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Sustainability is high on the agendas of public and private organizations. Governments are setting targets for reducing the use of virgin raw materials in products and to eliminate waste. To accelerate the transition towards a Circular Economy (CE) policy makers are launching instruments. However, policy instruments such as financial incentives or new regulatory guidelines are prone to manipulations when the stakes for the involved stakeholders are high. Therefore, policy makers and government authorities need a solid system to monitor and control the implementation and effectiveness of their CE measures. To this end, digital technologies are key to enable visibility and monitoring of materials flows. They allow governments and other stakeholders to use data to steer the transition towards a CE. However, data from different materials supply chains reside in a diversity of digital platforms used by a diversity of stakeholders involved. Blockchain-based platforms can support the required visibility by combining data from different stakeholders across different materials supply chains. But connecting all data for CE visibility throughout the entire materials flow into one singular platform is unlikely. With the growing number of blockchain-based platforms that each covers parts of data on CE flows, there is a need to assess the level of visibility they offer and to determine which data is lacking to monitor full CE flows. In this article, the development of a framework to evaluate blockchain-enabled information systems on their ability to act as monitoring systems for CE purposes is presented. The design science research approach was followed to develop the framework. Insights provided by academic literature as well as empirical data from three extant blockchain-enabled platforms were used (i.e., TradeLens, FoodTrust, and Vinturas). The evaluation framework can be deployed by public and private actors (e.g., governments and banks) for monitoring purposes, but also by IT providers to offer CE visibility solutions.
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Journal of Responsible Technology 10 (2022) 100026
Available online 10 February 2022
2666-6596/© 2022 The Authors. Published by Elsevier Ltd on behalf of ORBIT. This is an open access article under the CC BY license
(http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/).
Circular economy visibility evaluation framework
Angelos Kofos, Jolien Ubacht, Boriana Rukanova
*
, Gijsbert Korevaar, Norbert Kouwenhoven,
Yao-Hua Tan
Faculty of Technology, Policy and Management (TBM) Building 31, Jaffalaan 5, 2628 BX Delft, The Netherlands
ARTICLE INFO
Keywords:
Circular economy
Digital infrastructures
Monitoring
Visibility
Blockchain
ABSTRACT
Sustainability is high on the agendas of public and private organizations. Governments are setting targets for
reducing the use of virgin raw materials in products and to eliminate waste. To accelerate the transition towards
a Circular Economy (CE) policymakers are launching instruments. However, policy instruments, such as nancial
incentives or new regulatory guidelines, are prone to manipulations when the stakes for the involved stake-
holders are high. Therefore, policymakers and government authorities need a solid system to monitor and control
the implementation and effectiveness of their CE measures. To this end, digital technologies are key to enabling
visibility and monitoring of materials ows. They allow governments and other stakeholders to use data to steer
the transition towards a CE. However, data from different materials supply chains reside in a diversity of digital
platforms used by a diversity of stakeholders involved. Blockchain-based platforms can support the required
visibility by combining data from different stakeholders across different materials supply chains. But connecting
all data for CE visibility throughout the entire materials ows into one singular platform is unlikely. With the
growing number of blockchain-based platforms that each covers parts of data on CE ows, there is a need to
assess the level of visibility they offer and to determine which data is lacking to monitor full CE ows. In this
article, the development of a framework to evaluate blockchain-enabled information systems on their ability to
act as monitoring systems for CE purposes is presented. The design science research approach was followed to
develop the framework. Insights provided by academic literature as well as empirical data from three extant
blockchain-enabled platforms were used (i.e., TradeLens, FoodTrust, and Vinturas). The evaluation framework
can be deployed by public and private actors (e.g., governments and banks) for monitoring purposes, but also by
IT providers to offer CE visibility solutions.
1. Introduction
The modern world is under the pressure of dealing with resource
exhaustion and environmental destruction threatening its longevity. The
root of these sustainability issues lies in the linear economic model
established after the industrial revolution as the most efcient way to
conduct business. The linear economic model relies on two fundamental
principles: easily accessible resources and unlimited earth regenerative
capacity (Wautelet, 2018). The economy thrives by consuming ever
more planetary resources to manufacture products. These products are
later disposed of in the landlls as wastes or are incinerated when they
are no longer desirable or useful (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2016;
Oppen, van, Croon & Bijl de Vroe, 2020). However, such a linear model
is not sustainable and leads to resource depletion and environmental
damage (Oppen et al., 2020).
In reaction, concepts based on the principle of a circular economy
(CE) are presented as an effective response to sustainability issues. This
alternative economic model is based on the principles of limiting the use
of virgin resources in production systems and eliminating waste streams
by promoting a closed resource loop. As such, it aims at reaping the
maximum value of produced goods and materials by prolonging their
lifecycle. Products are reintroduced to the market upon consumption
through value retention strategies, namely: repair, reuse, remanu-
facturing, and recycling (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2016; Ghisellini,
Cialani & Ulgiati, 2016; Zeiss, Ixmeier, Recker & Kranz, 2020).
The transition towards a sustainable and circular economy is high on
the agendas of public and private organizations. Examples include the
Paris Agreement
1
and the European Green Deal.
2
Whereas a lot of efforts
* Corresponding author.
E-mail address: b.d.rukanova@tudelft.nl (B. Rukanova).
1
https://unfccc.int/process-and-meetings/the-paris-agreement/the-paris-agreement
2
https://ec.europa.eu/info/strategy/priorities-2019-2024/european-green-deal_en
Contents lists available at ScienceDirect
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journal homepage: www.sciencedirect.com/journal/journal-of-responsible-technology
https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jrt.2022.100026
Journal of Responsible Technology 10 (2022) 100026
2
in the past decade have been directed towards these topics and leading
models have emerged (e.g., the CE model of Ellen MacArthur, Founda-
tion
3
), it is now time for action. Governments are setting strict targets
and measures and the time window for achieving some of these is quite
short. For example in the Netherlands, such targets are to achieve 50%
less use of virgin raw materials by 2030 and a waste-free economy by
2050.
