The articles in this issue are all based on papers presented to the circular economy track of the International Sustainable Development Research Society conference hosted by the Budapest University of Technology and Economics (online) in 2020. This was the 26th annual ISDRS conference, which provides a venue for interdisciplinary discussion of sustainability research, facilitating an interchange of ideas across the diverse aspects of the field. Circular economy has made a strong appearance at the conference over the last few years, carrying forwards a longstanding presence of foundational fields such as industrial ecology, industrial symbiosis, life cycle analysis, cleaner production and their implications. In this brief editorial, we present ISDRS and the Circular Economy track before previewing the papers to follow.

ISDRS describes itself as “As a global network of sustainable development professionals [that] links researchers in academia and implementation practice from all continents to each other. Accomplishing the urgent and far-reaching changes which are needed in our single-planet-society to achieve a fair and clean sustainable society, requires worldwide close collaboration and maximum exchange of knowledge, experiences, best practices and critical reviews.” More than 25 topic groups are arranged between ten themes, which are designed to highlight, support and critique the UN Sustainable Development Goals and provide a geographic dimension (e.g. via the Africa track). The Society brings together researchers with an unusually broad range of interests, as well as from across the globe. For its first 10 years, ISDRS held an internationally facing, but UK-based, annual conference. Since 2005, the conference has been held at worldwide locations (including China, India, South Africa, USA, Colombia and Australia and multiple European destinations) to facilitate wider geographic participation. With the successful, albeit COVID-enforced, online conferences in 2020 and 2021, we are introducing a hybrid conference module in Stockholm in 2022 for both cost and environmental considerations. New researchers are warmly welcomed and supported by the New Professionals group and annual Ph.D. workshop (indeed, the papers in this issue prominently represent the work of research students).

Resource efficiency and related themes have been featured at every ISDRS conference. Under a progression of titles, what we might term the ‘resource efficiency innovation and implications’ track has produced numerous journal special issues over the years including Business Strategy and the Environment, Sustainable Development, The Geographical Journal, Journal of Industrial Ecology, Progress in Industrial Ecology along with innumerable individual publications. Two edited books have respectively addressed the geographic dimensions of industrial ecology [1] and the interrelationshipss of the circular economy with industrial symbiosis and sustainability [2]. Connections forged through ISDRS were critical to the EU-funded Cresting project (Circular Economy: Sustainability implications and guiding progress), which funded 15 Ph.D. students across eight institutions, who have contributed three of the articles in the current issue. As phenomenal as the rise of the Circular Economy has been in both academic and policy circles in the last few years, the appreciation of its origins, context and relationship with wide sustainability debates is important to learn from the body of initiatives and research [3].

The Circular Economy track in Budapest comprised 24 papers. A diverse spectrum of issues was considered including circular economy business models, regional perspectives, corporate reporting, regulation, loop closing, life cycle analysis and stakeholder perspectives. Case studies included the fashion industry, plastics, phosphorous, batteries, buildings, forestry, social enterprises and public sector organisations drawing on the multiple countries represented (including Austria, China, Colombia, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, UK and the USA). The conference proceedings can be accessed here We thank all the contributors, not least those who accepted the invitation to submit a paper to be reviewed for this issue. The six papers included here are a reasonable representation of the breadth of debate.

Whilst academics continue to debate the relationship between the circular economy (CE) and sustainability, Walker et al.’s [4] paper directly addresses the issue of how companies view the two concepts and the relationship between them. The authors employed a semi-quantitative survey of companies in Italy and the Netherlands that belong to business networks with a circular economy theme (i.e., are already familiar with the term), and conducted semi-structured interviews in both countries to explore issues arising. Notwithstanding some hints of exasperation at the emergence of a new concept for business consideration, most respondents saw circular economy initiatives as a mean to achieve the sustainability, which they considered the broader concept. In particular, the CE was seen as responding primarily to environmental aspects of sustainability, with less awareness evident of how it would contribute in other respects. This is not necessarily signifying a lack of company interest in social and economic aspects of sustainability, so much as lack of knowledge of the relevance of the CE. In both countries studied, there was a high degree of awareness of CE activities, with Dutch-based companies focusing on the so-called R-strategies and Italian ones on the potential for eco-efficiency.

