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The Circular Economy, solution for a Sustainable Territorial Development, Indian Journal of Regional Science, LIII, 1, 15 – 28.



Circular economy aims to break with linearity through a new organization of industrial society and its flows, based on circularity. In this approach the environmental question becomes an opportunity for economic development rather than a constraint. This notion tends to replace the concept of sustainable development but has a similar objective. This study finds that the territory can be considered as a relevant scale to consider the circularity of the economy, due to the geographical proximity of the actors involved, the local environmental problems to be solved, and the economic and social benefits to be expected. However, some strategies will contribute to the sustainable development of the territories, while others, such as recycling, can cause, locally, interesting environmental, economic or social benefits, while creating negative rebounds in other jurisdictions.This study sketches a convergence between CE approaches and territorial analyses: while CE gradually takes on the spatial, then territorial question, parallel territorial analyses are increasingly interested in circular dimensions. This raises the question of the potential for territorial innovation to shift towards strong sustainability.
JUNE 2021
JUNE 2021
André Torreand Sabrina Dermine-Brullot∗∗
Circular economy aims to break with linearity through a new organization of industrial
society and its ows, based on circularity. In this approach the environmental question
becomes an opportunity for economic development rather than a constraint. This notion
tends to replace the concept of sustainable development but has a similar objective.
This study nds that the territory can be considered as a relevant scale to consider the
circularity of the economy, due to the geographical proximity of the actors involved, the
local environmental problems to be solved, and the economic and social benets to be
expected. However, some strategies will contribute to the sustainable development of the
territories, while others, such as recycling, can cause, local ly, interesting environmental,
economic or social benets, while creating negative rebounds in other jurisdictions.This
study sketches a convergence between CE approaches and territorial analyses: while CE
gradually takes on the spatial, then territorial question, paral lel territorial analyses are
increasingly interested in circular dimensions. This raises the question of the potential
for territorial innovation to shift towards strong sustainability.
Let’s start with an observation that all scientists agree on today: natural resources are depleting,
the climate is changing and warming, pollution caused by human activities accumulates and harms
natural ecosystems as well as the services they can provide. At the same time, social and economic
inequalities between or within territories are growing, while concerns about the well-being of present
and future populations are gradually emerging all Regions and States, even the most prosperous
(MEA, 2005; CPI, 2019)
The eects of these global and complex changes are spreading, often because of the economic
and political choices made over several decades to combat them. A paradox? No, because
economic growth, globalization and technological innovation, which are the main ingredients of
the administered policies, are also at the origin of the current situation and continue to feed it, in
particular, through linear production processes. The search for growth leads to an increase in the
number and quantity of goods produced and is based on a growing incentive to consume them. This
strategy has considerably changed the habits of the populations worldwide, towards the purchase
of disposable goods with a limited lifespan that are thrown away when their function is no longer
fullled. Thus, productive systems are increasingly generating waste and polluting substances,
especially as the linear organization of the industrial system leads to the ever-increasing taking of
natural and energy resources, incompatible with the physical limits of the biosphere.
Dierent scientic streams of research that have emerged over the past 50 years have raised
questions about the questions of reconciling economic growth and development, preservation of the
Professor, French National Institute for Agriculture, Food and Environment (INRAE), France INRA, AgroParis-
tech, Université Paris-Saclay. E-mail:
∗∗University of Technology of Troyes, France, ICD-CREIDD. E-mail:
16 Indian Journal of Regional Science Vol. LIII, No. 1, 2021
environment and social well-being. They include environmental economics (CROPPER and OATES,
1992), political ecology (PAULSON et al., 2003), ecological economics (VAN DEN BERGH, 2001),
industrial ecology (FROSCH and GALLOPOULOS, 1989) and circular economy (BOULDING,
1966). These approaches, often competing on the borders of the scientic and socio-political worlds,
inuence many international, national and local public policies, and aim to translate the major
challenges of the sustainable development of society locally, in a concrete and operational way.
But their territorial or spatial anchoring asks questions. While all agree on the recognition of
the complexity of the problem and on the need to adopt a systemic vision, the translation into
local actions is not obvious. Words and fashions follow one another. After a long concern about
sustainable development (BRUNDTLAND, 1987), the notions of ecological and social transition of
the economy or circular economy are often used now (MACARTHUR, 2015). They both rely on
technological innovation, whereas sustainable development has failed in public policy due to its lack
of precision and operational rationality. It is sometimes associated now with the trend of decline or
becoming an overused term, from politics to industrial managers.