4
While such targets are necessary, a key challenge is how to
achieve them and how to monitor the progress across sectors and eco-
nomic activities. And recent examples in the media show that policy
instruments that aim to stimulate the CE transition may be prone to
manipulations. An illustrative example is a recent case, in which ows
that were meant for recycling ended up dumped as waste.
5
To reach the targets for a CE, businesses, government authorities,
and policymakers need increased visibility and transparency in the cir-
cular economy ows in order to better monitor and control these
(Rukanova, Tan, Hamerlinck, Heijmann & Ubacht, 2021a, 2021b).
These activities required data throughout the supply chains of products.
Establishing such visibility is a challenging task due to information
fragmentation. The data about materials or products is distributed
among various actors who may be reluctant to share it (Rukanova,
Henningsson, Zinner Henriksen & Tan, 2018, 2021a, 2021b; van
Engelenburg et al., 2020).
To this end, new developments like digital infrastructures and plat-
forms enabled by technologies like blockchain, as well as possibilities
offered by new technologies such as the Internet of Things and the
Physical Internet, offer promising opportunities to create the required
CE visibility. But it is very hard to evaluate how they contribute to
enabling CE visibility in supply chains, which aspects they cover, and
which are missing pieces that still would need to be lled-in to enable CE
monitoring, which is essential for steering the CE transition.
In literature, a lot of research efforts focus on the technical aspects of
CE (e.g. different methods of recycling) and the development of models
to better understand the CE processes (e.g. by the Ellen MacArthur
Foundation). And a growing body of research into blockchain-enabled
digital infrastructures demonstrates promising results on their ability
to ensure data immutability and audit trail which will be key for CE
monitoring (Rukanova, Tan, Hamerlinck, Heijmann & Ubacht, 2021b).
However, in the current research, there is a lack of understanding of how
these platforms contribute to CE visibility.
In a recent paper in one of the top information systems journals,
Zeiss et al. (2020) called for mobilizing information systems scholars for
CE. Research on how information systems and digital innovations can
support CE monitoring is even more limited. A research gap is also
recognized by Rukanova et al. (2021a), who propose a research agenda
to address the potential of information systems for CE monitoring.
This paper contributes to the identied knowledge gaps by
addressing how digital infrastructures can enhance CE monitoring. The
main objective is to develop a CE visibility evaluation framework for
blockchain-enabled digital infrastructures. Such a framework can be
used by governments, businesses, and technology providers to evaluate
which data is covered within the digital infrastructure and which still
needs to be developed to enable CE visibility and monitoring. This
framework can be used to assess extant blockchain-enabled digital in-
frastructures for CE monitoring. In particular, the framework illustrates
which data from multiple platforms needs to be combined to achieve the
required visibility.
The remaining part of the paper is structured as follows. In Section 2
the foundational concepts of the research are presented. In Section 3 the
design science research approach and the steps followed for the frame-
work development are shown. The resulting evaluation framework is
addressed in Section 4, followed by an illustration of the use of the
framework in Section 5. Finally, in Section 6 the scientic and societal
contribution of the research is addressed. Intermediary results from the
framework development process can be found in the Annex.
2. Theoretical background
The objective of this section is to introduce the concepts of digital
infrastructures and information technologies to facilitate visibility in the
CE ows. These concepts are based on a literature review of supply chain
visibility and the use of that visibility for government control purposes
(Section 2.1). Next, a brief overview of the literature on blockchain
technology follows. Blockchain technologies are promising emerging
technologies that ensure the data immutability and audit trail needed for
CE monitoring (Section 2.2). In addition, an overview of information
tools, such as product passports, is presented as these can provide
required data sources in the context of CE monitoring (Section 2.3).
These streams of literature provide a basis for understanding the pos-
sibilities offered by digital technologies for CE monitoring.
2.1. Digital infrastructures, data pipelines, and supply chain visibility
A Digital Infrastructure (DI) can be dened as a system-of-systems
(Hanseth, Monteiro & Hatling, 1996), which transcends organizational
and system domains, reducing information fragmentation (Hanseth &
Lyytinen, 2010). Digital Trade Infrastructures (DTI) can be seen as
specic DIs that focuses on international trade (Rukanova, Henningsson,
Henkriksen & Tan, 2016). Among the several DTI initiatives, data
pipelines have gained signicant attention driven by the idea of
capturing business data (bill of lading, invoice, etc.) produced
throughout the supply chain to facilitate governmental control
(Hesketh, 2009a, 2009b, 2010; Klievink et al., 2012; Pugliatti, 2011;
Rukanova et al., 2018). The data pipeline concept is particularly useful,
considering that the CE monitoring actors (e.g., policymakers, customs
and banks) need to control the CE ows and therefore need access to
relevant data.
The data pipeline was conceptualized as a tool that can improve
visibility and transparency in the global supply chain by facilitating B2B
(business-to-business) and B2G (business-to-government) data sharing
(van Stijn, Klievink, Janssen & Tan, 2012). Its efcient operation relies
on getting data from the source. In other words, it needs access to the
information systems possessed by the various actors involved in the
supply chain, such as inter-organizational information systems operated
by freight forwarders and information systems used by importers or
customs authorities. By accessing this data from the source, it is possible
to obtain visibility on information ows scattered across the supply
chain and captured in different documents (Klievink et al., 2012; van
Stijn et al., 2012).
The actors with a CE monitoring role can leverage the business data
by using so-called piggybacking. Piggybacking refers to using business
data for fullling different purposes than the original one (Tan,
Bjørn-Andersen, Klein & Rukanova, 2011). Data pipelines enable the
reuse of business data for governmental control purposes, like carrying
out risk assessment and inspections or enforcing compliance. While the
traditional data pipeline concept has been developed for enhancing the
visibility from the seller to the buyer, recent research proposed the idea
for extending the data pipeline for CE monitoring and governance
(Rukanova et al., 2021a, 2021b). More specically, it requires an
extension to a) visibility to the processes of production, including visi-
bility on raw materials; b) visibility related to the end of life including
reuse and recycling; c) visibility at the border including scanned images
and certicates that contain information on the products and their
composition.
