CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

1 The circular economy (CE) is a new economic approach that aims to reduce the environmental impact of, and demand for, raw materials in the production and consumption system (Pearce, Turner, 1990). The CE aims to change the status quo and to inspire a new vision of the economy through new types of innovation that promote efficiency and more competitiveness (De Jesus, Mendonça, 2018). The CE emerged in a context where the take-make-dispose mindset has been the underlying cause of the growing demand for prime materials, energy resources, and the generation of waste, developing the environmental crisis (Blomsma, Brennan, 2017; Reike et al., 2018; Webster, 2017). Within this context, the CE has been frequently advocated as a tool to achieve sustainable development by proposing the creation of closed loops of materials (Ghisellini et al., 2016; Korhonen et al., 2018; Millar et al., 2019, Mongo et al., 2021).

2 The CE depends greatly on institutional and regulatory factors for its adoption. Public policy measures have the ability to address market failures and establish a conducive environment for innovation and entrepreneurship (Briguglio et al., 2021; De Jesus, Mendonça, 2018). Governments play a strategic role in encouraging innovation by reforming laws, regulations, education programmes, and promoting the application of new environmental technologies (Geng et al., 2009; Porter, Van der Linde, 1995). In the case of the CE, institutional and regulatory factors can act as strategic enablers or barriers to promote innovation towards the CE by enabling new forms of cooperation between enterprises and public actors (De Jesus, Mendonça, 2018; Florido et al., 2019).

3 The CE is the approach adopted by the European Union (EU) to reform the economy and to promote specific kinds of innovation to build a more sustainable economy. The EU adopted the circular economy (CE) in 2014, as a continuation of the pre-existing policies on eco-innovation (Colombo et al., 2019), and with the aim of building a more sustainable and less resource-dependent economy (European Commission, 2015). With the adoption of the CE, the EU is expected to substantially reduce its dependency on raw materials imports (Esposito et al., 2018; Geng et al., 2019). However, the transition towards the CE involves critical implications for the Member States of the EU, as it will affect the relationship between industrialised countries with significant demands for raw materials and their suppliers in the Global South (Álvarez Calderón, Trujillo Palacio, 2020; Rodrigues, Padula, 2017). Also, the adoption of the CE is expected to support countries to meet their sustainable development commitments and climate agreements (Schroeder et al., 2019; Serrano et al., 2021).

4 There is a plurality of approaches and visions of how the CE can be materialised. Research studies such as Kershaw et al. (2020), Friant et al. (2020) and Bauwens et al. (2020) explore the plurality in how the idea of the CE is envisioned. This potential for diverse approaches to the CE transition has attracted the attention of many scholars who focused on understanding the practical implications of the adoption of the CE and other innovation policies (Colombo et al., 2019; De Jesus et al., 2019; Fitch-Roy et al., 2020; Friant et al., 2021; Suárez-Eiroa et al., 2021). In the EU, the transition to the CE is being conceived as a way to create a perfect circle of materials within the economy, to shift the economy towards a user-based economy, to decouple economic growth and environmental impact, and to unlock new ways to renew European industry (Lazarevic, Valve, 2017). Despite the attention received by the policy development of the CE, the justification of EU Member States for the need for the CE has been overlooked by existing research. In this sense, it is pertinent to ask: how do the CE strategies of EU Member States justify the need to transition towards a CE?

5 This paper adopts a critical approach to geopolitics, focusing on how stakeholders interpret their geographical context to explore how the CE is understood and justified. The approach of geopolitics enables us to explore how EU Member States define and justify the need to adopt the CE within their national CE strategies. To answer this question, this research scrutinises all the existing CE strategies published by EU Member States (Table 1). The decision to limit the research to analysis of the national CE strategies was made because the CE strategy is the critical document where the CE is defined holistically and is justified, and to use an equivalent document that would allow comparison between countries. Since the scope of this paper is to focus on the justification of the CE rather than looking at its implementation, the CE strategies are the necessary document that needs to be analysed. By answering this question, this paper aims to contribute to broaden the understanding of what are the interests and ambitions of governments by promoting the CE. This paper also represents a first step towards incorporating a critical geopolitical approach within the field of innovation and management by reflecting on the (geo)political motivations and justifications behind the CE policies.

6 This paper is structured as follows: First, the expectations of CE policies and the geopolitical approach are introduced. Second, the methodologies of analysis are discussed. Third, the main factors that justify CE adoption are extracted to answer what is the impact that EU Member States expect from CE adoption, and each of the factors is defined. Finally, the results are discussed with the current academic literature and the main discrepancies between the problem framing of the CE and the academic debates are identified.

