorize CPI processes as a nascent research phenomenon (Edmondson & McManus, 2007), we chose a qualitative research design. We
conducted a longitudinal embedded case study of C2C product development. It covers several related projects across a time frame of 10 years on
multiple levels of analysis (individual promotors distributed across the hub firm, value chain partners, and framing/linking levels). This approach
leads to a unique and rich dataset. When studying longitudinal phenomena, a single case study is appropriate (Siggelkow, 2007)asitallowsto
uncover the complexity of how individual promotors interact in and across organizations over time. In contrast to Eisenhardt’s (1989) focus on
multiple cases, single cases allow setting the discovered constructs into a richer context and a good story (Dyer & Wilkins, 1991).
HANSEN AND SCHMITT 9
Packaging for
detergent
Bottled
detergent
Product Parts Components Materials/Substances
Mandatory scope
for product
certification
(bottled detergent)
Mandatory scope
for voluntary
separate bottle
certification
Sodium laureth sulfate
80-100 ingredients
Food dye E 104
Purified water
Citric acid
Laminat
Adhesives
Spring
Printing inks
Polymer (basic material)
Pigments / colorants (green)
PET Recyclate (household collection)
PET Recyclate (bottle-to-bottle collection)
Additives
Polymers
Overall
scope
of case
Label
13 ingredients
>100 ingredients
9 ingredients
14 ingredients
14 ingredients
8 ingredients
24 ingredients
9 ingredients
1 ingredients
1 ingredient
Bottle
Cap/
Spray applicator
Cleaning agent
Colorant
Surfactant
Fragrance
Solvent
Acid
FIGURE 2 Composition of bottled detergent (with relevant parts, components, and materials/substances)
Note.PET=polyethylene terephthalate.
3.2 Case selection
As our hub firm we selected the large (1,050 employees) owner-managed family business W&M—a frontrunner of circularity in the household
chemical industry. W&M has become an eco-pioneer in its industry as early as the 1980s with the introduction of its Frosch brand. Since then, it
has been optimizing the human and eco-toxicological profile of its detergents (products of consumption) for safe biological cycles, that is, complete
biodegradation in the water system. The brand achieved remarkable growth rates since 2005 (Werner & Mertz, 2017, 106). They adopted C2C in
2011 for a pilot product, making the firm one of the first with an explicit circular strategy. Their first C2C-certified product, the Spirit Glass Cleaner,
was awarded best in class by the leading German consumer advocate organization Stiftung Warentest (Werner & Mertz, 2020). After the pilot, W&M
rolled out C2C across its product portfolio. In line with its strategic positioning as a sustainability leader, on top of the detergent—which would suf-
fice for receiving a C2C certification—W&M also redesigned its packaging for sound technical cycles with the goal of leading the industry. Figure 2
provides an impression on the complexity of gaining full material transparency and the scopes of mandatory and voluntary certification. Overall,
W&M can be considered an “extreme” case, worth documenting (Yin, 2014, 50).
3.3 Data collection
We conducted semi-structured interviews with internal and external experts involved on all levels of the innovation process. We started with the
innovation manager,who introduced C2C to the hub firm and then, using snowball sampling, moved on to relevant internal actors, external partners,
and certification bodies. The interviews were transcribed and reviewed by informants. We complemented the formal interviews with protocolled
informal ethnographic interviews and observations during site visits and industry events (Munz, 2017). An extensive set of archival documents was
also analyzed. We triangulated data from these multiple sources to better ground the timeline of events (Table 2). We collected data both ex-post
(covering the years 2011–2015) and in the making of the innovations (2016–2020) to increase credibility, because informants may not be able to
fully reconstruct events after longer time periods.
10 HANSEN AND SCHMITT
TAB LE 2 Data sources
Data type Quantity Type of documentation
Formal interviewsa19 Transcriptsb
Hub firm 7
Suppliers and partners 3
Assessor, certification body, consultant 4
Other industry experts 5
Informal ethnographic interviews 15 Protocols
Hub firm 6
Suppliers and partners 3
Assessors, certification body, consultant 6
Focus groups 1Protocol
Archival documents 75 Source files
Publicly available information 30
Corporate publications (e.g., sustainability reports, environmental policy statements) 8
Press releases 14
Media articles 11
Internal documents (work files, presentation slides, organization charts) 15
Observations 10 Protocols
Site visits 4
Ethnographic observation of industry events (e.g., C2C Congress) 6
aAverage length of 1:30 hr; breviewed byinformants.