To understand how visibility can be lost when materials and goods
3
https://ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/circular-economy-diagram
4
E.g. see transition agenda for Circular Economy in the Netherlands,
https://www.rijksoverheid.nl/onderwerpen/circulaire-economie/nederland-ci
rculair-in-2050 (in Dutch)
5
https://www.nrc.nl/nieuws/2020/10/16/nederlands-plastic-illegaal-gest
ort-in-turkije-a4016257
A. Kofos et al.
Journal of Responsible Technology 10 (2022) 100026
3
travel in the supply chains, the denition of Francis can be used where
he denes supply chain visibility as the identity, location, and status of
entities moving in the supply chain, captured in timely messages about events,
along with the planned and actual dates/times for these events(Francis,
2008, p. 182).
An entity is any physical object that transits the supply chain and
takes one of the forms suggested by the entity hierarchy (illustrated in
Fig. 1). An entity can be an item (e.g., product), a package (e.g., carton),
a clients order, an encasement (e.g., a type of packing for the order,
such as pallet), a shipment (e.g., different client orders with a similar
place of acceptance and place of delivery), a leading asset (e.g., a
standardized form of unitizing cargoes, such as containers and trailers)
and transport means (e.g., a truck or ship) (Francis, 2008). For simplicity
reasons, the focus will be on the four supply chain entities item, package,
lading asset, and vehicle as discussed by Francis. In future research, the
other elements can be added when needed for CE monitoring.
The entity hierarchy presents in a very straightforward way the loss
of visibility about the shipping products when moving towards the
higher layers of the hierarchy. For instance, visibility about a product
becomes challenging when products are bundled in a carton; cartons
form a clients order; orders are packed in a pallet; pallets are combined
in a shipment, shipments are unitized in a container; containers are
loaded onto a ship (Francis, 2008).
The analysis of the data pipeline concept highlighted its potential for
acting as a monitoring system for CE purposes, but only if it is extended
to capture lower levels of granularity such as item level and even ma-
terial composition. And data may be spread across multiple platforms
and systems. Furthermore, to control the CE ows and prevent the
occurrence of any adverse effects regarding the implementation of their
CE policy instruments, the interested actors need to access accurate and
reliable business data (Rukanova et al., 2021a, 2021b). Data pipelines
can satisfy their needs by providing the original data that companies
possess in their information systems about the shipment of goods
(Klievink et al., 2012; van Stijn et al., 2012). Nonetheless, a prerequisite
to reaping the full benets of data serving the public good is the need for
trust in the data and its quality. CE policymakers need to be sure that the
data has not been tampered with and blockchain holds the potential to
address their concerns. Therefore, in the next section, the characteristics
of blockchain technologies that can satisfy their requirements are
presented.
2.2. Blockchain technologies
The rationale behind blockchain is not radical but relies on the old
concept of deploying a ledger to store transactions during a time period.
Formerly such ledgers were possessed by one single party, like a bank,
and managed by an administrator, who could alter the ledger without
asking for permission from other stakeholders (DHL, 2018). In contrast,
blockchain (a chain of blocks) is a distributed ledger shared across a
public or private network of parties that records encrypted pieces of
information, called transaction data. Each party in the network has a
copy of the ledger. By distributing the ledger, blockchain eliminates the
need for a central administrator to act as a trusted party, and updates on
the ledger can be done by all stakeholders through a consensus mech-
anism (Abeyratne & Monfared, 2016; DHL, 2018; Ølnes, Ubacht &
Janssen, 2017).
The transition towards a decentralized and distributed system pro-
moted by blockchain can release the data trapped in organizational silos
and lead to the development of a reliable CE monitoring system (DHL,
2018). The potential of blockchain is justied by its four unique char-
acteristics: decentralization, auditability, immutability, and smart con-
tracts. These characteristics differentiate the technology from existing
information systems (Cole, Stevenson & Aitken, 2019; Saberi, Kouhi-
zadeh, Sarkis & Shen, 2019).
Blockchain can alleviate the stakeholdersconcerns regarding data
Fig. 1. Entity hierarchy, based on Francis (2008).
Table 1
Information tools.
Information tool Brief description Key references
Product passport Product passports capture
information about the
components and materials of a
product and describe how
they can be managed at the
end of the products useful
life. An indicative example of
a product passport is the
materials passport developed
in the EU project, Buildings as
Material Banks.
(Adisorn, Tholen & G¨
otz,
2021; European
Commission, 2013;
Heinrich & Lang, 2019;
Pagoropoulos, Pigosso &
McAloone, 2017;
Portillo-Barco & Charnley,
2015)
Internet of Things
(IoT)
IoT equip objects (e.g.,
materials or products) with
sensors and actuators,
converting them into smart
objects and allowing them to
communicate by creating an
information network.
Monitoring actors can use IoT
to monitor in real-time the
status, condition, use, and
location of products, identify
potential frauds, and
consequently ensure the
successful implementation of
their CE policy instruments.
(Bressanelli, Adrodegari,
Perona & Saccani, 2018;
Gligoric et al., 2019;
Pagoropoulos et al., 2017)
Radio Frequency
Identication
(RFID)
RFID enables the
identication and tracking of
a tagged object by making use
of electromagnetic elds. This
technology can play a key role
in CE compliance by
facilitating the monitoring of
materials and products
throughout the supply chain.
(Pagoropoulos et al., 2017)
Product labeling Product labeling can convey
reliable information regarding
the characteristics of a
product. Today, various
product labels focus on
informing interested parties
about the sustainability
aspects of products (e.g.,
circular characteristics,
durability, repairability) or
advising them how to
maximize their utility.
A notable one is the EU
Ecolabel attached to products
and services that meet high
sustainability standards.
(European Commission,
2021; Meis-Harris et al.,
2021)
A. Kofos et al.
Journal of Responsible Technology 10 (2022) 100026
4
sharing and prevent actors from exchanging inaccurate data (Saberi
et al., 2019; Shojaei, Ketabi, Razkenari, Hakim & Wang, 2021). Shojaei
et al. (2021) claim that a centralized information system is not an
appropriate choice for the collection, storage, and sharing of informa-
tion due to the existing fragmentation in the supply chain domain. In
contrast, they assert that blockchain because of its unique characteristics
can incentivize the industry to share its information and to facilitate
collaboration among the stakeholders. Therefore, they promote the
deployment of blockchain-based CE information infrastructures in the
built environment (Shojaei et al., 2021).