Theoretical Approach

The Diverging Policy Aims and Expectations of the CE

7 The CE is unequally implemented across the globe. The CE emerged explicitly as a policy strategy in China in 2002 with the ambitions of the Chinese Communist Party to protect the environment while finding new strategies to maintain economic growth (Geng, Doberstein, 2008). In the case of the EU, CE policies emerged as a continuation of EU eco-innovation strategies in 2014 (Colombo et al., 2019). After the emergence of CE strategies in China and the EU, more countries across the globe started incorporating CE principles, although this adoption presents critical differences across countries (Fitch-Roy et al., 2021). Fitch-Roy et al. (2021) surveyed several CE policy packages across the globe and identified key patterns and differences in the geopolitical distribution and content of such packages. These policy packages are the different approaches from several governments towards implementing the CE within their countries. Among their findings, Fitch-Roy et al. (2021) identified that the CE policy packages associated with high-income economies, especially among EU countries, adopt more transformative notions such as a waste hierarchy, and a stronger approach to recover raw materials for production processes. This is also the case for newly industrialising countries, which are adopting CE policy packages based on an integrated waste management approach to improve their management of waste, while countries with low GDP promote CE policy packages that are basically based on waste management (Fitch-Roy et al., 2021; Breard, Llorente-González, 2021).

8 As Fitch-Roy et al. (2020) explain, the EU institutions claim that the transition to a CE is an ambitious reorientation of socio-economic relations that aims to be a radical shift in the EU policymaking trajectory. However, many researchers have pointed out that the CE policies of the EU are still insufficient to generate systemic changes to the EU economic paradigm (Colombo et al., 2019; Fitch-Roy et al., 2020; Suárez-Eiroa et al., 2021). Other scholars criticise the version of the CE that is promoted at EU level for being associated with an idea of weak sustainability that prioritises economic growth, material self-sufficiency, and recycling (Colombo et al., 2019; Friant et al., 2021; Llorente-González, Vence, 2019). The model of circularity promoted by the EU is also shaped by the idea of creating perfect circles of slow material flows, a shift of consumption from buyer to user, and the perpetuation of economic growth through decoupling, a vision that some authors frame as eco-modernist (Bauwens et al., 2020; Lazarevic, Valve, 2017).

9 Despite the relevance of these critiques, very few studies focused on the variation in how EU Member States reproduce this particular understanding of the CE. The research of Fitch-Roy et al. (2021) examined the CE national action plans of Greece and Finland and observed how different policy designs differ in their ambition to build a CE; the existing policy packages do not enable a radical transformation to shift their economies from a linear to a circular mode of production and consumption, and these are only capable of inducing an incremental change in the economic paradigm. This research aims to expand the knowledge about what are the differences between countries, in this case between EU Member States, to make sense of and to justify CE adoption.

The Lenses of Geopolitics

10 This research question is answered through the lenses of critical geopolitics. This approach focuses on how stakeholders interpret their geographical context to explore how the CE is understood and justified. The lenses of critical geopolitics allow us to scrutinise the CE beyond the narratives that emerged around this concept and its implicit biases to incorporate an analysis of how the need for the CE is interpreted, what are the expectations of its adoption, and how these vary geographically. The geopolitics perspective provides a novel approach to previous studies that analyse CE policymaking (Fitch-Roy et al., 2020; Friant et al., 2021; Lazarevic, Valve, 2017; Suárez-Eiroa et al., 2021) as it specifically focuses on the justifications, expectations, and interpretation of the world that influences the CE adoption.

11 There are different schools of thought regarding the concept of geopolitics within the academic sphere. Classical geopolitics focuses on the interrelationship between power, geographical interests, and the constrictions imposed by a determined geographical context (Owens, 2015; Wu, 2018). Instead, critical geopolitics focuses on the role of discourse and ideology to understand how the world is interpreted (Dodds, 2019). Rather than conceptualise geography as a determined context, critical geopolitics scholars focus on how human interaction and public narratives produce geopolitics by shaping how the world is made known (Dalby, 2013; Dodds, 2019). Many critical geopolitics scholars explore how geopolitics is socially constructed and represented to particular audiences (Koch, Tynkkynen, 2021; Su, Huntington, 2021). This approach contributes to an understanding of the interpretations of the world and how these interpretations are promoted from powerful spheres, orientate policy agendas, and influence political decisions (Dodds, 2019).

12 Other authors also explored the importance of how policy problems are constructed and interpreted, and how different interpretations of a problem lead towards different policy supports and different policy actions (McBeth, Lybecker, 2018; Shanahan et al., 2018). The relationship of problem interpretation and policy narratives more generally has also been explored in the case of the CE, as these elements are critical to shaping the definition and scope of the CE, determining policy outcomes (Alvarado et al., 2020; Fidélis et al., 2021; Lazarevic, Valve, 2017; Leipold, 2021; Palm et al., 2021). Therefore, understanding the problem setting of the different EU Member States is critical to understand what kind of policy responses will likely emerge within the EU, and how these responses will differ across EU Member States.