Circular economy (or green growth), dened by scientists in the 1960s based on the physical
and economic limits of material ows through the industrial system, appears as a response to
this dominant linear model (BOULDING, 1966). As its name suggests, it aims to break with
linearity through a new organization of industrial society and its ows, based on circularity. In
this approach the environmental question becomes an opportunity for economic development rather
than a constraint. This notion tends to replace the concept of sustainable development but has a
similar objective. Through policies carried out from the local to the national areas, it is a question
of striving towards a more sustainable society, physically (what the biosphere can bear in view of
its physical capacities and limits) and morally (how far we are prepared to go in order to meet our
Yet circular economy (CE) strategies are ambiguous. Advocating operational methods of
breaking up linear processes, they are based in fact and above all on technological innovations,
without questioning the dominant economic model based on the economic and production
globalization, and mass consumption. Moreover, the spatial and territorial dimension remains
in question, while circularity must be operationalized in the territories. Recycling strategies, for
example, implementing energy ows, require a certain geographical proximity between the producer
and the consumer, for obvious technical reasons. But in the other cases, the principle of locality
is rarely sought, which can be a problem from an environmental point of view. The long distance
ows, in response to market logic, generate signicant greenhouse gas emissions. Moreover, the
relocation of recycling in the places less costly to install treatment units makes the impacts of these
processes invisible to producers, and therefore ultimately acceptable through ignorance or blindness.
In this raising tension-to achieve the overall objectives of sustainability of the industrial society
without slowing down its growth-what is the place of the territorial variable? Is the economic
development grounded at the territorial and not at the global level an emerging solution? Can
circularity contribute or oppose this territorialisation of the economy?
The aim of this article is to discuss the territorial dimension of the CE and its sustainability,
through three sections. First of all, we present the notion of territorial development and ask questions
about its poor consideration of the environmental dimensions, and by extension, of its possibly weak
sustainable character. Secondly, we present the circular economy approaches and show how they are
more and more interested in local dimensions. Noting the similarities and the nascent hybridization
of the two analytical streams, we question the validity of a circular approach at the level of the
territories, and especially its virtuous character. We eventually ask the question of the conditions
for a sustainable territorial development.
The Circular Economy, Solution for a Sustainable Territorial Development 17
Pioneers of Territorial Development: The Productive Dimension
The benchmarks for an analysis of territorial development were set in the 1980s, with researches
focusing on local dimensions, production processes, and then on innovation and technology. This
is particularly true of local productive systems analyses. In a rst phase appeared the approach of
industrial districts (BRUSCO, 1982), local groupings of people and competitive rms on the world
market despite their (very) small size, inspired by MARSHALL’s analysis (1919).
This approach has rapidly expanded to other types of localized groups of producer, involving
R and D laboratories and rms of dierent sizes, not always belonging to the same sector
(MARKUSEN, 1996). The approaches of local milieus and productive systems have thus placed
the emphasis on a more generic model, focused on formal relations and exchanges, in which the
production of knowledge is essential for territorial development (MAILLAT, 1995). The enterprises,
linked by cooperative relations, share complementary activities within a specialised group, often
marked by a strong technological dimension.
Finally, PORTER (1985, 2003) imposed the canonical terms and concepts of clusters, regrouping
of rms and laboratories working in related industries, in geographical proximity, and whose
technological and knowledge interactions increase performance, competitiveness and the level of
innovation. This approach quickly went beyond the origin eld of management to extend to
systems less focused on high-tech activities or lower performance (GIULIANI AND BELL, 2005),
and then became a tool for local or national development policies (OECD, 2001). Then ourished
the approaches in terms of technopoles, competitiveness poles, science parks, business clusters, etc.
The idea then arised that development is linked to innovation or creation processes, which
generate transformations of production systems and lead to the spatial concentration of people
and wealth. Endogenous innovations, R and D expenditures or incentives to innovate play an
important role in the implementation and success of growth dynamics, the transfer and dissemination
of innovations at local level (FELDMAN, 1994; AUTANT-BERNARD et al., 2007), face-to-face
relationships and spin-o phases or support for creative eort. Localized spillovers of innovation or
knowledge, which spread within the local system, are seen as the drivers of development.