3.4 Data analysis
Our analysis first focused on creating a timeline of events. We used Yin’s explanation building technique to create “a presumed set of causal
sequences” in order to answer “‘how’ or ‘why’ some outcome occurred” (Yin, 2014, 147). This involves deductive and inductive steps in an
iterative process including tentative theoretical propositions, comparing the data with the propositions, revising them, and repeating this as many
times as needed (Yin, 2014). Our a priori theoretical understanding stems from innovation community theory, including the multiple levels of anal-
ysis, types of promotors, and innovation barriers. By using established constructs, we were not only able to elaborate theory by adding detail
(Vaughan, 2000), but also to link our findings to extant literature in the field of innovation management (Fichter, 2009) and industrial symbiosis
(Kokoulina et al., 2019) to increase external validity (Gibbert, Ruigrok, & Wicki, 2008;Yin,2014).
We abductively combined a-priori with open codes. Two researchers were involved in the process to prevent bias: the author who was more
deeply immersed in the field focused on the rich description of data. Intermediate results were frequently discussed with the senior researcher
who was only selectively involved in fieldwork and therefore was in the role to ensure internal consistency and external validity. Discrepancies
in the analysis were resolved when both authors reached a consensus understanding. Preliminary analyses were member-checked by individual
participants and in focus groups to increase trustworthiness (Guba, 1981).
4RESULTS
We present how W&M developed an innovation community of promotors who applied various collaboration mechanisms to set aside, in this
sequence, individual, firm, value chain, and institutional-level CPI barriers (see Figure 3). Our results are structured along this sequence of bar-
rier types as perceived by the hub firm. However, the barriers occur recursively: for instance, the same type of individual and firm-level barriers
resolved by the hub, may later be faced by the hub’s partners in the value chain. The innovation community consists of thirteen promotors residing
within and beyond the organization (see Table 3). Their role was consistently highlighted by relevant actors:
For innovative projects you can have good technical, organizational, and economic concepts – all are important! But if you don’t have deter-
mined actors who tackle it with a certain communicative skill, it won’t work. (Head of recycling technology, Packaging collection scheme)
HANSEN AND SCHMITT 11
Understanding C2C-based circularity
and forming a community of
promotors
Building up organizational C2C
capabilities and kicking off the formal
innovation project
Screening and building up the value chain for product redesign. The
community expands towards the value chain.
Promoting C2C to improve framework
conditions
General
assessor
P0
Value chain
level
Framing / linking
level
Firm
level
HubHub Hub Hub
General
Assessor
General
assessor
Individual
barriers
Certification
body
Certification
body
Consumer
UniversalPower Expert Relationship Process
Providing perspectives
Getting the power
Synchronizing circular
knowledge
Trusteeing of product formulations
Developing or replacing suppliers
Partnering up for material recovery
Certifying products
Assess-
ment Lab
Government
agencies
Tier-2
Tier-1
Tier-2
Tier-1
Advocating circularity
Tier-1
Tier-2
Tier+1
Tier-3
NGO
Value chain
barriers
Firm
barriers
C2C
activities
P1
P0
P2
P3 P1 P3 P1 P3 P1 P3
P2 P2 P2
P4 P4 P4
P5
Combination of promotor roles without organizational power P0-P5: Promotors of primary community
Unindexed: Promotors of secondarycommunity
Institutional
barriers
1. Overcoming
INDIVIDUAL BARRIERS
2. Overcoming
FIRM BARRIERS
3. Overcoming
VALUE CHAIN BARRIERS
4. Overcoming
INSTITUTIONAL BARRIERS
General
assessor
P0
mechanisms
Promo- Collaboration
tors
(a. replace) (b. develop) (c. partner)
FIGURE 3 Cradle-to-cradle innovation community with collaboration mechanisms to overcome circular economy barriers
Note. Depending on firm circumstances and value chain configuration, (a) to (c) indicate alternative collaboration settings.
4.1 Step 1: Promotors overcoming individual level barriers
The complexity involved in circularity is often not fully understood by all relevant employees or sometimes marginalized as hoax—this impedes
the further organizational assimilation of the concept and stops inventions early on. For overcoming individual level barriers, promotors provide
perspectives to help other actors understand circularity.
4.1.1 Providing perspectives
When W&M’s head of product development read McDonough and Braungart’s (2002) book on C2C in 2005, he did not see the concept’s value
going beyond safe cycling in biological systems—a standard of W&M’s products since the Frosch brand’s foundation in 1986. Only a discussion at an
industry event—where the consultant from the general assessor of the C2C certification system provided him with a new perspective on product
(and packaging) design, combining biological and technical cycles—made him realize the full potential of C2C. He turned into a strong (universal)
promotor and subsequently provided this new perspective to selected colleagues. This included the head of packaging development, an expert for
bio-based plastics, recently hired to improve W&M’s packaging. Right away, he was confronted with the fact that his competences would no longer
fit when switching from a bio-based to a recycled packaging strategy. But the combination of biological and technical loops made sense to him.
