Ways to take action

Transitioning to a Circular Economy: Adopting an Actor Engagement Lens

Arne De Keyser , Professor

In this article, Arne De Keyser, EDHEC Professor, proposes, based on a joint work with his 5 co-authors (1), concrete practices to engage various actors in the circular economy.

Reading time :
6 Dec 2023

Understanding the Circular Economy

The concept of the circular economy marks a transformative shift from traditional linear consumption and production models, which typically follow a 'take-make-dispose' pattern, to one that emphasizes the continual use of resources. This novel model offers not just environmental benefits but also economic and social advantages by fostering sustainable growth and innovation.

Circular Business Models (CBMs) are central to this shift, with innovative approaches being adopted across various sectors. The transition to a circular economy is complex and requires the engagement of diverse actors, including businesses, consumers, and government bodies. This leads to the core question: How can we engage others in the circular economy?


Six Practices to Stimulate Circular Economy Engagement

To understand and foster engagement in the circular economy, we conducted an in-depth review of the CBM literature (1) and derived a set of six practices – signaling, convincing, matching, legitimizing, supporting, and empowering – all necessary to boost the motivation, opportunities, and abilities of actors to engage in the circular economy.


Motivation-Related Practices: Signaling and Convincing

Signaling involves highlighting the long-term benefits and sustainability of CBMs to others through information provision. It's about demonstrating how circular practices not only reduce environmental impact but also offer economic advantages like energy savings and longer product lifecycles. This approach can shift consumer and business perspectives, building a foundational understanding and appreciation of circular practices. An instance of effective signaling is when companies obtain certifications like the EU Ecolabel (2) to signify their commitment to high environmental standards and thus may convince others to do business with them.

Convincing is about actively persuading others to engage with CBMs by directing their attention to specific financial and pragmatic benefits. This includes strategies like showcasing immediate financial savings or demonstrating the ease of transitioning to circular models. A practical example is influencers promoting the material-technical loops in fashion retail, where incentives like vouchers and promotional coupons are used to sway consumer choices.

Opportunity-Related Practices: Matching and Legitimizing

Matching relates to forging beneficial connections with other actors to exchange resources within a CBM context. It's where collaborative initiatives, such as between corporations and recycling firms, create mutual value. The Circulars (3), for instance, is an accelerating organization trying to ensure matchmaking between organization that want to prioritize circular innovations.

Legitimizing involves developing measures that create a strong institutional context for CBMs. Here, governments can play a pivotal role by enacting policies that encourage circular practices and make it easier for all actors to participate. France’s anti-waste and circular economy laws, for example, aim to eliminate waste by forbidding businesses to destroy unsold non-food products and encouraging their reuse, recycling, and/or donations.

Ability-Related Practices: Supporting and Empowering

Supporting implies providing the necessary financial and infrastructural resources to enable actors to embrace CBMs. This can, for instance, be seen in actions taken by city governments investing in shared bike systems to enhance citizens' ability to participate in and make use of these initiatives.

Empowering focuses on building skills and knowledge to facilitate the adoption of CBMs. For instance, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (4) plays a significant role in this area through its educational initiatives and resources that aim to inspire and enable the circular economy transition. By offering learning materials, case studies, and collaborative projects, the Foundation empowers businesses, policymakers, and academics with the knowledge to implement circular principles.


The implications

As evoked, the circular economy represents a significant shift from the current mindset, offering a sustainable alternative that benefits the environment and economy. For this model to succeed, it requires active involvement from all actors in society. The above framework developed in our recent publication in the Journal of Service Research (1) lays out a clear path to get different actors engaged.

These six concrete practices need to be in place to motivate, enable, and assist the various actors – governments, business, customers – concerned. By prioritizing these practices, we can shift the paradigm from merely minimizing harm to actively regenerating resources in a new economic model.

This also involves a major cultural change, where consumers are not just passive end-users but active participants in the lifecycle of products and services. Businesses, on the other hand, must innovate and redesign for circularity, not as an afterthought, but as a core business strategy. Governments must facilitate this shift through supportive legislation and incentives that promote sustainable practices. Above all, it's a collective endeavor that we must undertake now!



(1) Verleye, K. (Ghent University), De Keyser, A. (EDHEC), Raassens, N. (Eindhoven University of Technology), Alblas, A. (Eindhoven University of Technology), Lit, F. (Ghent University and Eindhoven University of Technology) & Huijben, B. (Eindhoven University of Technology). (2023). Pushing Forward the Transition to a Circular Economy by Adopting an Actor Engagement Lens. Journal of Service Research, forthcoming. https://doi.org/10.1177/10946705231175937

(2) Launched in 1992, the EU Ecolabel helps consumers, retailers and business in making sustainable choices. https://environment.ec.europa.eu/topics/circular-economy/eu-ecolabel-home_en

(3) “The Circulars accelerator” is an initiative of Accenture, in partnership with
Anglo American,Ecolab and AWS. In collaboration with the World Economic Forum and UpLink https://thecirculars.org/

(4) A charity committed to creating a circular economy https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/