An aspect that becomes increasingly important is related to block-
chain interoperability. Blockchain interoperability refers to the ability of
distinct blockchain platforms to communicate and exchange informa-
tion with each other, without compromising their unique characteris-
tics, such as irreversibility and traceability (Jin, Dai, & Xiao, 2018). The
information exchange should be conducted seamlessly and directly,
without the involvement of intermediates to read the information from
one source and transfer it to another. Such intermediates can endanger
the stored data by manipulating their content consciously or uncon-
sciously (Hardjono, Lipton & Pentland, 2020; Monika & Bhatia, 2020;
Schulte, Sigwart, Frauenthaler & Borkowski, 2019). The issue of
blockchain interoperability is a pressing challenge in the logistics
domain when trying to achieve visibility for CE monitoring purposes
(Rukanova et al., 2021c).
2.3. Information tools
To monitor the CE ows and prevent any possible manipulations of
the CE policy instruments, the monitoring actors (e.g., government au-
thorities, banks) can receive insights from various information tools
available today. Table 1 presents some illustrative examples of such
information tools identied in the literature that can enhance CE visi-
bility and increase the monitoring actors condence in the environ-
mentally related business data on (the ow of) products.
These information tools provide for capturing information to ensure
additional visibility that is relevant for CE monitoring.
The concepts on digital infrastructures, blockchain technologies, and
information tools presented in this section are the basis for the devel-
opment of the evaluation framework. In the next section, the research
approach and activities chosen for the framework development are
presented.
3. Design science research approach
For the development of the CE visibility framework, the Design
Science Research (DSR) approach was chosen. The DSR approach fo-
cuses on the development of artifacts with both practical and theoretical
importance (Johannesson & Perjons, 2014). Johannesson and Perjons
developed the Method Framework for Design Science Research
(MFDSR): a structured process of research activities to develop artifacts
based on a scientic knowledge base for rigor as well as empirical data
Table 2
Overview of functional and non-functional requirements for the CE visibility
evaluation framework.
Code Description Key related references
FRQ.1 The CE visibility evaluation
framework should capture the
Franciss supply chain entity
hierarchy.
Francis (2008)
FRQ.2 The CE visibility evaluation
framework should assess the
blockchain-enabled data pipelines
based on their ability to capture the
identity of the supply chain
entities.
Francis (2008)
FRQ.3 The CE visibility evaluation
framework should assess the
blockchain-enabled data pipelines
based on their ability to capture the
location of the supply chain
entities.
Francis (2008)
FRQ.4 The CE visibility evaluation
framework should assess the
blockchain-enabled data pipelines
based on their ability to capture the
status of the supply chain entities.
Francis (2008)
FRQ.5 The CE visibility evaluation
framework should assess the
blockchain-enabled data pipelines
based on their ability to capture the
events of the supply chain entities.
Francis (2008)
FRQ.6 The CE visibility evaluation
framework should extend the
supply chain entity hierarchy by
including ingredients.
Francis (2008)
FRQ.7 The CE visibility evaluation
framework should assess the
blockchain-enabled data pipelines
based on their ability to capture the
condition of the supply chain
entities.
Jayaraman et al. (2008)
FRQ.8 The CE visibility evaluation
framework should assess
blockchain-enabled data pipelines
based on their ability to provide
visibility from the seller in the
exporting country to the buyer in
the importing country.
Hesketh 2010)
FRQ.9 The CE visibility evaluation
framework should assess
blockchain-enabled data pipelines
based on their ability to provide
visibility in production (including
product design).
Rukanova et al. (2021a, 2021b)
FRQ.10 The CE visibility evaluation
framework should assess
blockchain-enabled data pipelines
based on their ability to provide
visibility in the ows of secondary
raw materials.
Rukanova et al. (2021a, 2021b)
FRQ.11 The CE visibility evaluation
framework should assess
blockchain-enabled data pipeline
solutions based on their ability to
enforce compliance at national
borders.
Rukanova et al. (2021a, 2021b)
FRQ.12 The CE visibility evaluation
framework should highlight the
need to work towards blockchain
interoperability.
Hardjono et al. (2020); Monika &
Bhatia (2020); Schulte et al.
(2019); Jin, Dai, & Xiao (2018)
FRQ.13 The CE visibility evaluation
framework should guide the
monitoring actors to identify the
ecosystem of blockchain-based
data pipelines.
FRQ.14 The CE visibility evaluation
framework should reap the benets
of available CE information tools.
Table 2 (continued )
Code Description Key related references
NFRQ.1 The CE visibility evaluation
framework should be able to
illustrate the visibility offered by
the blockchain-enabled data
pipeline solutions in a simple way.
Usability, derived from Design
Science Research Domain.
NFRQ.2 The CE visibility evaluation
framework should contain
standardized terminology.
Usability, derived from Design
Science Research Domain.
NFRQ.3 The CE visibility evaluation
framework should illustrate the
extent to which a blockchain-based
data pipeline serves CE purposes.
Supportability, derived from
Design Science Research Domain.
A. Kofos et al.
Journal of Responsible Technology 10 (2022) 100026
5
for relevance (Hevner, 2007). The consecutive activities described by
the MFDSR methodology are to explicate problem, dene requirements,
design and develop artifact, demonstrate artifact, and evaluate artifact
(Johannesson & Perjons, 2014).
For the explication of the problem a literature review was conducted
on the main concepts of data pipelines, circular economy, blockchain
technologies, and supply chain visibility (Doyle, Sammon & Neville,
2016; Hevner, March, Park & Ram, 2004; Peffers, Tuunanen, Roth-
enberger & Chatterjee, 2007). The ndings of the literature review were
presented in section 1 to introduce the knowledge gap of lacking visi-
bility in CE ows and in Section 2 to present how data pipelines and
blockchain technologies can provide the building blocks for the solution
space to address the lack of visibility.
