A framework for a responsible circular economy

Ben Purvis, Dilay Celebi*, Mario Pansera

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14 Atıf (Scopus)


The move towards a Circular Economy (CE) from the perspective of a ‘just transition’ necessitates an approach which deems stakeholder knowledge and agency as central. Under this paradigm the transition to a CE is conceived not as a technocratic challenge, but as a process of socioeconomic transformation grounded in principles of social and environmental justice. We suggest that Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI), as an approach for considering the relation of science to wider society, in particular the constituent concepts of anticipation, inclusion, reflection, and responsiveness (Owen et al., 2013), presents itself as a lens through which we can embed considerations of justice within CE practices. In exploring these dimensions with a critical view to how the CE discourse has often failed to consider who will benefit from the transition to a CE, we present a framework for supporting the design of responsible CE practices. We argue that such a framework can provide a starting point for future refinement and enrichment of the decision context faced by the relevant groups in the course of the transition to a just CE.

Orijinal dilİngilizce
Makale numarası136679
DergiJournal of Cleaner Production
Yayın durumuYayınlandı - 10 May 2023
Harici olarak yayınlandıEvet

Bibliyografik not

Publisher Copyright:
© 2023


A just transition to a CE refers to the process of shifting to a sustainable and equitable economic system where the needs and rights of all stakeholders are taken into account. Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) principles can play an important role in supporting a just transition to a CE by ensuring that the transition is socially responsible, inclusive, anticipatory, reflexive and takes into account the needs and values of all stakeholders. Therefore, to better answer who should benefit from the transition to a CE, we draw on RRI as a process which emphasises the centrality of social actors and local communities as active participants in the development of new practices. By embedding a critical consideration of CE within the ‘anticipation, inclusion, reflection, and responsiveness’ (AIRR) dimensions of RRI (Owen et al., 2013), we suggest a framework to support the design of responsible CE practices. Such a framework has relevance for engendering a more just approach to the CE in both academic and practice-oriented areas such as business and policy-making. By expanding the scope of CE initiatives beyond one-dimensional consideration of profit-driven environmental solutions, the integration of RRI principles create space for imagining a transformative transition with broader social benefits. Inigo and Blok (2019) successfully set the ground for a more-strongly socio-ethically grounded CE by integrating RRI as an innovation governance framework. In this work, we extend their approach over discussions on how each of the AIRR dimensions can support better addressing social challenges raised by CE and enhance our understanding of how the major problems, possibilities, and constraints of the CE conceptually can be tackled in its implementation beyond recycling and technological research.While the underlying principles of RRI have been defined in a variety of ways by different authors, they all have one thing in common: the desire to draw on a wide range of viewpoints, both scholarly and public, to better understand and address the unidentified biases and assumptions that often drive technological progress. Critics have pointed to the requirement to incorporate the ethical and political significance of an unpredictable future into innovation management in their attempts to define what such growth in democratic power may entail. The UK tradition of Responsible Innovation has forwarded the principles of anticipation, inclusion, reflexivity, and responsiveness as central to RRI by the scholars, research funding agencies, and policy actors who have taken up this issue (Stilgoe et al., 2013). The AIRR framework (Owen et al., 2013; Stilgoe et al., 2013) is one conceptualisation of RRI, with transparency sometimes included as a fifth feature (Ravn et al., 2015). The AIRR framework is based on a line of questions that have emerged as crucial in public discussions regarding cutting-edge fields of science and technology (Stilgoe et al., 2013).A third dimension in which RRI can be seen as a support for a just transition to a CE relates to reflexivity: a reflection on the societal circumstances, and opportunity for the consequent reassessment of practices and adjustment of initiatives. Reflexivity also comprises actors' ability to assess the success of their efforts and the numerous - and potentially unintended - consequences of their actions, and to adapt appropriately. Reflexivity is also highly related to anticipation since it reflects the anticipatory capacity to deal with unexpected occurrences. But reflexivity also means asking why we do what we do, and what our values, motivation and purposes are. In this sense, a reflexive CE should ask not only how we produce but why we produce, whether this is fair and just, and for whom?As discussed in