The narrative of sustainability and circular economy – a bibliometric, network, and semantic analysis
The circular economy (CE) is gaining momentum in the policy, economic, and scientific spheres in recent years. The growing popularity of the concept is accompanied by several definitional ambiguities and conceptual uncertainties. Hence, a variety of different definitions of CE exist so far. At the same time, in the policy sphere CE is seen as a promising approach to achieve more sustainable production and consumption patterns on various levels (that is, on industrial level but also on societal level for increasing cooperation and collaborative consumption activities).
In the literature, several authors have investigated the evolvement of CE over time in a quantitative way. While links between CE and other approaches like industrial ecology, closed-loop supply chain management and sustainability were conceptually established, no quantitative summary of the sustainability-related perception of the scientific literature body has been found. This missing link has been identified as a research gap.
The aim of the study is to contribute to the understanding of how CE and sustainability are intertwined, how the two concepts together relate to other fields of research, and how the contribution of CE towards sustainable development and sustainable production and consumption patterns is perceived.
Therefore, this work applies a bibliometric analysis of peer-reviewed articles extracted from Web of Science and Scopus that address both, circular economy and sustainability-related issues. The research includes (longitudinal) bibliographic network analyses, as well as an analysis of the conceptual structure and the thematic evolution of the scientific field based on natural language processing, correspondence analysis and K-means clustering. In order to investigate the sustainability connotations of CE and sustainability research, the quantitative research part is complemented by a semantic content analysis including the 30 most relevant publications in the field.
Results suggest an increasing interest in sustainability implications of circular economy efforts in the past years. At the same time, a strong connection is visible to environmental sustainability (such as resource efficiency, environmental technology, or recycling), while social aspects are underrepresented so far. A connection is visible to all life cycle phases of products, beginning of life, middle of life, as well as end of life, life cycle assessment, and life cycle management, even though a focus on end of life management and technologies and environmental aspects is found. Semantic analysis of the most influential articles reveals a general positive correlation between sustainability and circularity, even if concerns are raised regarding a naïve and linear narrative and the limitations of the concept of CE.
It is concluded that in order to fully exploit the sustainability potential of CE, an integration of CE principles and technologies into business practices is necessary on various company levels. Thereby, inclusion of both, environmental and social impacts is encouraged. Furthermore, in order to address uncertainties in the contribution of CE towards sustainable development, sound scientific assessment is encouraged.
Lukas StumpfInstitut für Umweltsystemwissenschaften
Institut für Umweltsystemwissenschaften