The next research activity was the elicitation of the requirements for
the CE visibility evaluation framework. A requirement is dened as a
feature of an artifact perceived as desirable by the stakeholders, which
can be used for driving the development efforts(Johannesson & Per-
jons, 2014, p. 103). Requirements can be classied into functional (FRQ)
and non-functional (NFRQ) requirements.
The functional requirements are the functions that an artifact should
provide and relies on both the problem at hand and the stakeholders
needs (Johannesson & Perjons, 2014). In this case, the functional re-
quirements refer to the information needed to be included in a
blockchain-enabled data pipeline that can be used as a CE monitoring
system.
In contrast, the non-functional requirements refer to general condi-
tions and properties, such as usability and supportability of the frame-
work (Johannesson & Perjons, 2014). The sources for the requirements
elicitation activity were academic literature on the core concepts of CE,
supply chain visibility, and CE policy instruments. In addition literature
on information tools that can be used to enhance CE visibility and to
incentivize businesses to abandon the linear cradle-to-graveeconomic
model was analyzed. In Table 2 an overview of the requirements iden-
tied for the development of the CE visibility evaluation framework is
presented including the key sources that were used to dene them.
In the next research activity of design and develop artifact, the re-
quirements were used to develop an initial version of the evaluation
framework. Designing the artifact requires decisions regarding its
structure and design choices (Johannesson & Perjons, 2014; Peffers
et al., 2007). A literature overview on reverse logistics and the concept
of a closed-loop supply chain was used to visualize the data needed to
monitor circularity. The review led to the identication of the major
phases of the materials life cycle: materials sourcing, product design,
manufacturing, sales, consumption and use, collection & disposal and
nally, recycling & recovering. In addition, based on Francis (2008) the
supply chain entities ingredients, item, package, lading asset, and vehicle
were added as they represent the physical objects that transit through
the supply chain (see Fig. 1). Having data on the materials life cycle
phases and the supply chain entities are both crucial for CE monitoring.
Therefore, these two elements were combined into the rst building
block for the framework as visualized in Fig. 2.
Next, in the design and development artifact activity the connection to
the empirical data for relevance was made (Hevner et al., 2004). Three
empirical use cases of extant blockchain-enabled information systems in
international logistics were used to iteratively extend the framework.
The analysis of these systems yielded empirical insights into the path
that materials or products follow from materials sourcing to consump-
tion and during the reuse disposition phase. The chosen uses cases were
TradeLens, FoodTrust, and Vinturas.
6
The rst iteration focused on TradeLens, a blockchain-enabled
container shipping platform that equips the CE monitoring actors with
visibility in cargo ows from source to destination. To offer such visi-
bility, it captures shipment events (e.g., loading a lading asset onto a
vessel) and documents (e.g., the bill of lading and packing list). The
platform played an essential role in the design phase. In the basic CE
visibility framework, it can be noticed that different supply chains are
involved in the CE context. That is to say, various shipments of materials
or products between a seller and a buyer can emerge, such as the ship-
ment of raw materials from a supplier to a manufacturer. The analysis of
TradeLens proved that every shipment can be monitored by having
container-level visibility.
The second iteration rened the evaluation framework by studying
FoodTrust, a blockchain-enabled platform aimed at transparency and
trust in the food system by equipping consumers with rich information
about the provenance of food. FoodTrust is a global food network con-
sisting of various businesses interested in reaping the benets of the
platform. Among its rst adopters was Carrefour, a French multinational
retail company. The company puts data of a plethora of food products,
Fig. 2. First building block for the CE visibility evaluation framework: the materials ow.
6
The research was conducted in the period January- July 2021 and the
analysis of the platforms was based on the status of these platforms at that time.
Therefore the results need to be interpreted with this in mind, as it is possible
that the platforms and their business models evolve over time which may
change the CE visibility aspects they are able to cover. If such changes occur,
the framework would need to be applied again to identify the new status.
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Journal of Responsible Technology 10 (2022) 100026
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including tomatoes, citrus fruits, infant milk, and mashed potato on the
blockchain-enabled platform. For this study, the case of organic textile
was analyzed, the rst non-food product that Carrefour entered into the
blockchain-based platform. The organic textile case illustrated that data
on the phases of materials sourcing and product design requires visi-
bility on the level of ingredients. Whereas item-level visibility is needed
to monitor the CE processes between the phases of product design and
sales.
In the third iteration Vinturas, a blockchain-enabled platform initi-
ated by a consortium of European logistics service providers that operate
in the supply chain of nished vehicles, was analysed. Vinturas offers
visibility in the journey of vehicles from production to dealer as well as
the transportation element of the remarketing of second-hand vehicles.
The latter aspect is of great importance for CE monitoring since
remarketing resembles the reuse disposition option, where products are
directly resold after collection without further processing. Unlike the
container-level visibility offered by TradeLens, Vinturas covers the
transportation of products (e.g., vehicles) by truck. The unique data
provided by the Vinturas platform pointed out that both vehicle- and
item-level visibility is required in the transportation of nished products
in the CE context.
Each iteration produced an extended version of the CE visibility
evaluation framework. The case-specic adaptations and extensions of
the framework based on the three cases are presented in Annex 1. The
nal framework is presented and discussed in Section 4.
The last research activity of demonstration and evaluation of the arti-
fact consisted of two parts. First, an expert evaluation was performed to
evaluate whether the framework design complies with the requirements
that were dened in the requirements elicitation activity. These experts
were interviewed during the framework development process. They
conrmed the match between the requirements and the framework
design. However, they also suggested more research into the product
design phase. In the conclusion section this suggestion is elaborated on.
Next, an evaluation was conducted to assess the potential of the
artifact for actually monitoring CE ows (Doyle et al., 2016; Johan-
nesson & Perjons, 2014; Peffers et al., 2007). The evaluation took place
Fig. 3. The CE visibility evaluation framework.
A. Kofos et al.
Journal of Responsible Technology 10 (2022) 100026
7
in the format of a workshop in which a broad set of stakeholders was
involved. These stakeholders were representatives from the Customs
Administration of the Netherlands, the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure
and Water Management and the IT technology provider IBM involved in
the development of blockchain-enabled platforms. The goal of the
workshop was to elicit feedback about the usefulness of the framework
for CE monitoring for governmental organizations, as well as for tech-
nology providers to further develop visibility solutions. A reection on
the ndings from the demonstration and evaluation of the artifact activity
is presented in the discussion section. The next section contains the nal
version of the framework that was developed based on the design steps
presented above.