Materials and Methods

13 This research uses a qualitative approach to reconstruct the problem setting constructed by the EU Member States that published a CE strategy. This includes a total of 12 CE strategies, corresponding to the only 12 Member States that published a CE strategy. These countries are Denmark, Finland, France, Greece, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain, and Sweden. The CE strategies are a type of policy promoted by EU Member States that define the guidelines and vision of the CE of each Member State. The analysed documents were extracted from the website of the European Circular Economy Stakeholder Platform, a European Commission website that collects all the relevant documents on CE adoption in the EU (Table 3). All the CE strategies of EU Member States were compiled in January 2021 (Table 1); at the time of the analysis only the listed EU Member States had a published CE strategy. The content of these documents was carefully analysed using NVIVO 20, using a qualitative approach. First, the documents were open coded using an inductive approach. Initially, 691 segments of data were extracted, resulting in 72 codes. These codes were grouped through several rounds of refining based on their similarity resulting in 32 codes. Those codes were finally grouped into six overarching categories that were inductively created from the existing codes (Table 4). This induction process, inspired by the methodology of Gioia et al. (2013), was generated by creating identifying commonalities among the existing codes. For instance, codes as ‘reduce resource dependence’, ‘increase exports of biomaterials’, and ‘reduce resource consumption’ were grouped into the overarching category of resource supply factors, as they refer to the supply of resources.

Table 1 – National CE strategies of EU Member States

NameCountryAbbreviationYear
Strategy for Circular Economy. More value and a better environment through design, consumption, and recyclingDenmarkDK2018
Leading the cycle. Finnish road map to a circular economy 2016–2025FinlandFI2016
Roadmap for the circular economy: 50 measures for a 100% circular economyFranceFR2018
National Circular Economy StrategyGreeceGR2018
A Waste Action Plan for a Circular Economy: Ireland’s National Waste Policy 2020-2025IrelandIE2020
Towards a Model of Circular Economy for Italy: Overview and Strategic FrameworkItalyIT2017
A Circular Economy in the Netherlands by 2050NetherlandsNL2016
ROAD MAP towards the Transition to Circular EconomyPolandPL2019
Leading the transition [Action plan for circular economy in Portugal: 2017-2020]PortugalPT2017
Roadmap Towards the Circular Economy in SloveniaSloveniaSV2018
España Circular 2030. Circular Economy Spanish StrategySpainSP2020
Circular economy – Strategy for the transition in SwedenSwedenSW2020

Table 1 – National CE strategies of EU Member States

14 This research focuses on the problem setting and the key issues that are targeted by the national CE strategies. Other elements, such as the measures actually proposed, the impact measurement, and the implementation of such measures, are not addressed. This strategy is in line with the critical geopolitics approach of this research since it focuses on how key powerful organisations, in this case, EU Member States, build a specific perception of their context to motivate CE adoption, and it incorporates how the need for CE is interpreted, what are the expectations of its adoption, and how these vary geographically.

Results

15 The problem framing of all the analysed documents has been analysed and coded into categories that build the drivers that justify CE adoption among EU Member States. In total, six categories emerged from inductively analysing the data: (1) economic factors, (2) research and innovation factors, (3) resource supply factors, (4) environmental context, (5) social factors, and (6) political factors.

Table 2 – Summary of the factors that justify the adoption of CE strategies

FactorsElements that comprise each factorCE strategies that support each element
Economic factorsAdaptation to a new environmental context shaped by an increased competition for raw resourcesAll
Reduction of costs of businesses and increasing competitivityAll
New opportunities for the EU market for new business models and new opportunities for exportsAll
Ability to promote economic growthAll
Generation of jobsAll
Opportunity to rebuild the economy from previous crisis (2012 financial crisis and COVID-19)GR, IE
Research and innovation factorsThe CE transition will be driven by business action and technological changeAll
Innovation should be supported as a key enabler of the CEAll
Technological solutions are expected to allow the proliferation of CE-based production methods, new consumption patterns, and new business modelsAll
Digitalisation is expected to create better control of resources.FI, GR, IT
Technological change needs to be complemented with structural, social, and behavioural changesAll
Each Member State should lead the development of CE-based technologiesDK, FI, FR, IE, NL, SV, SW
Resource supply factorsThe consumption of raw resources needs to be reducedAll
The CE transition is an opportunity to increase the exports of biomaterials and resource-efficient productsDK, FI, SW
The CE transition is an opportunity to decrease the dependence on imports of raw materialsFR, GR, IT, NL, PL, PT, SV, SP
Environmental contextThe traditional economy is the driver of major environmental issues such as biodiversity loss, pollution, and global warmingAll
The CE transition aims to reduce the environmental footprint of the economyAll
The CE transition aims to meet the main environmental international agreements, including the Paris Agreement and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)DK, FI,FR, GR, IE, IT, NL, PT, CV, SP, SW
Social factorsThe CE transition is an opportunity to create quality and local jobsIT, GR, PL.
The jobs created by the CE transition have the ability to promote a more inclusive economyDK, FI, FR, IE, IT, NL, PT, SV, SW
The CE transition is compatible with the development of a social economy that develops opportunities at the local scaleFR, GR, PL
Political factorsThe CE represents a flexible approach that is compatible with each of the policy agendas of the EU Member StatesDK, FR, GR, IT, NL, SV, SP, SW
The CE allows the coordination of EU economic policies towards a common directionDK, FR, GR, IE, IT, NL, PL, PT, CV, SP, SW
The CE needs to be promoted at a global levelDK, FI, FR