Governance and Involvement of Local People
More recently, appears the will to take into account all the actors–or stakeholders–of the territories,
with the idea that growth alone cannot suce and that a development process is being piloted and
negotiated, with the need to involve local population in decision-making processes. (LOUGHLIN et
al., 2010) Researches on territorial governance reveal how collaborative and conicting behaviors of
local populations and residential mobilities shape territorial development processes (TORRE and
TRAVERSAC, 2011). The will to go beyond the productive dimensions alone, and to take into
account the opinions of the local populations is important.
Putting the mosaic of stakeholders in the territories and subsequent land-use issues at the
forefront calls for a broadening of research themes, beyond just production and innovation relations.
It is nevertheless important, in the case of territorial development, to analyze the ways in which
people participate in decision-making concerning development projects and their implementation, as
well as the opposition they may arouse, to take into account and study the two drivers of territorial
development: production relations but also governance processes.
It appears that territorial development is not only about increasing, improving or diversifying
production; it also covers other dimensions, such as mental and social changes in populations or
changes in institutional structures (PERROUX, 1964). In order to decide and to control their future,
18 Indian Journal of Regional Science Vol. LIII, No. 1, 2021
the territories have an interest in taking control of their destiny and initiating their own development
projects, which cannot be conceived independently of the processes of public government and
governance. Hence a clear interest in territorial governance issues.
“Good governance”, advocated by the World Bank or the IMF, with its recipes supposed to
guarantee countries or regions competitiveness, is very prescriptive. But the term also applies, in
a totally dierent way, to the coordination of actors, social groups and institutions with a view
to achieving common objectives and participating in decisions, breaking with the pyramidal or
hierarchical approach of government in favor of more exible forms,supposed to be closer to men and
organizations. Networks of economic and social actors are thus considered, with their willingness
and capacity for expertise and innovation (KOOIMAN, 2000), the integration of public-private
partnerships in the denition of development objectives (WETTENHAL, 2003), the participation
of various organizations (associations, companies, NGOs, etc.) in the drafting of laws, rules and
regulations (PIERRE, 2000), or the mechanisms facilitating the involvement of ever more informed
and organized stakeholders in decision-making processes.
Denition of Territorial Development
If the notion of territorial development then slowly emerged, it is because the concept of territory has
gradually found its place, not without resistance sometimes. Beyond its multi-semantic character,
it is adopted primarily today because it refers, rather than to dened boundaries, to organized
relationships, groups or populations(SACK, 1986), Collective productions, resulting from the actions
of a human group, with its citizens, its governance structures and its organization, territories are
not only geographical entities. In permanent construction, they are elaborated by oppositions and
compromises between local and external actors. They are rooted in long term path dependency, with
a history and local concerns rooted in cultures and habits, the perception of a sense of belonging,
as well as specic forms of political authorities, as well as organizational and operational rules.
The term territorial development is rather recent. The authors have long preferred those of
regional or local development, or even of development from below (STOHR and TAYLOR, 1981),
all based on a productive approach, as illustrated by the emblematic case of localized production
systems or clusters. Territorial development, which focuses on rather small geographical areas,
has been imposed by successive enrichments (TORRE, 2019). It denes the improvement of the
wealth and well-being of populations located in a territory, and is based on innovations (technical,
organizational, social and institutional) in production and land use, and on competition and
cooperation between actors, given the initiatives and oppositions of the local populations.
(1) Territorial development processes cannot be reduced to the sole behavior of productive
actors and institutions in charge of development policies, but they involve other territorial
stakeholders: local or territorial authorities, decentralized State services, consular bodies
like chambers of commerce, local governance arrangements and devices, and associations like
(2) Cooperation and social construction processes should be integrated into the analysis of
development processes. Far from being anecdotal, new social and institutional practices are
at the heart of territorial innovation processes, not to mention the willingness of networks
of local actors to steer their own development model, whether they are collective actions or
manifest opposition to the will of States or large corporations;
(3) The contemporary issues of scarcity and competition on land, soil wear and land grabbing of
States in search of fertile land puts the question of space at the heart of development processes
and projects. The introduction of land use issues and the choice of land management methods
thus helps to reconcile the land use approaches with those of regional science.