With the power of his position, existing network in the packaging industry, and increasing expertise in recycled packaging, he turned into a second
universal promotor. He triggered his employees to develop new competencies in circular thinking and their readiness for internal CPI collaboration:
First of all, my staff has to understand why we are doing all this. Certainly, they aren’t as deep in the matter as I am, but a basic understanding
is important. We do many things differently from classic packaging development. (Head of packaging development, W&M)
4.2 Step 2: Promotors overcoming firm level barriers
Organizational resources and structures are in most firms optimized for linear product concepts, inhibiting initiatives for circularity.W&M managed
to overcome these barriers and develop related organizational capabilities through the collaborationmechanisms getting the power and synchronizing
circular knowledge across boundaries.
12 HANSEN AND SCHMITT
TAB LE 3 Mapping and contribution of promotors
Promotor type:
Level Promotor Expert Power Process Relationship UniversalaMain contribution
Hub firm
W&M
Head of product
development (P1)b
x x x x Introduced C2C to W&M and
promoted it in the firm.
Head of
sustainability (P2)
xPushed excellence in site-specific
certification criteria and managed
certification process.
Head of packaging
development (P3)
x x x x Built up a C2C network in packaging
value chain and shared C2C
knowledge there.
CEO (and owner) (P4) xSupported C2C also when it seemed
too radical for customers.
Head of corporate
affairs (P5)
x Lobbied for better circular products
and packaging regulations at
national and EU levels; engaged in
dialogue with certification system
and industry associations.
Value chain
-Supplier
Setting bc
Key account manager x Understood strategic benefits of
C2C project and made it a top
management priority.
Head of sustainability xMarketed project internally to
assure necessary funds, allocated
and coordinated internal
activities.
CEO x Decided to conduct C2C product
redevelopment project and
allocated necessary funds.
Head of production xRedevelopedproduct formula and
production processes.
-Partnership
Setting c
Head of recycling
technology (Tier-2)
x Had the technical ideas for capturing
higher-quality recyclate and
pitched project to his superiors.
CEO (Tier-2) xUnderstood strategic benefits of the
recyclate project and authorized
the project.
CEO (Tier-1) x Understood strategic benefits of the
recyclate project and supported
stronger strategic focus on
recyclate in the firm.
Framing/linking
General Assessor
Consultant (P0) x x x Guaranteed intellectual property of
value chain firms and supported
community through C2C expertise
and contacts.
aA universal promotor is defined as taking on at least three promotor roles simultaneously: expert promotor, power promotor, and either process or relation-
ship promotor. bAbbreviationof promotors in results framework in Figure 3(only primary community is abbreviated). cSettings refer to alternatives specified
for overcoming value chain barriers in Figure 3.
4.2.1 Getting the power
In the early stage of the CPI process, it is significant to get the power from higher hierarchical levels for strategic decision-making and releasing
necessary funding for the innovation project. As W&M’s CEO was searching a strategy for sustainable packaging, the head of product development
advanced the potentials of C2C for using biodegradable materials for the detergent (biological cycle) and recycled plastic for its packaging (technical
cycle). This convinced the CEO of the strategic alignment of C2C, turned him into the key (power) promotor, and made him promote a vision of W&M
as the first fully circular firm in its industry:
HANSEN AND SCHMITT 13
Our CEO is the one who drives C2C. It is his company, when he says we do that now, then it is done, and everybody gets involved. (Head of
sustainability, W&M)
4.2.2 Synchronizing circular knowledge across boundaries
To overcome the lack or inconsistency of organizational knowledge, synchronizing circular knowledge across functions and organizational bound-
aries furthers the assimilation of circularity in the firm. The early promotors explored the meaning of C2C in intensive cross-functional learning
processes, including informal occasions such as lunch breaks. The promotors accomplished a high traction for the C2C project, together overcom-
ing partially restrictive mindsets of further relevant colleagues and creating a joint knowledge base. This lifted the understanding of circularityfrom
selected individuals, over the group of promotors, to organizational-level knowledge. Several of these learning activities were in cooperation with
the consultant (intermediary) for instance, through facilitated C2C workshops. As senior expert for C2C, he helped W&M’s newly created CPI core
team to lead an in-depth discussion about C2C-based circularity.
The nature of this boundary spanning and cooperation-based mechanism becomes clear when looking into the initiation of the Ink Project. It took
the promotors 2 years of learning to fully understand the challenges for circulation of the product label’s inks—even though these were already
plant-based and considered “ecofriendly”. During this period, the heads of product and packaging development had many discussions with the con-
sultant and the CEO about C2C’s new approach toward eco-assessment. While existing programs, like REACH, is largely based on self-regulation
based on relatively large thresholds for a narrow list of substances of very high concern, in C2C’s absolute approach even small amounts of a much
broader list of substances of concern are banned completely or must be phased out from the product formula in defined timeframes.