4. The CE visibility evaluation framework
The CE visibility evaluation framework that was the outcome of the
DSR approach is illustrated in Fig. 3. The framework can serve as a
support tool for actors, such as government authorities, banks and
auditing rms to evaluate extant and future blockchain-enabled infor-
mation systems on their ability for CE monitoring. The framework can
also help technology providers to identify opportunities for expanding
their visibility solutions to cover more elements required for CE visi-
bility and monitoring. The framework consists of three layers. A detailed
description of each layer is provided below.
The rst layer refers to CE visibility. It describes the aspects of a
product lifecycle needed to be covered by blockchain-enabled infor-
mation systems to act as monitoring systems for CE purposes. The
product lifecycle starts with the sourcing of raw materials where ma-
terials are mined or crops are cultivated to become nal products
through manufacturing. In between these processes, product design is
involved. Product design expresses the design principles adopted in the
engineering of products. CE sets design principles to manufacturers,
dictating the development of durable, repairable, maintainable, recy-
clable, upgradable, dismountable, less-resource intensive (e.g., low use
of fossil fuels), and non-hazardous products (e.g., free of toxic sub-
stances). Upon manufacturing, nal products are transported to retailers
to be sold to end-consumers or users.
In the CE context, when products are no longer useful or desirable,
they can be reintroduced to the market through value retention strate-
gies. The framework depicts two such strategies: reuse and remanufac-
ture. The collection and disposal phase decides the best strategy for the
products. If the products do not require further processing, they can be
directly resold through a reuse strategy. Alternatively, products can be
recycled to enter the raw-material procurement phase. Between each
process, the framework shows a transport leg, visualizing the movement
of products or materials from one location to another by vessel, truck, or
train.
The rst layer also illustrates the different supply chain entities
involved in the CE context. Building on Francis (2008), a supply chain
entity is dened as any physical object that transits the supply chain and
takes one of the forms suggested by the following hierarchy:
Ingredient: raw materials used to produce a product;
Item: a nal product;
Package: a form of packaging for the item, such as carton;
Lading asset: a standardized form of unitizing cargoes, such as a
container;
Vehicle: transport means, such as truck and vessel.
The gray rectangles express the level of visibility required in every
stage of the supply chain. For instance, in the production stage visibility
on item-level is needed. Moreover, the rst layer acts as an evaluation
layer enabling the visualization of the visibility (e.g., ingredient, item,
package, lading asset, and vehicle) and the parts of the supply chain
covered by the examined information infrastructures. That is to say, the
CE monitoring actors can use this layer to map a blockchain-enabled
information system to see the extent to which they provide the
required information for the enforcement of compliance with their CE
policy instruments.
The rst layer also shows the segments currently covered by
TradeLens, FoodTrust, and Vinturas. It can be noticed that none of them
covers the closed supply chain, so a combination of them is required to
do so. This aspect emphasizes the need to work towards developing
blockchain-enabled platforms that are interoperable with each other. In
such a way, data from one platform can be connected to the data of
another platform for supplementary information. Furthermore, it can be
observed that they do not offer visibility on the journey of products from
consumption to recycling and subsequently their reintroduction to the
market as raw materials. In other words, they do not cover the second
product lifecycle. Only Vinturas does cover the reuse disposition option
for vehicles.
The second layer shows the type of information needed to be
accessed by the CE monitoring actors to reach a conclusion about the
potential of a blockchain-enabled information system to monitor the
ows of materials and products in the CE context. Building on Francis
(2008), they need to access data related to the identity (an identication
number), location (the specic position), status (the state), events
(changes on the status or the location), and condition (the situation) of
the supply chain entities. Furthermore, they need to examine the
ecosystem of the infrastructures and their participants. Such insight can
facilitate the identication of the sources of the required information.
Moreover, in case of any anomalies or frauds concerning the materials
ows, they would be able to pinpoint the responsible parties and take
corrective actions.
The third layer demonstrates four information tools that can offer
valuable insights about the materials or products. Product labeling and
EU-driven databases (e.g., EPREL and REACH) can convey information
regarding the product design. Product passports are databases that
contain information about components and materials of a product, and
how they can be disassembled and recycled at the end of the lifecycle.
The Harmonized Commodity Description and Coding System (HS) is a
nomenclature that facilitates the assignment and collection of import
duties and taxes by the customs. HS categorizes all physical goods
crossing national borders to a class in a uniform and globally accepted
way. Apart from dening the import duties, it facilitates the establish-
ment of legal measures and requirements regarding the products being
imported. As such, the HS codes can play an essential role in CE
compliance at national borders by enforcing documentation re-
quirements to importers.
The different levels of the framework as described above allow
conducting a systematic analysis of available blockchain-enabled plat-
forms and the available level of CE visibility that they offer.
5. Illustrative examples
While it is not feasible here to go into detail in the information
provided in all the platforms that were analyzed (some further infor-
mation on the type of information captured is available in Annex 1), an
illustrative example to explain the framework is provided.
First of all, it is clear that the platforms that were analyzed in their
current form are largely covering independent streams (e.g., food and
cars). There is no immediate value in linking the specic information on
a specic supply chain at the moment. However, on a higher level of
abstraction, our framework shows that these platforms in principle can
provide a complementary level of visibility.
To illustrate: the basic functionality that is offered by FoodTrust may
be also used for other types of products. IBM offers Blockchain Trans-
parent Supply (BTS) which is a blockchain-based platform that enables
companies to design their own data-sharing ecosystem.
7
This allows
7
https://www.ibm.com/downloads/cas/BKQDK0M2
A. Kofos et al.
Journal of Responsible Technology 10 (2022) 100026
8
companies to dene their ecosystem and set up visibility solutions of-
fering similar visibility as in FoodTrust. Hence, it will be possible to
capture information about the sourcing of materials, the parties
involved in the different steps of the process, as well as certications
obtained.