Table 2 – Summary of the factors that justify the adoption of CE strategies

Economic Factors

16 All the analysed CE national strategies recognise how the economic context is changing. These changes are shaped by a growing individual resource demand and the expectation of global demographic growth, which will result in much higher competition for raw resources in the future. This problem is aggravated due to the interdependence between economic growth and the challenge to promote economic growth in the context of environmental degradation. The CE is therefore framed as a solution for such challenges.

17 The CE is framed as an economic opportunity by the EU. All the CE analysed strategies identify the potential of the CE to support businesses, mainly by reducing their costs, providing added value, improving productivity, and creating new business opportunities for the EU market. The National CE strategy of Greece is a case of how the CE is seen as an opportunity to boost the economy and, in the Greek case, reconstruct the economy from the effects of the economic crisis of 2012:

18

“The crisis our country has been experiencing in recent years, unemployment - and youth unemployment in particular – and underdevelopment creates more opportunities for the circular economy. The lack of available funds to buy raw materials, the flexibility of SMEs and social enterprises and the need to provide employment for young professionals, combined with the obligations of environmental legislation, are conducive to recycling and reuse initiatives.”
Greece CE Strategy

19 The CE is also expected to support economic growth across the EU. In addition, a benefit acknowledged by all the CE strategies is the generation of jobs. Although some countries just refer to it briefly, other Member States, namely Poland, Portugal, Spain, and Greece, stress job generation as a very important factor in their CE strategies. Denmark, Finland, Sweden, and the Netherlands see the CE as a driver to increase exports. These exports are based on the bioeconomy industry, and the development of pioneering circular and resource-efficient technologies:

20

“It also generates new export possibilities. Dutch knowledge and expertise provide solutions to scarcity issues elsewhere as well and can contribute to sustainable development and the expansion of markets.”
The Netherlands CE Strategy

Research and Innovation Factors

21 All the analysed documents expect the CE transition to be driven by business action and technological change, with Member States stressing the role of innovation as an enabler to adopt circular practices. The development of new technological solutions is expected to allow the proliferation of new production methods, new consumption patterns, and new business models in accordance with the CE. Therefore, the most relevant means to support the CE will be the support for research and innovation:

22

“Innovation is the cornerstone of this change. In order to rethink our way of production and consumption, to develop new business models, and to transform waste into high-value-added resources, we need creative technologies, processes, services, and business models that shape the future of our economy and our society.”
Italy CE Strategy

23 A second factor that is key in CE adoption is digitalisation to allow resource tracing and control, and to enable new forms of consumption. The CE strategies of Sweden, Finland, France, Greece, and Italy explicitly recognise the importance of developing and promoting digitalisation technologies in this transition. These digitalisation technologies are expected to create the means to control and monitor raw resources, allowing more efficient treatment and use. Also, the CE strategies recognise that the adoption of circular practices cannot be induced exclusively through technological changes but also with structural social and behavioural changes to promote new circular business models:

24

“This transition is a genuine societal project whose aim is to move away from the throwaway society. It invites us to change the way we lead our lives and invent new and more sustainable production and consumption methods by prioritising use over ownership.”
France CE Strategy

25 The aim to lead the development of CE solutions is uneven across the EU. The north-western states of the EU, including Denmark, Finland, France, Ireland, the Netherlands, Slovenia, and Sweden, have the explicit ambition to become frontrunners in the development of circular technologies. In contrast, the national CE strategies of Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy, and Poland do not make any reference to leading the CE, apart from Spain, which aims to become a leader in water-recycling technologies, given its local context of water scarcity.

Resource Supply Factors

26 All the analysed CE strategies acknowledge the dependence on importing raw resources as a major vulnerability of the EU economy. In the cases of Finland, Denmark, and Sweden, the CE is not framed as a strategy to reduce raw material imports but to increase the exports of biomaterials and resource-efficient products. The other Member States acknowledge their dependence on imported resources, and the Netherlands is the only case where both elements, the opportunity to increase exports and the need to reduce imports, is combined. The dependence on raw materials is framed as problematic because of the challenges derived from their extraction and potential exhaustion and the political implications of this dependence on third countries. The case of the Dutch CE strategy is the most exhaustive document in reporting these implications:

27

“Another point is the fact that the Netherlands and Europe are dependent on third countries to a high degree for raw materials. Of the 54 materials that are critical for Europe, 90% must be imported, primarily from China. The Netherlands imports 68% of its raw materials from abroad. The relatively limited availability of these raw materials will lead to (more) geopolitical tensions. That, in turn, will impact on the price of raw materials and the security of supplies, and thus on the stability of the Dutch and European economies.”
The Netherlands CE Strategy

28 The CE strategy of the Netherlands is the most detailed in terms of specifying the geopolitical challenges derived from the critical resources supply. Whereas most national strategies refer to the challenge for each Member State to ensure a mineral supply for their industry, the Dutch strategy specifies the major concerns about mineral supply for the EU economy (Figure 1).