the anticipation section, the CE has many issues with respect to tackling economic, political, and sociocultural issues that may hamper a reflexive approach to and during the transition period. First and foremost, the business environment that shapes the CE transition has been shaped by unequal power relations in a way that does not allow a true exercise of reflexivity to be fully realised. A global CE transition is mostly reliant on the reexamination of global supply chains, which are currently under the authority of strong nations and multinational corporations, who are likely to keep taking up the resources and capital they require, exacerbating already existing inequities even in a circular system (MahmoumGonbadi et al., 2021). Global lead enterprises, especially major purchasers or producers from the Global North, appear to be in a position to play a significant role in managing the transition to a CE as rule-setters (Hofstetter et al., 2021). The negotiating power of these few giant enterprises is likely to be higher in the case of a conflict amongst stakeholders on social and economic benefits (or harms) of CE associated decisions. Due to the economic bottom line taking precedence over other interests, the major role played by these enterprises in the CE transition may make it more difficult for other societal actors to participate fully in the transition process. Furthermore, the move to a CE will need significant resources, requiring both public and private sector investments, but the tools to evaluate which firms or projects to support are immature. The transition trajectories may get trapped in ways that worsen power dependencies, widen the gap between high-income and low-income nations, cause rebound effects, or fail to take actions needed for strong sustainability (Hofstetter et al., 2021).Thinking about larger socio-technical systems that might have an impact on the development and dissemination of the CE is another factor for responsiveness. Recognising such approaches is a key way to gauge the degree to which a CE can be adapted at various stages of its development and use on a socio-technical level. RRI may assist a fair CE transition by supporting partners in becoming responsive and attentive to potential social, economic, and environmental effects and/or misconceptions in the process. Technically focused initiatives run the risk of stakeholders making the mistaken assumption that just outlining the development's advantages to external parties will convince them to use its offerings (Pearson et al., 2016). Through exposure to probable misconceptions and even hostile responses, the stakeholders can be prepared for the reality of achieving societal impacts, which may be a more complicated process than they first assume.Finally, the framework benefits from an interaction with the other supporting tools and concepts such as RRI Tools (based on the six keys defined by the European Commission), Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), Environmental Justice, Social Life-cycle Assessment (SLA), and Future-Oriented Technology Analysis. The list in Fig. 1 is not exhaustive, and can be extended, but it shows examples of major tools and concepts that may support policy making and organisations both in terms of technical and conceptual aspects. For example, organisations may highly benefit from the tools and techniques suggested by CSR, which aims at ensuring corporations' domestic and international business actions are guided by moral principles and adhere to the highest ethical standards. Similarly, SLA can be a useful tool for evaluating CE impacts (Reinales et al., 2020).Our framework, as outlined above, marks a sketch of a conceptual approach for supporting the decision context in the transition to a just CE. It places itself as a response to the critical literature, which calls for the CE discourse to place a greater emphasis on issues of justice through the holistic incorporation of elements relating to environmental, social, and ethical values. It is not intended to be prescriptive or fully comprehensive in scope, but instead centres dimensions of RRI, demonstrating their relevance and usefulness for confronting the complexities and contradictions of a just transition towards a CE. Table 1 outlines the most relevant arguments in transition to a just CE in relation to the four AIRR dimensions, summarising key objectives, potential strategies and operational techniques, and approaches for operational appraisal of each dimension in the context of supporting the design of responsible CE practices.This research was funded by the European Union's H2020-EU.3.5. - SOCIETAL CHALLENGES - Climate action, Environment, Resource Efficiency and Raw Materials programme, JUST2CE-A just inclusive transition to circular economy project, under grant number 101003491. This research was funded by the European Union's H2020 - EU .3.5. - SOCIETAL CHALLENGES - Climate action, Environment, Resource Efficiency and Raw Materials programme, JUST2CE-A just inclusive transition to circular economy project, under grant number 101003491 .

FinansörlerFinansör numarası
Corporate Social Responsibility
European Union's H2020101003491
Future-Oriented Technology Analysis
European Commission

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