For example, for organic cotton one can include a certicate proving
that the cotton is organic and not genetically modied, when the cotton
is made into fabric and the fabric is colored. Other certicates such as
the OEKO-TEX standard certicate can be used to guarantee the absence
of dangerous chemicals, the safety, and the quality of the fabric. Such
information that conrms the absence of dangerous chemicals in prod-
ucts is very useful for government actors who control and monitor the
CE ows of goods, e.g., customs, as well as inspection agencies.
Furthermore, for customs and for dening import duties there will be
more and more differentiation on the materials used in products and
what import duties correspond (e.g., different import duties for recycled
plastics), and whether or not certicates will be required. Therefore,
such a level of visibility will be benecial for monitoring purposes. In-
formation about dangerous substances is also useful if the textile is later
on reused or recycled in other products. Therefore, this level of visibility
will be useful also for business actors acting in the next phase of the
circular process.
While the visibility offered by platforms like FoodTrust or BTS is
essential when it comes to item-level tracking, when goods travel they
are packed in boxes, pallets, containers and subsequently loaded on
ships and cross borders. In the logistic process, monitoring actors like
customs need to make decisions and conduct risk analysis without
having access to the item itself. Therefore, platforms like TradeLens offer
additional benets. As indicated in the framework, TradeLens provides
visibility on a container level (lading asset). The use of smart devices on
a container (such as an IoT sensor) can capture additional assurances
that for example the container has not been tampered with during
transport. The trail of assurances from the item level to the container
level and back allows for monitoring CE ows and gaining visibility and
assurances. Even when the monitoring actors are not in direct contact
with the items themselves.
The evaluation framework demonstrates that none of the three
blockchain platforms that were examined was able to provide full CE
visibility. Achieving such visibility will be a required but challenging
task. The evaluation framework allows to open the black box of CE
visibility and to explicit information aspects that can be covered to
enable CE monitoring from the raw material to recycling. Extant plat-
forms offer partial visibility and hold the potential to extend their
functionality by establishing collaborative arrangements (assuming the
proper incentives are in place) with other platforms and stakeholders to
enable such CE visibility.
6. Discussion
The objective of the research project was to develop a CE visibility
evaluation framework for blockchain-enabled digital infrastructures.
The framework is intended to on the one hand help CE monitoring actors
to evaluate available CE visibility solutions and the visibility that they
provide for CE monitoring purposes. On the other hand, it aims to enable
IT providers to evaluate which aspects their extant blockchain-enabled
platforms already cover, and to assess which are the missing pieces
that need to be developed to enable further CE visibility and monitoring.
To develop the framework, the Method Framework for Design Science
Research was followed, which explicated the steps needed to produce a
novel artifact. By executing several activities, the nal CE visibility
evaluation framework was developed, as presented in Section 4.
By deploying a CE visibility solution, the CE monitoring actors can
monitor the ows of materials and products, ensure the effectiveness of
their policy instruments, and identify potential frauds. It enables them to
stimulate the business actors towards more circular and sustainable
business operations and as such to steer the CE transition.
6.1. Scientic contribution
The concept of a CE is an important topic for policymakers, civil
society, and academic research. The CE concept has been widely dis-
cussed in the literature, starting from the 1960s when the scientic
community engaged in discussions about waste and resource manage-
ment (Zeiss et al., 2020). Nowadays, the CE transition is a well-explored
scientic domain. However, it has been approached from a more tech-
nical perspective, such as studying the appropriate technologies for
recycling plastic.
The research on the deployment of information infrastructures for
accelerating the CE transition is a relatively undiscovered domain (Zeiss
et al., 2020). While even less scientic effort has been devoted to
examining how the information systems that provide visibility in the CE
ows can be used for CE monitoring and governance (Rukanova et al.,
2021a, 2021b). In practice, blockchain-enabled platforms aiming to
provide visibility and to ensure data immutability are being deployed.
Still, many of these platforms are developed with different and other
goals in mind than for CE monitoring purposes. For actors responsible
for implementing CE policies and monitoring of CE it is hard to establish
what these platforms can mean for them and what they have to offer.
This research addresses the knowledge gap presented by Zeiss et al.
(2020) by developing the CE visibility evaluation framework and con-
tributes to advancing the research agenda for better understanding the
use of digital infrastructures for CE monitoring in particular of Ruka-
nova et al. (2021a). The research output is a contribution also to the
broader blockchain scientic community. According to Casino, Dasaklis
and Patsakis (2019), there is a limited number of frameworks that
evaluate blockchain-based infrastructures available in the literature.
Exploring the role of blockchain technology in the CE context is a novel
scientic domain with a small number of available studies (Shojaei
et al., 2021). To the best of our knowledge, the CE visibility evaluation
framework is the rst one that evaluates blockchain-enabled platforms
concerning the CE visibility that they are able to provide.
Another scientic contribution is the concrete evidence provided
about the need to work towards blockchain interoperability to monitor
and enforce CE compliance. The analysis of the three extant blockchain-
enabled platforms highlighted that none of them monitors the full path
of materials and products. Every platform covers parts of the CE ows. It
is also safe to conclude that there is no system available in todays world
that can fully serve CE. A conclusion that emphasizes the imperative
need to enable different blockchain-enabled platforms to communicate
and exchange information (Hardjono et al., 2020; Monika & Bhatia,
2020; Schulte et al., 2019) or at least enable the sharing of information
across platforms. Blockchain interoperability in the context of CE
monitoring is a new scientic area, which is worth exploring further
since it can unleash the potential of both blockchain and business data.
Additionally, CE visibility was dened to expand Franciss denition
of supply chain visibility. Francis denes supply chain visibility as the
identity, location, and status of entities moving in the supply chain, captured
in timely messages about events, along with the planned and actual dates/
times for these events(Francis, 2008, p. 182). In the CE context, this
denition needs to be expanded by pointing out the need to have
additional insights into the condition of entities moving in the supply
chain. Condition plays a central role in deciding the suitable value
retention strategy (e.g., recycling) for a product after consumption.