Figure 1 Map of the location of critical mineral materials

figure im1

Figure 1 Map of the location of critical mineral materials

Source: The Netherlands CE strategy. Adapted from ‘Report lists 14 critical mineral raw materials’ (European Commission, 2010)

29 In general terms, the CE is seen as an opportunity to address how EU industry uses resources, reducing its dependency on the international market and the growing competition from emerging economies, especially by reducing resource demand within the EU. This reduction is expected to be achieved by adopting more efficient production techniques, recycling, and waste prevention.

Environmental Context

30 All the analysed documents acknowledge the environmental challenge caused by the economy. Issues such as biodiversity loss, pollution, and global warming are attributed to the linear economy or the traditional economy before the CE was conceptualised. The environmental impact and the need to address it is a major point in most CE strategies, as this impact will negatively affect our societies if it remains unaddressed:

31

“Several crossed planetary boundaries are proof that the economic development model of the developed world is unsustainable. Our actions have resulted in irreversible damage to the Earth’s regenerative capabilities, greatly increasing the chances of sudden and unpredictable shifts in our habitats…The limits we are encountering and the strains that we are exerting upon our natural resources show that, under the current economic model, we will need another planet by the year 2035.”
Slovenia CE Strategy

32 The CE is seen as a means to contribute to the main global agreements on sustainability and environmental preservation, including the Paris Agreement and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Since resource consumption is one of the main drivers of fuel consumption and climate change, a combination of resource efficiency with reuse and recycling strategies may be a major contributor to meeting the climate objectives set in the Paris Agreement. Thus, all the CE strategies justify the CE in limiting the environmental impact compared to the “linear economy” model and contributing to the transition to a climate-neutral society.

Social Factors

33 Most CE strategies (DK, FI, FR, GR, IE, IT, NL, PT, PL, SV, SW) reflect the societal implications of the CE. One example is the expectation of creating quality and local jobs, which many countries, such as Greece, Finland, and Poland, aim to create across the country, as well as providing opportunities for rural areas. Some strategies focus not only on promoting jobs but also on ensuring that these jobs are created in environments that promote an inclusive economy, as is the case with Poland, Greece, and France. These strategies aim to make the CE compatible with the development of a social economy with a stronger focus on developing opportunities at a local scale:

34

“The involvement of social and solidarity economy actors, for example, social cooperatives, associations, foundations, can be the source of new solutions and business models.”
Poland CE Strategy

Political Factors

35 The CE also has implications in the policy sphere. The analysed CE strategies acknowledge the role of the CE in influencing the political landscape at the national level of each of the Member States, at the EU level, and at a global level. At a national level, the CE is framed as a common EU strategy to reform the economy and as a flexible approach that is compatible with the specific priorities and concerns of the different Member States. At the EU level, the CE is a tool to coordinate EU economic policies. Except for Finland, most of the CE strategies explicitly mention how the CE is an opportunity to further integrate the EU economies into a common strategy. Therefore, the CE strategies also aim to strengthen the intra-EU coordination of the national economic strategies of the Member States:

36

“The government supports, therefore, an offensive EU approach to the circular economy in which efforts are made to create harmonised framework conditions among EU Member States, the European Commission’s plan of action and legislative package for the promotion of the circular economy in the EU.”
Denmark CE Strategy

37 Several national CE strategies do not limit themselves to implementing circular practices at a national level, but some mention the importance of promoting the CE at a global level (DK, FI, FR). Given the interconnectedness of the global market, it is important to promote the creation of circular demand and circular technologies on a global scale:

38

“The World Circular Economy Forum 2017 will be held at Finlandia Hall in Helsinki from 5 June to 6 June 2017. Sitra wants to speed up the global transition to a circular economy and profile Finland as a circular economy pioneer.”
Finland CE Strategy