4.3 Step 3: Promotors overcoming value chain barriers
Considering C2C’s demand for material quality and circularity, many barriers are related to engaging with partners across complex and dispersed
value chains. The innovation community eliminated these through the collaboration mechanisms trusteeing of product formulations,developing or
replacing suppliers,partnering up for material recovery,andcertifying products.
4.3.1 Trusteeing of product formulations
C2C requires toxicological assessments for all substances and components of a product with documentation through product specifications, bills of
materials, material safety datasheets, and production processes materials lists (see product composition in earlier Figure 2). As this is often propri-
etary information touching on firms’ competitive position, refusal to provide it can turn into a major barrier. Trusteeing of product formulations is
a coordinative mechanism that supports the mobility of such knowledge when its competition-critical nature prevents its direct exchange between
value chain actors.
Normally C2C fails due to missing transparency in the supply chain. The consultant was a great help because with him acting as a trustee we
received the necessary information suppliers would have never given us otherwise. In the case of the packaging, we would not have gone that
far without him. (Head of product development, W&M)
The mechanism is a form of mediated coordination by the consultant who—as a process, relationship, and expert promotor—brokers knowledge
between hub firm, suppliers, material health assessment lab, and the certification body by means of strict and detailed non-disclosure agreements
(NDA) valid throughout the innovation project (and beyond, depending on the nature of the contracts). The mechanism creates transparency
in complex supply chains while avoiding potential misappropriation of critical knowledge. Overall, it helps to overcome ignorance of materials’
chemical footprint throughout the value chain and framing/linking levels.
4.3.2 Developing or replacing suppliers
The results of the material health assessment, if indicating non-compliance, usually trigger decisions on the optimization of materials, even lead-
ing to a reconfiguration of the value chain. The promotor community’s next step was to convince the suppliers to omit or change substances of
concern. While ideally suppliers would simply follow their customer’s requirements, given the considerable efforts required to implement C2C
improvements, this was usually not the case. Instead, W&M mostly had to develop or replace suppliers. Depending on the supply chain tier and
14 HANSEN AND SCHMITT
supplier-specific circumstances, promotors from firm and framing/linking levels exerted their influence to different degrees. The suppliers learned
about the task W&M expected them to do, while the community learned about the partner’s capabilities and commitment. If necessary, the promo-
tors supported the C2C-related capability development through synchronizing circular knowledge. Still, suppliers did not always commit to the CPI
project—often they were just uninterested or hesitant to invest any resources for reaching C2C quality of their materials. In consequence, if the
material was non-critical, W&M simply decided to drop it from the formula. In the other cases, existing suppliers were replaced (Figure 3, setting a)
or developed (setting b).
4.3.3 Partnering up for material recovery
W&M aimed at using mixed post-consumer plastic waste as a source for recycled packaging; however, there was no recyclate supply available in the
desired quality when they started the project. In general, market availability for cycled products, components, and materials is a major barrier for
CPI. Consequently, W&M partnered up for material recovery by creating the Recyclate Initiative (Figure 3, setting c). The cross-sector partnership
aimed at developing, producing, and recovering materials and comprises the entire recyclate value chain: a national packaging collection scheme,
a machine builder for high-tech sorting technology, a bottle producer, a retail chain, and an environmental NGO. When W&M invited tenders
for high-quality post-consumer recyclate, a sustainability enthusiast from the national packaging collection scheme seized this opportunity to
propose higher value creation activities through closed material loops to his bosses. Something he had proposed and failed with before, was finally
accepted due to the prospective customer’s positive image and demand pull. The resulting intensive cooperation across the value chain enlarged
the innovation community with additional promotors from the various partner organizations.
4.3.4 Certifying products
A further value-chain barrier is to raise customer awareness and excitement for the circular and health characteristics of the redesigned product
and thus profit from the (radical) innovation. To inform customers, W&M considered certification (and related labeling) the solution because while
the composition of the product (mainly its packaging) had changed quite substantially, its outer appearance had not changed at all—resembling the
fact that environmental features often remain unrecognized by customers (de Marchi, 2012; Kanda, Hjelm, Clausen, & Bienkowska, 2018).
The mechanism certifying products describes the coordination necessary to achieve the final product certification3in order to inform customers
about the new product characteristics. To apply for the certificate, the head of sustainability—process promotor for the overall C2C certification
coordinated the necessary documentation. Besides the material health and product reutilization data, he coordinated the site-specific criteria (i.e.,
water stewardship, renewable energy and carbon management, and social fairness) with the respective departments and the certification body.