Damages, changes in chemical composition, or other alterations may
A. Kofos et al.
Journal of Responsible Technology 10 (2022) 100026
9
affect the potential of a product for recycling or direct reuse (Jayara-
man, Ross & Agarwal, 2008; NEN, 2007). Therefore, information sys-
tems should also monitor the aspect of condition.
The evaluation framework also suggests that the supply chain entity
hierarchy, as described by Francis, should be expanded since CE also
involves the movement of raw materials (ingredients). The use of the
extended hierarchy claried the level of visibility needed for CE
compliance. In addition, CE monitoring actors need insight into the in-
gredients, items, packages, lading assets, and vehicles transiting the
supply chain.
Finally, it was noticed that CE includes several different supply
chains, with different actors involved. That is to say, materials or
products can be transported in every CE stage, such as from materials
sourcing to production and from collection and disposal to recycling.
Further research is needed since monitoring the CE ows requires visi-
bility in every distinct supply chain.
6.2. Societal contribution
The framework helps the actors (e.g., policymakers, banks) that have
launched policy instruments to promote the transition to CE to fulll
their goals. The CE transition cannot be realized without the active
involvement of these actors, both actors drafting the policies, as well as
actors such as customs and inspection agencies who monitor the
enforcement of CE instruments.
The modern world has been designed to be linear. The linear business
model has been established as a protable way to carry out business.
Indicatively, the global economy was nine percent circular, in 2019
(Hartley, van Santen & Kirchherr, 2020). A shift in that mindset requires
an external force and policy instruments (e.g., regulations and nancial
instruments such as taxes or subsidies) can play a steering role. How-
ever, such instruments are prone to manipulations when the stakes are
high. For that reason, the CE monitoring actors need a monitoring sys-
tem, which can prevent greenwashing: false claims regarding the
circularity of products for business benets.
The evaluation framework enables monitoring actors to evaluate
blockchain-based information systems on the level of CE visibility that
they cover. It also contributes to IT development for CE purposes by
explicating what type of information is needed to be included in infor-
mation systems to be used to enhance CE visibility. More specically, it
supports that such systems need to cover the identity, location, status,
events, and condition of the supply chain entities.
Moreover, the framework shows the black boxes: the parts of the CE
ows that are not (yet) covered by extant blockchain-based applications.
IT developers can use this nding to develop new information systems or
improve the existing ones towards providing support to the CE
transition.
7. Conclusion
The research on the deployment of digital technologies for sup-
porting CE is considered relatively scarce (Zeiss et al., 2020), and even
less attention is paid to how digital technologies can enhance CE visi-
bility for CE monitoring and governance purposes (Rukanova et al.,
2021a, 2021b). Therefore, the primary objective of the research was to
explore the potential of digital innovations to achieve end-to-end supply
chain visibility and support the implementation of CE initiatives, where
our main focus was to further focus on the use of CE visibility in-
frastructures for CE monitoring purposes.
In this paper, using the design science research method and by
investigating three blockchain-enabled platforms a CE visibility evalu-
ation framework was developed. The framework aims to be a support
tool to assist policymakers, customs authorities, or other actors inter-
ested in CE monitoring (e.g., banks and auditing rms) with gaining the
visibility needed for better monitoring CE ows. The evaluation
framework can be used by these agents to assess the potential of
blockchain-based data pipelines to be deployed as CE monitoring
systems.
Whereas many blockchain-enabled platforms are currently being
developed or are in operation, it is hard for one single platform to cover
the visibility needed for CE monitoring purposes. To achieve CE visi-
bility some form of blockchain interoperability or at least some light-
weight solution for accessing data available from these platforms and
their related ecosystems will be required. This raises governance issues
such as how data can be accessed via the different platforms, how
identity and access rights can be secured, issues related to incentives for
businesses to share data for CE monitoring purposes, as well as issues
related to standards and blockchain interoperability.
The current research also has several limitations offering rich
grounds for further research.
First of all, our framework builds and expands on data pipeline
research, which has a strong focus on logistics processes and movements
of goods across borders. Further research can take a different starting
point, e.g., the production process and the visibility offered around the
production process. Another perspective can bring additional insights to
enrich the framework.
Second, as noted in the expert evaluation, the framework did not
zoom into the design stage. As product circularity is increasingly
incorporated into the design stage of a product, implications for visi-
bility for the later stages in the process are a relevant direction for
further research.
Third, the study focused on issues of visibility from the production
process to the recycling phase. The issue of how many loops of materials
need to be followed for CE monitoring was not addressed. Neither were
the conditions under which one traceability process can be completed
and a completely new one can start. A topic that raises questions on
whether there are sufcient assurances that the secondary raw materials
are of such sufcient quality that there is no need for tracing these
further to earlier loops and vice versa.
Finally, the research was predominantly focused on digital in-
frastructures. Internet of things (IoT) and Physical Internet (PI) allow
opportunities for sensors and devices to generate data that is relevant for
CE monitoring purposes. Future research can target the relationship
between blockchain-based digital infrastructures, IoT and PI. Address-
ing these questions can advance insights on CE visibility for monitoring
purposes and the possibilities of digital infrastructures to support these.
Declaration of Competing Interest
To the best of our knowledge the authors are not aware of any
conict of interest.
Acknowledgments
This research was partially funded by the PEN-CP (nr. 786773)
project, which is funded by the European Unions Horizon 2020 research
and innovation program. Ideas and opinions expressed by the authors do
not necessarily represent those of all partners.
Annex 1
The CE visibility evaluation framework based on the literature
review conducted on recycling
Fig. A.1
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Fig. A.1. The CE visibility evaluation framework based on the literature review conducted on recycling.
A. Kofos et al.
Journal of Responsible Technology 10 (2022) 100026
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The CE visibility evaluation framework based on TradeLens
Fig. A.2
Fig. A.2. The CE visibility evaluation framework based on TradeLens.
A. Kofos et al.
Journal of Responsible Technology 10 (2022) 100026
12
The CE visibility evaluation framework based on FoodTrust
Fig. A.3
Fig. A.3. The CE visibility evaluation framework based on FoodTrust.
A. Kofos et al.
Journal of Responsible Technology 10 (2022) 100026
13
The CE visibility evaluation framework based on Vinturas
Fig. A.4
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