The Circular Economy, Solution for a Sustainable Territorial Development 19
Thus, in addition to the traditional notion of territorial competitiveness (CAPELLO, 2017), two
other concerns are also raised: attractiveness issues, which highlight the ability to attract not only
productive activities but also tourists or the residential economy, and resilience issues (DAVOUDI,
2014), which must enable the territories to survive, to perpetuate themselves, and to avoid the exit
of populations or of major competences.
The Introduction of Environmental Dimensions
Today, the emergence of the territorial dimension is coupled with an increased interest in
environmental and sustainability issues, traditionally poorly addressed in studies of territorial
development. Global concerns about climate change, biodiversity preservation or energy and
ecological transition nd a local expression. Indeed, while climate change is global in nature, its
consequences in terms of extreme weather events are very local. The inconveniences they cause,
like air pollution, eutrophication of natural environments or pollution of soils and rivers lead to an
increasing awareness of many actors, for which territorial development can only be envisaged by
integrating these environmental and sustainability issues.
Thus, in the face of the social and environmental limits of the major economic models and
the advent of sustainability issues, new ways of analyzing and dening territorial development
actions appear, with a marked concern for environmental or ecological dimensions. These innovative
approaches are based on a strong territorial anchorage and they help to change the vision of
territorial development, by reorienting it towards a stronger link to the dimensions of nature and the
creation of new tools, instruments and devices for its implementation. One talks about sustainable
territorial development whose objective is to respond to these new concerns, and which favors
territorial loops and an explicit use of local material and intangible resources.
This is the case for short proximity channels, with a small number of stages between producers
and consumers and the reference to local consumption, especially agricultural or food, or more
generally food systems based on clusters of circular bio economy. Environmental and ecological
issues are at the heart of the debate, as with the example of methanation. As a non-fossil energy
alternative facing the challenge of growing energy needs, this technology oers a natural treatment
of organic waste, leading to the production of gas that converts to energy (biogas), coming from
the biological decomposition of organic matter and from a digestate that can be used as compost.
Methanation is a farm-based agricultural project, involving local groups of actors, often with a
territorial content based on inputs from dierent industries and linked to more urban dimensions
such as wastewater treatment plants.
These examples fall within the scope of CE which, as explained below, can be considered as
an interesting strategy to engage the ecological and social transition of the territories. Many local
public development policies are structured on this new model, giving rise to concrete actions aimed
at various targets (consumers, rms, local governments). But what is its exact connection with
spatial and territorial dimensions? And above all, does this model really contribute to a more
sustainable territorial development?
The Circular Economy, from Concept to Public Policy
Elaborated during the 1960s, Circular economy is a concept whose application aims at a better
reconciliation of economic growth, environment preservation and social well-being (GREGSON et
al., 2015). Although the spatial dimension is more or less present, it aims to respond locally to
the major challenges of the sustainable development, in a concrete and operational way. Since the
20 Indian Journal of Regional Science Vol. LIII, No. 1, 2021
1990s, the term CE has been used for many international, national and local public policies, instead
of sustainable development (HOBSON et al., 2018). While the Sustainable Development Goals were
clearly stated, the implementation modalities remained unclear, including the scale at which it is
most relevant and eective to act. The term suggests that a compromise is necessary: to develop,
but in a sustainable way. It lacks precision and operational rationality; that of EC, on the other
hand, has the merit of being very explicit on the question of circularity (in opposition to the linearity
of the current economies). It is based on a principle: a loop operation, coupled with a greening of
practices (MACARTHUR, 2015). Reference is made about the economy, and therefore indirectly
and implicitly about growth, in a positive and optimistic way, which makes sense in the minds of
public actors, rms and populations.
In response to the physical and thermodynamic limits of the biosphere, which are imposed
on human societies, CE proposes a new model opposed to the classical linear one. According to
BOULDING (1966), it is necessary to consider the closed “Earth” system as a whole, with its
limited resources and capacities to absorb pollution, in order to rethink the interactions between
the environment and the economy. Man must nd his place in this ecological system, which will
continuously recycle materials using only external energy inputs, namely the sun.
Other authors share this view, such as AYRES, which, together with KNEESE and D’ARGE,
develops a theory to explain the relations between the economy and the environment on the basis
of material balance sheets (KNEESE et al., 1970), then resulting in the concept of industrial
metabolism (SPASH 2013). This relation, also discussed by GEORGESCU-ROEGEN (1979)
in terms of thermodynamics, enables PEARCE and TURNER (1990) to propose a CE model
introducing the concepts of positive or negative amenity, depending on the impact of economic
activity on resource stocks and more generally the environment. It is therefore under the prism of
material and immaterial ows that CE is initially addressed, the objective being to dene a model
and mechanisms of regulations that allow to ensure a form of economic growth within an “Earth”
system with limited biophysical characteristics.
