Research Topic

Rethinking Economic Theory and Practice for a Sustainable Circular Economy

About this Research Topic

Circular economy has a tremendous potential to contribute to sustainable development by altering the needs of the present, to avoid the compromising of the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It can contribute to multiple Sustainable Development Goals. For example, extending product ...

Circular economy has a tremendous potential to contribute to sustainable development by altering the needs of the present, to avoid the compromising of the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It can contribute to multiple Sustainable Development Goals. For example, extending product lifetimes can reduce material extraction helping make consumption and production more responsible (goal 12), reducing impacts on climate (goal 13) while shifting to more labour intensive repair and maintenance patterns offers opportunities for productive employment (goal 8). But realizing the full potential of a circular economy requires a radical change of direction compared to how it is currently mainstreamed.
Circular economy has gained momentum within government and industry circles because it fits neatly into the prevailing neoliberal economic narrative. Framed this way, circular economy claims to offer a way to decouple environmental impacts from economic growth: to get more profits from less environmental impact. However, there is little evidence that decoupling can happen at a sufficient scale and sufficient speed to address current environmental crises. Some argue this decoupling may never happen.
Average material consumption per person must be drastically reduced to bring resource use within sustainable environmental limits and provide development space for low income countries with low material footprint. This requires far reaching changes to political-economic models that cannot continue to rely on continued growth of the material and monetary economy. Pursuit of profit over all else makes shifting to a sufficiency based economic system almost impossible, yet much circular economy work remains focused on profit generation. The political economy of circular economy has, so far, been deeply under-investigated. Studies typically accept neoliberal framings and focus on consumers rather than citizens. Intra and inter-generational equality is rarely covered in circular economy research, and social benefits are assumed rather than evidenced.
Circular economy is at a cross-roads. It can continue to propose incremental changes to resource flows, leaving the wider, unsustainable, economic system unchanged. Alternatively, it can join a transformative movement for radical change to support a sustainable circular society.

A transformative circular economy, in which resource sufficiency as well as efficiency play a key role, depends on the development and enacting of new political-economic theories. In a sustainable circular economy, the purpose of the economy changes from short-term economic growth for the benefit of a few, to organising fair access to resources within environmental limits for all to have a chance to have a good life.
Outside the circular economy community there is a wide literature on alternatives to neoliberal economic systems. Feminist, ecological, wellbeing and post-capitalist economics all describe economies in terms of social systems of provision where economic production and distribution are political and community-oriented acts. Recent developments include ecological-macroeconomic models that explore how economies can thrive without growth and provide human wellbeing. But despite overlapping interests, there has been little cross-over with circular economy research.
This research topic aims to develop and implement alternative economic theories for a sustainable circular economy. How does circular economy fit into alternative economic systems? What can circular economy bring to alternative economics research? Moreover, theories must be implemented to make a real difference. How can circular economy researchers and practitioners co-produce new theories and democratically engage those in power as well as citizens to put theory into practice?

This Research Topic would welcome a breadth of contributions including but not limited to:
• Critiques of economic theories and their ability to contribute to a sustainable circular economy
• Novel alternative economies theories for a sustainable circular economy
• Conceptual clarity and the theoretical and/or practical ability to develop a circular economy within environmental boundaries with the aim to regenerate natural capital
• Practical insights into co-producing novel theories with political and industry actors or citizens
• Insight into context specific approaches to rethink political-economy depending on for example the countries political system, culture and industrial diversity
• Examinations of how a circular economy would fit into alternative economic systems
This research topic welcomes Frontiers in Sustainability tier 1 article types. Reviews, systematic reviews and mini reviews may be particularly suited for this research topic, alongside of perspectives, opinions, policy briefs, and policy and practice reviews. Community case studies, brief research reports and original research would be very welcome as well.


Keywords: Circular economy, Sustainable development, Post-growth economy, Alternative economics, Heterodox economics, Inter-disciplinary science, Stakeholder engagement, Political economy, Post-capitalism, Degrowth, Ecological economics, Feminist economics, wellbeing economics


Important Note: All contributions to this Research Topic must be within the scope of the section and journal to which they are submitted, as defined in their mission statements. Frontiers reserves the right to guide an out-of-scope manuscript to a more suitable section or journal at any stage of peer review.

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Submission Deadlines

30 June 2022 Manuscript

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Manuscripts can be submitted to this Research Topic via the following journals:

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Topic Editors

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Submission Deadlines

30 June 2022 Manuscript

Participating Journals

Manuscripts can be submitted to this Research Topic via the following journals:

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