Discussion

39 This research reviews 12 national CE strategies (Table 1) that were published from 2016 until 2020. This constant emergence of national strategies since 2016 shows the willingness of EU Member States to implement the CE within their territory and to readapt it and implement it on their terms. In terms of critical differences and blocks, there are three main differences in the justification and expectations concerning the circular economy. The first critical division is regarding the supply of resources, where the Scandinavian countries (DK, SW, FI) see the CE as an opportunity to export new types of materials, while the rest of the EU countries see the CE as a strategy to reduce their imports of resources, hence to reduce their dependence on international markets. The Netherlands represents an exception as they acknowledge the need to reduce their dependence on international markets while seeing the CE as an opportunity to export resource-efficient technology. The second division is regarding the creation of jobs; while some south and east European countries (namely IT, GR, and PL) see the creation of jobs as a critical element of the CE transition, the northern EU countries (NL, SW, DK) pay less attention to this factor, although they acknowledge it as well. Finally, the third critical division in the justification of the CE is on its aim to lead the development of CE-based solutions, where the southern and eastern Member States do not make any reference to lead the development of such solutions (GR, IT, PL, PT) or to solely progress the development with a niche technology (SP), while the rest of the Member States (DK, FI, FR, IE, NL, SL, SW) aim to become frontrunners in the development of circular technologies. Regarding these factors, the EU Member States present a situation of relative convergence and alignment of justifications for the need to transition to a CE.

40 The CE national strategies of the EU frame the CE as a means of promoting economic growth and generating business opportunities and jobs by reshaping the flows of resources and economic relations within a free-market context. These expectations are in accordance with the eco-modernist approach of the EU described by authors such as Bauwens et al. (2020) and Lazarevic and Valve (2017). Several researchers have discussed the relationship between resource efficiency and economic growth (Hoang, 2014; Meyer etal., 2012), and the relationship between new business models and the creation of business opportunities and jobs (Borges et al., 2019; Grigolon et al., 2018; Pini et al., 2019). These benefits are framed differently in each national strategy, as in the case of the southern EU Member States and Poland, which stress the potential for job generation in the CE. This tendency is especially visible in the case of the Greek CE strategy, where the CE is framed as an opportunity to reconstruct the economy from the 2012 crisis. Also, all EU Member States agree on the desirability of promoting economic growth within their CE strategies. Despite this unanimous agreement in the CE strategies, the link between economic growth and environmental preservation has been challenged in the academic sphere given the impossibility to absolutely decouple GDP and environmental impact (Hickel, Kallis, 2020; Ward et al., 2016).

41 The EU Member States acknowledge the irreversible damage to the Earth’s regenerative capacity by the current economic model in their CE strategies. This context of environmental degradation can lead to a situation of public discontent and political instability (Niccolucci et al., 2012). Thus, the CE is also seen as an economic strategy to decrease the environmental impact of the economy and promote environmental restoration, contributing to the global efforts to address the environmental crisis (Sanyé-Mengual et al., 2019). However, the academic literature is in disagreement with this ambition, as many scholars challenge the ability to decouple GDP growth and environmental impact (Fletcher, Rammelt, 2017; Ward et al., 2016), especially in the absence of resource reduction policies (Kjaer et al., 2019).

42 The Member States of the EU want to promote the CE by strategically supporting new technologies and the adoption of new business models and new consumption patterns that align with the principles of the CE. For the EU, pioneering the development of CE-enabling technologies will put EU industry in a privileged position to shape the future of the international value chain on its own terms (Beise, Rennings, 2005; Kern et al., 2020; Pardo, Schweitzer, 2018). However, this technological transition may be unequally promoted, as only the northern EU Member States openly commit to becoming frontrunners of the CE. If this tendency becomes true, a gap can emerge in the implementation of the CE, with the north and centre of the EU leading the CE transition and the southern and eastern countries lagging behind. Another important element of this transition is the relationship developing between governments, businesses, and consumers in promoting innovation. Several scholars acknowledge the benefits of innovation to generate social and environmental benefits (Barbieri, Santos, 2020; Dogaru, 2020). This innovation-based transition is based on a dialectic between businesses, consumers, and the state, and prioritises the generation of profit. It involves a weak version of sustainability (Colombo et al., 2019; Franceschini, Pansera, 2015). Also, the constant striving for innovation towards efficiency can lead to greater environmental damage and inequality if this is not redefined beyond material or financial terms (Bimpizas-Pinis et al., 2021).

43 The national CE strategies acknowledge the dependence of the EU on foreign resources, a situation of dependence that is especially critical in a context of growing scarcity and competition in the global market for those resources. Although this situation of resource scarcity is just mentioned by most of the CE strategies analysed, the Netherlands presents this dependency context in more detail, describing how critical mineral materials are concentrated in a few countries. In many cases, including China, India, and Brazil, the countries that export critical mineral materials are developing countries that also have a growing internal demand for these materials, a situation that may compromise the security of the supply of these materials to the EU markets. To address that situation, the CE promises to reduce the demand for these materials by creating new sources of supply through recycling and refurbishing, for example. The CE, therefore, offers a solution to the challenges of critical mineral dependence, as it provides a pathway to reduce the demand for raw resources (Garcier, Verrax, 2017; Hasegawa et al., 2018). Although resource recycling and urban mining are promoted under the expectation of addressing the issue of resource scarcity and dependence, these expectations can be challenged by the scale of the change required in terms of new technologies and infrastructures. A second challenge to these expectations is a rebound effect if the resource policies are not accompanied by reduction goals, since making more resources available to the market may also encourage their demand, offsetting the benefits of recycling and efficiency (Warmington-Lundström, Laurenti, 2020; Zink, Geyer, 2017). In the case of the CE, the presence of the rebound effect has been observed by several scholars (Makov, Font Vivanco, 2018; Warmington-Lundström, Laurenti, 2020). In the case of Warmington-Lundström and Laurenti (2020), they observe how the use of a boat sharing platform increased the consumption and use of boats, leading towards increasing emissions. Also, in the case of smartphone reuse, Makov and Font Vivanco (2018) identify how activities such as re-spending or imperfect substitution induce a rebound effect among smartphone users, confirming how CE-based activities can induce the rebound effect.