From the 1990s the CE was introduced into many public policies. In Germany, a series of
measures relating to the prevention and recycling of waste led to a law in 2012. This is also the case
in Japan: due to an increase in pollutant emissions and a lack of local resources requiring many
imports, the possibility of a transition to an EC is explored, which means organizing the recycling of
end-of-life materials and structuring supply chains. China introduced the notion of territory as an
institutional perimeter of action, distinguishing and promoting the implementation of EC measures
at three levels: micro (the factory), meso (the ecopark) and macro (the city, the region, the country)
(SHI et al., 2006). The objective is clear: to reconcile rapid economic growth and a more modest
consumption of raw materials and energy, thanks to the circularity of the economy and the ows
(SU and ZHOU, 2005).
In this context EC became institutionalized at European level, in the early 2010’s, with the
creation of the Ellen Mac Arthur Foundation and the publication of a roadmap by the European
Commission (2011). In France, for example, the creation of the Institute of the Circular Economy,
in 2013, consecrates the introduction of the concept in public policies and induces a very rapid
diusion among rms and territories. Considered as a factor of territorial development, able to
generate new activities providing jobs and value, EC could be an innovative solution to territorial
challenges in terms of competitiveness, resilience and the exploitation of specic local resources, or
even the mobilization of actors around territorial governance issues. Finally, EC takes the form of
concrete operational strategies which, even if they dier at the margin in the way they are named
from one country to another, are based on recycling, lengthening the duration of products use
through reuse or repair, responsible consumption, responsible purchasing, economy of functionality,
eco-design and industrial symbioses.
The Circular Economy, Solution for a Sustainable Territorial Development 21
The Progressive Integration of the Spatial, Then Territorial, Question
Spatial or territorial issues are only rarely addressed in EC strategies, with the exception of
industrial symbiosis approaches (KORHONEN, 2001). These approaches describe local systems
where dierent ows of energy, water and materials, such as industrial products, biomass or waste,
are integrated into spatialized loops that allow for the massive reuse of products and residues and
their re-injection into the production process, within small territories. This strategy refers to the
concept of industrial ecology which, for technical and economic questions, only makes sense if the
companies that exchange the ows of materials and energy are geographically close. In order to
transform economic activity as a whole Industrial ecology is inspired by the cyclical nature of the
functioning of natural ecosystems (FROSCH and GALLOPOULOS, 1989). In this sense, it refers to
the notion of locality, and to the analogy with natural ecosystems: the consideration of the «local»
conditions the interaction patterns that are used to consider the transformation of industrial society
into an industrial ecosystem (KORHONEN, 2001). Responses to local problems and constraints are
at stake: the idea is to create new interactions between economic actors, by mobilizing available
local resources. The operation character of industrial ecology therefore only makes sense at the
territorial level, with and for its actors, even if the scope of this territory may vary (BRULLOT,
Thus, industrial ecology is often mobilized by public actors (in France in particular) in order
to conduct policies at the level of their legal and administrative territory, aimed at reducing the
production of waste, to ensure the energy transition or to improve the environmental quality of an
industrialzone. However, the emergence of new public policies is based on public-private partnerships
whose governance rules need to be invented at dierent spatial scales (EHRENFELD, 1997).
The link to the territory and its actors was also introduced by authors (BOONS and HOWARD-
GRENVILLE, 2009) who evoke the notion of social embeddedness. According to them, industrial
symbioses give rise to an embedding of economic and organizational activities at the heart of social
arrangements and processes. Indeed, many studies show that industrial ecology is based above all
on collective action, which requires the intentional collaboration of actors around a common and
shared objective: territorial development (KASMI, 2020). Beyond the compulsory geographical
proximity (TORRE and ZUINDEAU, 2009), it is above all a relational or organized proximity that
characterizes the interactions within a territory, when it is considered as a social construct (BOONS
and BAAS, 1997; HEWES and LYONS, 2008; BOONS and HOWARD-GRANVILLE, 2009). Its
conguration - that is, the role of past and present actors, the stakes they bear, the management
of resources-directly inuences the type of actions implemented, in terms of governance but also of
strategies of ows optimization.