For these criteria, he could revert to information from existing management systems and performance indicators (e.g., EMAS, ISO 50001) and the
firm’s social programs. While consumers were still unfamiliar with the rather new C2C label, it served to communicate the extendedproduct quality
to retailers and professional buyers (e.g., from cleaning services valuing employee health and safety). Though initially leading to doubts at W&M
whether the C2C label would be beneficial to the brand (or the other way around), the certification ultimately strengthened W&M’s positioning as
a pioneer in the market and industry.
4.4 Step 4: Promotors overcoming institutional barriers
The broader market framework usually favors the status quo (e.g., low prices for primary raw materials) and hinders the broader diffusion of CPI.
Through advocating circularity, the innovation community seeks to overcome institutional-level barriers and promote favorable conditions for CPI.
4.4.1 Advocating circularity
The CEO realized that advocating circularity is important and goes beyond what he can do himself. He created the position of a public affairs man-
ager and tailored it to an employee from the innovation network who had suggested the demand for such a position. This employee serves as a
relationship promotor for advocating the firm’s circular activities to regulatory agencies:
3The Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute offers both a full certification (based on the five criteria material health, material reutilization, renewable energy and carbon management,
water stewardship, and social fairness) and a material health certification covering only the first criterion.
HANSEN AND SCHMITT 15
I have a network, I put certain topics into this network, with positions from us. And then I try to feel a bit the opinion where certain develop-
ments are going, but also to bring us into discourse .. . and to say "We can do it!” (Public affairs manager, W&M)
The public affairs manager also developed a closer relationship to the certification body by becoming a member in their stakeholder advisory
council. He provided feedback on W&M’s experiences with the certification and cooperated in testing the new standard version 4.0 on its prac-
ticability before its release. In case of recycled PET packaging, W&M plead for improvements: the requirements for material health and product
circularity were contradictory because recyclates usually contain fractions of substances that the C2C standard requires to be eliminated from the
product (e.g., antimony used as a catalyst in PET production). This led the certification body to integrate their objections into the revised standard
version (C2CPII, 2019, 27).
5DISCUSSION
5.1 A framework for collaboration mechanisms in CPI processes
In this study, we provide a unique longitudinal and micro-level analysis of how W&M has built an innovation community with promotors collab-
orating for CPI. The community helped W&M to overcome structural constraints in and across organizational boundaries (Klerkx & Aarts, 2013)
and set aside related innovation barriers. As contribution, we specified eight collaboration mechanisms explaining how the promotors sequentially
resolved individual, firm, value chain, and institutional-level CPI barriers (see Figure 3;Table4). These mechanisms can be understood as the “cogs
and wheels of the internal machinery” (Hedström & Wennberg, 2017, 93) of the community.
From a hub firm’s perspective, the four types of barriers occur in a linear fashion. But as innovation communities evolve, circularity penetrates
deeper into the value chain and barrier types reoccur (thereby aggravating the hub firm’s value chain barriers). The collaboration mechanisms
originally used in the hub firm now unfold in partner organizations in a similar manner. This represents a recursive process comparable to the
trickle-down or green multiplier effects known from supply chains (Harms, Hansen, & Schaltegger, 2013; Preuss, 2001).
Most of these collaboration mechanisms facilitate mutual trust, learning, and capability building for implementing C2C. Regarding the two facets
of collaboration (Gulati et al., 2012), they strengthen the cooperation in the community. We also identified critical mechanisms with coordinative
functions, which are particularly important for overcoming interorganizational barriers in the CPI project.
5.2 Coordinative mechanisms as enabler for collaboration across the value chain
Overcoming interorganizational barriers is of utmost importance for CPI. Two of the collaboration mechanisms stick out here: trusteeing of prod-
uct formulations and certifying products. Together they provide specifications, common language, and adequate communication channels for the
collaborative innovation activities.
5.2.1 Certification as coordinative function in the innovation community
The C2C label is important because it communicates a product’s circular properties to customers and results in market differentiation. But it is
the actual certification process (i.e., the certifying products mechanism) which fulfills a coordinative function within the innovation community and
related organizations. It is based on the highly formalized C2C standard (C2CPII, 2016) including terminology, goals, specification of criteria, and
operational rules. Accordingly, the standard has both syntactical and semantical characteristics and serves as a boundary object across functions
and organizations (Carlile, 2002). Based on clear form-based communication structures between the firms, intermediary, assessment lab, and cer-
tification body the product architecture is verified in the value chain stage of the community. But the standard influences the promotors already in
the previous stages of the community by giving guidance for product design early on in the innovation process. We therefore propose that certifying
can be considered the central coordinative mechanism of the CPI community. Certifying partly depends on trusteeing.