44 Finally, the CE has major political implications at a national level, EU level, and global level. The CE is seen by Member States as a way to further encourage EU-wide coordination of economic strategies. Also, many states aim to export the CE globally. Thus, the promotion of the CE is a political project that aims to export a specific sociotechnical imaginary of the economic system across the globe (Strand et al., 2018; Wittmayer et al., 2020). The promotion of the CE promotes a specific imaginary of a sustainable economy originated in the corporate sphere that is focused on technological innovation (Bauwens et al., 2020; Fitch-Roy et al., 2020), and with the ability to monopolise public imaginaries and to hinder a more open debate (Hajer, Versteeg, 2019; Stirling, 2008).

45 At a national level, the CE represents a flexible policy objective that creates room for national priorities. This relative flexibility has the potential to open up social imaginaries of the future and reshape public priorities and the embedded long-term visions within public policy (Mangnus et al., 2021; Oomen et al., 2021). The cases of France, Poland, and Greece provide an example of how the CE narrative has been modified to include the concept and principles of the solidarity economy. The solidarity economy proposes to reshape the economy by bringing new values based on mutual support and solidarity to maximise societal wellbeing (Dacheux, Goujon, 2011; Miller, 2010). The solidarity economy can complement the CE by challenging current constraints related to institutional conditions and economic efficiency, redefining the distribution of costs of economic activities, and enhancing the CE’s social dimension (Bimpizas-Pinis et al., 2021; Moreau et al., 2017). Therefore, the cases of France, Poland and Greece suggest that states can be fertile political arenas to politicise the CE and challenge implicit constraints within the green-growth approach of the CE (Fitch-Roy et al., 2020; Friant etal., 2021).

46 The critical geopolitics perspective allows us to understand how the geographical context is perceived and the expectations and motivations involved in adopting the CE. Despite the potential of this perspective, this research has several limitations. Namely, the analysis is only limited to the opinions issued by EU Member States within their national CE strategy. Although the CE strategies reflect the official position of the different Member States and reproduce the official narrative that the governments of the Member States want to reproduce, in reality, there are many geopolitical visions and different narratives within each Member State. Thus, the analysis could be broadened to include regional strategies, research institutes, political parties, or the media. Another limitation is that only the 12 EU Member States that published an explicit CE strategy were analysed; thus, the vision of the remaining Member States is absent. Also, this research is limited to only understanding how the geopolitical landscape is perceived by powerful actors, in this case, EU Member States. Also, other elements relevant to the CE adoption are not analysed in this paper, such as the critical analysis of the expectations described in this paper, or factual analysis of the consistency between the narratives produced and the actions in place (Friant et al., 2021). Finally, critical elements that emerged during this research, such as the inclusion of approaches such as the solidarity economy, or the impact of technological pioneers, remain under-researched. These limitations in the research can also become future avenues of research, as they contain critical elements to understand the full potential of the CE.

Conclusion

47 Just a handful of papers contribute to explaining the policy implications of problem setting to shape policy objectives. This paper aims to fill this gap by providing an exploratory perspective of the geopolitical implications of the CE in the Member States of the EU. By doing so, the paper provides the first steps to include the critical geopolitical approach within the field of innovation and management. This paper analyses the problem construction that EU Member States frame to justify the adoption of the CE. The CE is seen as a strategy for the EU and its Member States to address significant challenges, such as its dependence on foreign powers for its supply of critical materials, the need to preserve the environment, and the promotion of economic growth, the need to develop new technologies and induce innovation, and to align the EU politico-economic agenda. The CE also involves a political agenda to further coordinate and integrate the different EU Member States’ economies and export a specific understanding of the economic system at a global level. However, many of the ambitions of the CE are challenged in academic debates, such as the idea to decouple economic growth and environmental impact or the ability of the CE to promote a socially fair economy. However, the CE national strategies provide an understanding of the economy that differs from the main academic debates in key issues such as the ability to absolutely decouple economic growth and environmental impact, the need to promote resource reduction policies to prevent the rebound effect, the sufficiency of the weak sustainability approach, or the social effects of the CE. In this sense, the potential of the Member States should be explored as a fertile ground to challenge the eco-modernist approach of the CE and to challenge current constraints of the economy, such as economic efficiency and infinite GDP growth, reimagining the social dimension and wellness created by the economy.