The territorial dimension is at the heart of the industrial symbioses that, by construction, are
spatialized. But the virtues of geographical proximity between the dierent production and/or
consumption units are also often highlighted in the other EC approaches focusing on the relations
between actors of the same territory and the collective management of resources and of waste,
according to a logic reminiscent of that of the local production systems (see part 1 of the paper).
The territorial scale would notably allow to reduce transport costs by facilitating the circulation
of ows, and establish relevant productive partnerships between local enterprises (CHERTOW and
LOMBARDI, 2005) including in the agricultural sector or agri-food.
The other CE approaches have a relation to the territory which results essentially in the fact of
generating (locally or not) positive or negative impacts on the economic, social or environmental
level, for public actors, rms or populations.
22 Indian Journal of Regional Science Vol. LIII, No. 1, 2021
The Benets of the Circular Economy for the Territory(s)
Essentially considered at the level of the enterprises, or even of the value added channels, the
strategies of recycling refer to a very techno-centered approach. The materials to be recycled
can be transported from one end of the planet to the other to be processed and then re-injected
into production processes following a purely economic rationality and in response to regulatory
constraints. However, local labor markets are favored in waste collection and dismantling activities,
which require a large amount of unskilled labor force. Thus, companies developing circular economic
models would be able to generate prots and create jobs where the activities are located.
CE is based on new business models, for example in the case of the economy of functionality.
These “sustainable business models” allow the reduction of costs related to raw materials and the
development of high added value products. Anchored in the territories, they contribute to the
creation of a territorial value by internalizing economic, social and environmental stakes in their
interactions with other actors. Let us think of familial farms that are part of a territorial cooperative
ecosystem involving dierent actors (producers, households, etc.) and adopt, in addition to the
production and sale of vegetable products, a sustainable model of food production, oering to their
customers training to better feed themselves, and reducing waste and food waste.
Methanation, through the transformation of organic waste from agriculture and local communi-
ties in bioenergy and organic fertilizer, is also often presented as a positive example (OECD, 2009).
Based on a strong territorial anchoring, the local loop is part of a logic of developing renewable
energies through the production of biogas, and agricultural fertilization from digestate. It thus con-
tributes to the reduction of diuse pollution (water and soil) and GHG emissions due to chemical
fertilization, as well as to the dynamism of rural areas through the creation of new local enterprises
and jobs.
For local and regional authorities, it also appears a good solution, with the possibility to reduce
public expenditure through the diminution of waste to be managed, and to improve the quality
of life of populations through the reduction of water, air and soil pollution and GHG emissions
(MIRABELLA et al., 2014; NESS, 2008). Finally, the promotion of renewable energies and the
synergies in energy production and consumption are likely to contribute to the struggle against the
energy problems of the most disadvantaged households and to the control of energy.
Questioning the Possible Impacts at Territorial Level
But CE can also cause negative economic and social impacts. Its eects, particularly in terms of
opportunity costs, arerarely studied but they are real, like in neighborhood conicts (SABIR et al.,
2017). For methanation, BOURDIN et al., (2019) report conicts related to the social acceptability
of projects and the rejection of populations in the face of perceived risks. Observations made in
France in crop agricultural areas show that the actions of individual or collective farm methanisers
in order to obtain a source of income linked to the resale of biogas lead farmers to dedicate all
or part of their crop to this activity, to the detriment of local economic ecosystem and historical
cultural practices.
In addition, local loops can be complex to manage. A short food chain focuses on local products
or inputs but can also lead to signicant cost increases due to the necessary logistics associated
with the packaging, storage and sale of the products. This may limit its competitiveness in the face
of mass distribution, which adopts policies aimed at developing responsible product lines (organic
products, local sectors, fair trade).
The implementation of EC approaches in a territory therefore requires knowledge of negative
externalities, in terms of neighborhood conicts, job and value destruction on other sectors of
The Circular Economy, Solution for a Sustainable Territorial Development 23
activity, or environmental impacts. An EC project should necessarily be subject to an overall cost-
benet analysis to highlight its positive and negative territorial impacts (beyond the individual
scale generally chosen for any decision on the deployment of innovative projects). A reduction
in the external dependence of territories in terms of primary materials and energy could open up
the possibility for local actors to re-appropriate their development choices (TORRE, 2019) and
to prevent against the rising of commodity prices (MACARTHUR, 2015). Provided they avoid
rebounding eects, they could become more attractive and resilient, and avoid the exit of local
people and skills.
