Lessons, narratives and research directions for a sustainable circular economy

Sina Leipold, Anna Petit‐Boix, Anran Luo, Hanna Helander, Machteld Simoens, Weslynne S. Ashton, Callie W. Babbitt, Alba Bala, Catharina R. Bening, Morten Birkved, Fenna Blomsma, Casper Boks, Alessio Boldrin, Pauline Deutz, Teresa Domenech, Navarro Ferronato, Alejandro Gallego‐Schmid, Damien Giurco, Kersty Hobson, Roope HusgafvelCynthia Isenhour, Mait Kriipsalu, Donato Masi, Joan Manuel F. Mendoza, Leonidas Milios, Monia Niero, Deepak Pant, Keshav Parajuly, Stefan Pauliuk, Marina P. P. Pieroni, Jessika Luth Richter, Michael Saidani, Marzena Smol, Laura Talens Peiró, Stijn van Ewijk, Walter J. V. Vermeulen, Dominik Wiedenhofer, Bing Xue

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The current enthusiasm for the circular economy (CE) offers a unique opportunity to advance the impact of research on sustainability transitions. Diverse interpretations of CE by scholars, however, produce partly opposing assessments of its potential benefits, which can hinder progress. Here, we synthesize policy-relevant lessons and research directions for a sustainable CE and identify three narratives—optimist, reformist, and skeptical—that underpin the ambiguity in CE assessments. Based on 54 key CE scholars’ insights, we identify three research needs: the articulation and discussion of ontologically distinct CE narratives; bridging of technical, managerial, socio-economic, environmental, and political CE perspectives; and critical assessment of opportunities and limits of CE science–policy interactions. Our findings offer practical guidance for scholars to engage reflexively with the rapid expansion of CE knowledge, identify and pursue high-impact research directions, and communicate more effectively with practitioners and policymakers.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)6-18
JournalJournal of Industrial Ecology
Issue number1
Early online date27 Dec 2022
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2023

Bibliographical note

Copyright © 2022 The Authors. Journal of Industrial Ecology published by Wiley Periodicals LLC on behalf of International Society for Industrial Ecology.

This is an open access article under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs License[https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/], which permits use and distribution in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited, the use is non-commercial and no modifications or adaptations are made.

Acknowledgements & Funding: The authors would like to thank all experts participating in the initial survey. They authors also express their gratitude for the financial support of this research by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research, research group ‘Circulus – Opportunities and challenges of transition to a sustainable circular bio-economy’ [031B0018], the European Research Council Horizon 2020 programme (MAT_STOCKS, grant agreement No 741950), and the Horizon Europe programme (CircEUlar, grant agreement No 101056810).


  • sustainability
  • science policy
  • narratives
  • policy relevance
  • research agenda
  • industrial ecology


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