5.2.2 Trusteeing as coordination of sensitive information flows across boundaries
The C2C standard demands the elimination of technical contamination from materials and therefore requires close collaboration with suppliers. In
marked contrast to the required openness for CPI (Franco, 2017; Patala et al., 2020), nontransparent value chains, ignorance of material composi-
tions, and fear of intellectual property infringements show that actors in the value chain operate in rather closed ways. The intermediary solves this
16 HANSEN AND SCHMITT
TAB LE 4 C2C promotor collaboration mechanisms to overcome individual, firm, value chain, and institutional barriers
Collaboration mechanism:
Level Name Description Active promotors Facet Barriers (examples)a
1. Individual Providing perspectives Sharing insights about what a closed-loop
production system means in the C2C context
and further developing individual skillsets.
- Process, relationship & expert
- Universal
Cooperative - Restrictive mindset
- Lack of competences
2. Firm Getting the power Addressing higher management levels to gain
support for circular innovation projects.
- Universal Cooperative - Lacking strategic alignment
- Missing management support
- Lack of in-house resources
- Higher costs of C2C materials
Synchronizing circular
knowledge
Aligning circular knowledge through
cross-functional and interorganizational
collaboration.
- Process, relationship & expert
- Universal
-Power
- Process
Cooperative - Lack of or divergent knowledge
- Unfitting organizational structure
- Functional silos
3. Value chainbTrusteeing of product
formulations
Coordinating NDA-secured information sharing
of material compositions to achieve required
material transparency in the value chain.
- Process, relationship & expert Coordinative - Lack of information on material
composition and SoC
- Fear of IPR infringements
Developing or
replacing suppliers
Sharing knowledge with suppliers to develop
their circular capabilities. In case of lacking
cooperation in the innovation project,
components are omitted or suppliers replaced.
- Universal
- Process, relationship & expert
Cooperative - Absence of C2C conform materials
and substitution options
- Supply chain inertia
- Lack of knowledge in value chain
- Contamination of recyclates
Partnering up for
material recovery
Building partnerships with organizations to
recover and reprocess products and their
inherent components and materials with the
goal to keep them circulating in the same value
chain (i.e., closed loops).
- Universal
-Power
- Process, relationship & expert
Cooperative - Unavailability of quality recyclates
- Immature supply/recovery chains
- Cost optimized global value chains
- Rigid retail specifications and
perceived consumer expectations
Certifying products Coordinating the verification of overall product
compliance with all C2C certification criteria;
the resulting quality label informs customers.
- Process
- Process, relationship & expert
Coordinative - Lack of information on SoC
- Lack of customer
awareness/acceptance
4. Institutional Advocating circularity Advocating favorable framework conditions
regarding CE with regulatory bodies and
self-regulatory standard-setting bodies.
- Relationship Cooperative - Existing regulation favors linearity
- Low prices of primary raw materials
C2C =cradle to cradle; IPR =intellectual property rights; SoC =substances of concern; NDA =non-disclosure agreement.
aTabl e 1shows a full barrier list; bThrough recursive processes in the hub’s partner organizations, individual and organizational-level barriers and collaboration mechanisms reoccur.
HANSEN AND SCHMITT 17
paradox by establishing formal communication infrastructures between partners based on contracts and NDAs, thus enabling a secure information
exchange for the assessment of a product’s toxicological composition. Instead of openness, we suggest knowledge mobility (Dhanaraj & Parkhe,
2006) be the more appropriate construct. Basically, trusteeing can be considered a syntactic mechanism that helps coordinating quality informa-
tion exchange based on a standardized communication (Carlile, 2002; Randhawa, Josserand, Schweitzer, & Logue, 2017) and ultimately enables
cooperation in the community.
The downside of trusteeing is that confidentiality agreements at times also hindered the broader diffusion of C2C-conform materials, as their
availability cannot be communicated openly in the market. The strict NDAs also inhibit an independent validation of the approach and represent an
ongoing dilemma in CPI (de Koeijer et al., 2017; Rossi et al., 2006; Toxopeus, de Koeijer, & Meij, 2015) and industrial ecology more broadly (Patala
et al., 2020). Future research could explore how to best contain these adverse effects.
5.3 The intermediary as co-orchestrator of the innovation community
Our findings show that the intermediary is important for both cooperative and coordinative facets of collaboration in the innovation process. As
shown in the previous section, the coordinative mechanisms certifying and trusteeing center around the intermediary in his role as assessor for
the C2C certification and coordinator of secure information transfer. Regarding the other, cooperative mechanisms, he proactively supports the
learning process about C2C by expertise, workshop facilitations, and inspiration of promotors to achieve a certain C2C quality level. To overcome
structural holes in the innovation network, he involves in matchmaking with relevant partners or, if necessary, articulates new demand for circular
materials on a broader industry level. By overcoming the barrier of non-responsibility (Hauschildt & Kirchmann, 2001) in deeper value chain tiers,
he supports change across the value chain.