Regional development of a CE is a most prominent theme in this issue, addressed by four of the papers. Based on a literature review of papers relating to IS implementation, Henriques et al. [5] consider incentives for IS and the risk factors associated with them. Incentives for IS need to offset the barriers (prominently costs, knowledge, trust). Drawing on the multi stakeholder perspectives from the literature, they propose incentives based on the three themes of law and politics, material and technical management and company/network management. These together set an IS-supportive regulatory context (importantly at national and supranational level) as well as providing direct financial incentive/support for company participation. The need for multi-scalar policy alignment is emphasised by Newsholme et al.’s [6] critical discourse analysis of company and policy documents relating to Hull and North Humberside in the context of the UK and Europe. However, the paper identifies a “double disjuncture” whereby the intentions of regional public bodies are unsupported by the national policy provisions, and also not aligned with the priorities of companies locally. Although the company reports indicated an awareness of the CE, the focus was on internal company and supply chain options for resource efficiencies, predominantly biased to end of life (i.e. waste related) options.

Implementation of a CE is widely recognised as involving the input of multiple organisations, including companies, business associations, governmental bodies and potentially third sector organisations. Rincón-Moreno et al. [7] carried out an analysis of literature addressing stakeholder perspectives to IS and CE, and interviews with stakeholders involved in different aspects of a regional circular economy in the Basque region of Spain. The regional case study adds a valuable dimension to the literature review by examining the experience in a location that already has a regional circular economy strategy. Results indicate the importance of not only considering the perspectives of diverse stakeholders, but providing opportunities for collaboration which allows the building of a collective identity. Prieto-Sandoval et al.’s [8] study provides a longitudinal evaluation of the role of business associations in promotion of a CE, including IS, within a region. Working with the Agro-industrial Union of Cooperatives in Navarra (UCAN), the authors conducted a survey and focus groups relating to the CE in 2016. UCAN has continued supporting CE initiatives (through technical and networking initiatives). Follow up research indicates engagement across a spectrum of CE activities and increased awareness of the potential for recovery of value. Companies have more appreciation for potential economic benefits of resource recovery, whilst seeing financial barriers to more ambitious projects.

Finally, Klein et al. [9] present a study on the adoption of CE practices by public sector organisations. Based on semi-structured interviews and document analysis, this paper concerns the understandings and of employees within the central Portuguese central public administration. Interviewees identified a wide range of potential and actual practices associated already with the far more widely studied private sector approaches to a CE. These include both technical practices for resource efficiencies and human/social approaches to changing consumption behaviour and sharing best practice. The focus of attention is on strategies relating to procurement, which in a sense is buying one’s way to sustainability. Strategies for reducing consumption are likely more challenging both for organisations as well as individuals.


These papers provide important evidence and arguments for the development of circular economy approaches, as the concept matures from a level of an ambitious aspiration to an approach that needs to be asserting itself in practice. In the process of, and analysis of, attempted implementation, the concept itself is likely to undergo some adjustment. The empirical contributions here emphasise that whilst the idea of a CE has indeed taken hold in recent years, there is a lack of shared understanding and prioritisation by the different stakeholders involved. Companies are gaining familiarity with the practices of a CE, with business associations/networks playing a role in that. However, an end-of-life focus remains that also applies to the public sector case study, albeit overshadowed there by purchasing issues. There appears still to be a training/education gap around the wider, i.e. non-environmental, aspects of the CE, i.e. how, and even why, from a stakeholder perspective, these might be implemented. Much will be gained by future studies examining CE implementation and perspectives in a wider range of case studies, as we seek to define strategies and practices to improve the adoption on the ground. We are reminded, however, that the hypothetical benefits of a CE (especially but not only IS) need to be tangible to the multiplicity of those participating.