As a result, EC approaches are ourishing and proving attractive in their ability to combine
environmental and territorial dimensions. But they hardly become a model because they raise
many questions. In particular, is it possible to resist the eects of competition and to set up local
loop operating arrangements that are not aected by the external world and have no negative impact
at territorial level? There is also the question of whether shorter supply chains and the willingness to
provide local supplies can counteract the rationalization of costs based on long distances transport
of commodities, or whether the impacts in terms of conicts, loss of biodiversity or soil quality can
call into question the virtuous character of this model.
What Sustainability for Territorial Development?
EC’s approaches, taken in isolation, appear to address environmental issues and, under certain
conditions, can contribute to the economic development of the territories. But a more systemic
analysis of the solutions adopted reveals the emergence of rebounding eects far beyond the territory
and signicant in environmental, economic and social terms. It then raises the question of the
validity of a circular approach at the territorial level, and especially of its virtuous character, because
of the more or less controlled external eects, local or global, as well as the impacts on growth.
Moreover, one can question the real degree of sustainability of this strategy when applied at the
level of a territory and not in a global way.
Indeed, the issue of territory is at the heart of some EC’s strategies—which are based on
geographical proximity and the organization of local actors-to address environmental and social
issues while generating new resources. The benets oered by the territories are essential conditions
for their development. Some strategies only make sense because they involve geographically close
actors, such as energy recovery, which requires geographical proximity between the transformation
of waste into energy and its consumption. These strategies have become the spearhead of public
policies aimed at contributing to the development of territories and responding to climate change.
In view of the potential problems they may create, it is important to examine their degree of
sustainability at the territorial level. Does CE make it possible to contribute in a sustainable way
to territorial development? Under what conditions?On what scale is it ecient? Are we talking
about strong or weak sustainability?
While strong sustainability presupposes a non-substitution between natural capital and products
resulting from technological innovations, low sustainability considers that built capital can replace
natural capital and that negative externalities generated by economic activities can be oset by
technological innovation and economic growth (EKINS et al., 2003). An analysis of how EC’s
strategies are implemented, and their direct and indirect environmental, economic and social
impacts, shows that the majority of policies respond to low sustainability objectives.
24 Indian Journal of Regional Science Vol. LIII, No. 1, 2021
Circular Economy and Sustainable Territorial Development
The territorial component has remained poorly investigated in approaches to sustainable develop-
ment, because the very globalizing and general vision prohibits any serious spatial approach. The
schematic representation of sustainable development by the three environmental, economic and so-
cial pillars leaves little room for the spatial dimension, and this <managerial> rhetoric is nally
quite far from the initial denition from the BRUNDTLAND report (1987), which refers to “a mode
of development that meets the needs of present generations without compromising the ability of fu-
ture generations to meet their own needs”. Intergenerational equity does not appear in the denition
of sustainable development and it induces strategic orientations of companies whose environmental,
social and economic benets are very centered on the latter dimension, without obligation to put
in perspective with more global stakes. Yet the formula <think global, act local>, used by René
DUBOS at the rst Summit on the Environment in 1972, provides a spatial dimension to this ap-
proach. But it struggles to nd its way into the strategies of economic and public actors, often
reduced to the legal-administrative scope over which the actor’s competence or power is exercised,
at a time when sustainable development issues generally cross borders.
On the other hand, it is clear that environmental questions, resource scarcity and sustainability
issues are rarely addressed, with rare exceptions, in territorial development issues. The authors
prefer to focus on productive aspects, most often in a very linear way, even if this choice is rarely
explicit, or to address governance or negotiation issues at the local level. The environmental
dimension is then most often relegated to a context condition, which largely exceeds local issues, or,
on the contrary, reduced to the problems of (diculties of) development in rather peripheral areas
such as nature parks or protected areas.
Towards a Sustainable Territorial Development
The circular processes described above cannot be reduced to the behavior of productive actors and
institutions in charge of development policies; they extend to other stakeholders in territories such
as local or territorial authorities, decentralized State services, consular bodies, local governance
mechanisms (PNR, Countries, etc.) and associations. They require consideration of the dimensions
of cooperation and social construction as well as the willingness of networks of local actors to pilot
their own development model.