Given the intermediary’s strong contributions to cooperation and coordination, he—together with the promotors in the hub firm—can be consid-
ered as belonging to the primary community which serves as an aggregated orchestrator of the overall innovation network (Klerkx & Aarts, 2013).
Still, the intermediary did not take away ownership from the hub firm, even when he sometimes crossed the boundary from a neutral to an interest-
driven innovation-producing actor (Klerkx & Aarts, 2013). We found that this role ambiguity was actually an asset, because as an insider of the
certification system the intermediary was highly knowledgeable, experienced, and motivated to lead the project to success. This is also supported
by Drabe and Herstatt (2016), who found a positive relationship between a company’s satisfaction with C2C implementation and the involvement
of certification partners.
5.4 Limitations
Our findings emerged from an extreme and thus unrepresentative case company voluntarily redeveloping its products far beyond the requirements
of the C2C standard. Still, we expect our contributions to be transferable (Shenton, 2004) to second movers because innovation communities are
also needed when implementing CPI at a slower pace. Second, the comprehensive multi-level perspective applied here comes with the drawback
that organization-internal processes cannot go into detail. Studies analyzing collaboration in the innovation community with an exclusive focus
on the firm-level change processes would complement our perspective (e.g., Roome & Louche, 2015). Third, in our study, several individuals took
multiple promotor roles. This might be due to the hub’s family-firm context and relative smallness among large companies. Larger multinationals
may have a higher degree of role specialization and hierarchical distance. Fourth, the identified collaboration mechanisms emerged from a specific
context and may not be exhaustive. Moreover, some mechanisms such as trusteeing of product formulations might be particularly relevant to C2C
due to its requirements on material health and may still lack in other circular settings. Therefore, the mechanisms represent a theory of the middle
range (Merton, 1968) with explanatory relevance in its specific context (Hedström & Wennberg, 2017).
5.5 Implications for practitioners
Innovation communities are decisive for companies to overcome CPI barriers at multiple levels. First, this study indicates that companies wishing
to implement CPI require an initial set of promotors in the upper middle management to build up circular competences and then become boundary
spanners to expand the community across the value chain. In order for such promotors to emerge, it appears fruitful to provide guidance by circular
company strategies, the freedom to innovate, and top management support. Second, given the complexity of the value chain, providing resources
for matchmaking by an intermediary can become critical for growing a promotor community with the necessary coverage. Third, for sustaining
community spirit, keeping motivation despite drawbacks is important. While to some extent purpose seems to be intrinsic to C2C, celebrating
partial successes and regular reinforcement by top management—as in change initiatives more broadly (Doppelt, 2010)—is needed.
18 HANSEN AND SCHMITT
5.6 Implications for policy-makers
Given the importance of networking across the value chain and the key role of intermediation in CPI, government agencies could increase funding
for public and public–private intermediation for product-level circularity. This would support companies interested in C2C-based circularity, but
lack resources for a transformation of their value chains. Also, the government could become a network ombudsman (Baumann, Boons, & Bragd,
2002) itself by establishing own network administrative organizations (Klerkx & Aarts, 2013). By the impartial position of the public sector, gov-
ernments would be in a good position to reduce the risk of bias linked to intermediaries with vested interests. Successful programs such as UK’s
National Industrial Symbiosis Program (Paquin & Howard-Grenville, 2009) or ECOPROFIT (Hansen & Klewitz, 2012) could serve as templates.
6CONCLUSION
Applying innovation community theory to CPI processes of a CE frontrunner allowed us to get a microlevel understanding of how individual pro-
motors collaborate across the value chain. The promotors use both cooperative and coordinative collaboration mechanisms to drive C2C through
the value chain, build up knowledge on circularity, and collectively overcome implementation barriers on individual, organizational, value chain,
and institutional levels. Ultimately, collaboration within the innovation community intensified in numerous iterations of subsequent CPI projects.
While time elapses, the scope of the overall community changes, as do the intensities of the relationships among promotors and supporters, and
the type and combination of collaboration mechanisms. Moreover, recursion occurs in the deeper levels of the value chain. A company that is aware
of the complexity of CPI and has the ability to systematically develop the necessary innovation community as a vehicle for the overall network
orchestration, will be in a good position to overcome barriers and successfully introduce CPIs in the market.