48 With the adoption of the CE, EU Member States will prepare their industry for the impact of future challenges, including a potential future scarcity of raw materials, higher energy costs, and the international peer pressure to meet global sustainability objectives. It can be speculated that adopting the CE has a set of potential implications for the geopolitical sphere within and outside the EU. At an internal level, the CE can be a tool for deepening economic coordination and cooperation across EU Member States, strengthening the cohesion of the EU. Also, intensifying resource efficiency has the potential to make EU industry able to afford higher prices for raw resources, creating a position of advantage in the global market compared to other industrialising countries. In other cases, higher availability of materials in the market may lower the price of raw resources, creating a disadvantage for those economies that rely on resource extraction. Also, boosting recycling and urban and landfill mining may create new sources of materials, reducing the EU’s dependency on foreign material imports. In all cases, the CE will ensure the availability of raw or recycled materials for EU industry, but the potential consequences for resource extracting countries are yet to be defined.

Acknowledgements: This research has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Innovative Training Networks (H2020-MSCA-ITN-2018) scheme, grant agreement number 814247 (ReTraCE project).
Declaration of Competing Interest: The author declares that he has no known competing financial interests or personal relationships that could have appeared to influence the work reported in this paper.

Annex

Table 3 – Sources of the analysed documents

NameSource
Strategy for Circular Economy. More value and better environment through design, consumption, and recyclinghttps://circulareconomy.europa.eu/platform/sites/default/files/eng_mfvm_cirkulaer_oekonomi_as5_uk_final_web.pdf
Leading the cycle. Finnish road map to a circular economy 2016-2025https://circulareconomy.europa.eu/platform/sites/default/files/selvityksia121.pdf
Roadmap for the circular economy: 50 measures for a 100% circular economyhttps://circulareconomy.europa.eu/platform/sites/default/files/frec_anglais.pdf
National Circular Economy Strategyhttps://circulareconomy.europa.eu/platform/sites/default/files/national_circular_economy_strategy.pdf
A Waste Action Plan for a Circular Economy Ireland’s National Waste Policy 2020-2025https://circulareconomy.europa.eu/platform/sites/default/files/a_waste_action_plan_for_a_circular_economy.pdf
Towards a Model of Circular Economy for Italy: Overview and Strategic Frameworkhttps://circulareconomy.europa.eu/platform/sites/default/files/strategy_-_towards_a_model_eng_completo.pdf
A Circular Economy in the Netherlands by 2050https://circulareconomy.europa.eu/platform/sites/default/files/17037circulaireeconomie_en.pdf
ROAD MAP towards the Transition to Circular Economyhttps://circulareconomy.europa.eu/platform/sites/default/files/md_goz_final_en_r4_4.pdf
Leading the transition [Action plan for circular economy in Portugal: 2017-2020]https://circulareconomy.europa.eu/platform/sites/default/files/strategy_-_portuguese_action_plan_paec_en_version_3.pdf
Roadmap Towards the Circular Economy in Sloveniahttps://circulareconomy.europa.eu/platform/sites/default/files/roadmap_towards_the_circular_economy_in_slovenia.pdf
España Circular 2030. Circular Economy Spanish Strategyhttps://circulareconomy.europa.eu/platform/sites/default/files/espana_circular_2030_executive_summary_en.pdf
Circular economy – Strategy for the transition in Swedenhttps://www.government.se/4ad42c/contentassets/d5ab250cf59a47b38feb8239eca1f6ab/circular-economy--strategy-for-the-transition-in-sweden

Table 3 – Sources of the analysed documents

Table 4 – Codes generated in the CE strategies

figure im2

Table 4 – Codes generated in the CE strategies

figure im3
English

The regulatory action of the European Union (EU) and its Member States is critical to overcome market failures and to foster the innovation and entrepreneurship necessary to transition to a circular economy (CE). However, the motivations of EU Member States regarding the CE remain under-researched. This paper adopts a critical geopolitical approach to explore how EU Member States construct the need to transition to the CE and its motivations. To achieve this aim, the narratives within the national CE strategies in the EU were analysed through qualitative document analysis. As a result, six different drivers that motivate CE adoption were identified: (1) economic factors, (2) research and innovation factors, (3) resource supply factors, (4) environmental context, (5) social factors, and (6) political factors. These drivers affect EU Member States differently, creating a set of divergences within the EU regarding social equity or technological leadership.
JEL Codes: O3, O2, H8

  • Circular Economy
  • Geopolitics
  • Resources
  • European Union
  • Innovation Policy

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Josep Pinyol Alberich
University of Exeter Business School
ABIS – The Academy of Business in Society, UK
Josep.pinyol@abis-global.org
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