It is also crucial to integrate the issues of land scarcity, land grabbing and land competition, as
well as land degradation and land occupation at the heart of development processes and projects.
Indeed, the availability of soils is not innite, whether it is the overall volume available, or the
quality of these soils to give rise to agricultural activities for example. The waterproong and the
articialization of the soils resulting from the excess of construction and the urban sprawl puts the
territories at risk. On the one hand, the available soil stock is rapidly declining. On the other hand,
the quality of available land is deteriorating strongly due to the massive addition of fertilizers and
plant protection. The result is the depletion of the land resource, which poses a fatal risk to the
sustainability of the territories.
It should also be noted that these virtuous systems are not founded solely on technical relations.
They are also based on elements that relate more to social and organizational dimensions such as
trust between actors, the sharing of values between partners, sophisticated modes of coordination
and organization and strong geographical proximity, which allows the loopback of ows at the local
level. If one adds the related variety of technologies, which combines both a diversication of
objects and compatibility of techniques and productions, one cannot help but draw a parallel with
the notion of clusters (or local production system) (TORRE, 2014). In particular, it highlights the
The Circular Economy, Solution for a Sustainable Territorial Development 25
interdependencies an interactions in a territory (for example, between the actors of production and
recycling), as well as the predominance of the local dimension.
While the approaches to the circular economy remain fragmentary, and often conned to specic
and circumscribed cases, they shed light on the most salient features of sustainability at the local
level and its expressions: innovation, wealth creation, reduction of the environmental footprint,
specic governance, attractiveness and resilience… We can add: virtuous land use, reduction of social
inequalities and improvement of well-being, which allows us to provide a denition of sustainable
territorial development based on the basic characteristics of territorial development and integrating
sustainability issues.
Indeed, in our opinion, sustainable territorial development aims, through innovative processes of
production, consumption and land use, to improve wealth and well-being, by seeking to reduce the
environmental footprint of human activities (on the territory and beyond), taking into account the
limited nature of natural ecosystems and the involvement of populations. Within this framework,
CE would aim at reconciling, on a theoretical level, the need for economic development of rms and
territories, while reducing its environmental footprint and social inequalities within and between
territories: in other words, starting from the intrinsic limits of the biosphere, it would be necessary to
ensure the development of territories while integrating the stakes of sustainability. These processes
would result from technological, social, institutional and organizational innovations and involve
all stakeholders in collective projects and renewed governance schemes, dened by agreements or
We have seen that the territory can be considered as a relevant scale to consider the circularity
of the economy, due to the geographical proximity of the actors involved, the local environmental
problems to be solved, and the economic and social benets to be expected. However, some strategies
will contribute to the sustainable development of the territories, while others, such as recycling,
can cause, locally, interesting environmental, economic or social benets, while creating negative
rebounds in other jurisdictions (BAHERS and KIM, 2018). The question of the CE’s contribution
to the sustainability of the territories remains a complex topic, as it is subject to the characteristics
of the dierent strategies and their implementation, even in the case of a positive contribution in
terms of territorial development. This is the reason why it is necessary to introduce the denition
of sustainable territorial development, which takes into consideration the environmental impacts
beyond the scope of action considered.
Our work thus sketches a convergence between CE approaches and territorial analyses: while CE
gradually takes on the spatial, then territorial question, parallel territorial analyses are increasingly
interested in circular dimensions. This raises the question of the potential for territorial innovation
to shift towards strong sustainability. Does it enable a paradigm shift, based on the transformation
of society and the values of the stakeholders? Indeed, the objective of CE, which aims to reconcile
the economic growth of production systems and the reduction of their footprint on the environment,
is rather and whatever the strategy, in a logic of low sustainability: substitution of other forms of
capital for natural capital and compensation for negative externalities of economic activities by
technological innovations and economic growth. It is then possible that strategies such as industrial
and territorial ecology, eco-design or recycling have only a paltry eect on the impact of activities
on the environment in a few decades. It is mainly true for the exhaustion of resources, as long as
the consumption of raw materials and soils continues to grow, i.e. that the dominant paradigm of
consumption and mass production is not questioned. CE, even with high eciency rates, will only
delay the end of resource depletion but will not achieve strong sustainability goals.
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