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
We are deeply grateful to our industry partners, who made this research possible through their trust and openness: in particular,Dr. Andreas Brake-
meier, Immo Sander, Reinhard Schneider (Werner&Mertz), and Albin Kälin (EPEA Switzerland). We thank Axel Dick (Quality Austria) for his interest
and encouragement throughout the project. We would like to thank reviewers and discussants who helped to develop this article with their com-
ments at the European Academy of Management (EURAM) 2019, Product Lifetimes and the Environment (PLATE) 2017, and Innovation & Value
Creation 2017 and 2018 conferences (e.g., Schmitt & Hansen, 2017). We are also grateful for the comments by Klaus Fichter on an earlier version
of this article. Last but not least, we would like to thank the editors and reviewers for their constructive feedback.
CONFLICT OF INTEREST
The authors declare no conflict of interest.
ORCID
Erik G. Hansen https://orcid.org/0000-0002- 6129-5493
Julia C. Schmitt https://orcid.org/0000-0002- 3621-4145
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How to cite this article: Hansen EG, Schmitt JC. Orchestrating cradle-to-cradle innovation across the value chain: Overcoming barriers
through innovation communities, collaboration mechanisms, and intermediation. J Ind Ecol. 2020;1–21. https://doi.org/10.1111/jiec.13081
... Reorganizing the supply chain is a challenge due to the need to readapt activities and processes, establish new business relationships (if necessary), and address cultural aspects, such as resistance to change which delays restructurating, and lack of technological or knowledge support, as well as promoting a the commitment and resilience to achieve and put in practice the necessary changes [62]. Some authors point out innovation as the solution to reuse of all materials to ensure sustainability and adapt supply chain activities [12,63]. ...
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Sustainable transitions typically require collaboration between multiple actors in the value chain or value network. Recent research has emphasized mapping of stakeholders and values as a starting point for identifying opportunities to realign these relationships, followed by business model experimentation to enable change. However, a simple mapping exercise does not consider the interplay between actors' concerns, business models, and interpretations of sustainability. Pedersen et al. (2022) advocated that aligning concerns is essential to collaborative design and innovation, and requires continuous negotiation between multiple actors. Here, we present a microlevel in‐depth case study to examine how alignment across central value chain actors may be facilitated through the staging of numerous negotiations during the innovation process. Drawing on the staging negotiation spaces co‐design framework, we provide insight into the content of multiple negotiations concerned with different aspects of sustainability during the development of a more sustainable laundry service system on the Danish island of Bornholm. Our findings illustrate how both value chain actors and a third‐party intermediary stage negotiations, and elaborate the framework by attending to the strategic navigational efforts of network alignment through negotiations.
... Davis and Eisenhardt (2011) discuss the role of dynamic organisational processes and the ability to manage across boundaries to achieve re-combinations among the collaborating parties. In a similar way, silo thinking and the inability to make cross-functional and interorganisational collaboration work can seriously hinder collaboration (Hansen and Schmitt, 2021). ...
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... The four identified activities are the identification of value, the generation of trust among the ecosystem actors, the activation of industrial ecology innovations, and the institutionalization of industrial ecology mechanisms. Hansen and Schmitt (2021) carried out a longitudinal case study of a large chemical company that implemented cradle-to-cradle innovations across its value chain. They found that innovation processes should be actively supported by orchestrators, who may either push innovation through hierarchical power, promote innovation through expert knowledge, translate the different languages spoken in the firm, and build relationships inside and outside the company. ...
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... Statt bereits eingeführte SVHC in aufwendigen Prozessen zu dokumentieren und kontrollieren (End of Pipe-Ansatz), sollte im Sinne des Vorsorgeprinzips bereits beim Produktdesign angesetzt werden (z. B. mittels des Safe-by-Design-Konzepts), um gefährliche Substanzen und besorgniserregen- nen differenzieren, hinaus, da auch signifikante Innovationsaufwände mit einem derartigen Produkt-Redesign in Verbindung stehen (Hansen & Schmitt, 2020). ...
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This report (only available in German) is part of the final report of the Austrian UniNEtZ-project. This option tackles the question of how to better implement Targets 12.4 and 12.5 of the UN's SDG 12 in the Austrian context and provides insights and steps to take to achieve this goal.
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... This was due to the synchronized, organization-wide deployment needed to achieve circular flows and the multiple radical changes required to optimize circular business models. While some studies have investigated networks and the orchestration of CE innovation in inter-firm networks (e.g., Hansen & Schmitt, 2021), we suggest further research is needed on coordinating CE efforts at the intra-firm level to highlight the role of key actors, structures, and the distribution and exercise of power inside different organizations. ...
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Article is available free of charge until November 18th, 2019 via this link: https://authors.elsevier.com/a/1ZpKD3QCo9UwC2
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