Development in the Circular Economy Concept: Systematic Review in Context of an Umbrella Framework

Development in the Circular Economy Concept: Systematic Review in Context of an Umbrella Framework

3.1. Analysis of Development in CE Definition

To carry out content and thematic analysis, the sampled definitions of the CE were chosen through a snowball technique. The snowball technique continues the collection of samples until the researcher obtains a sufficient number of needed pieces (Goodman, 1961). The following section lists 27 CE definitions (chronological order) that were thought to be impactful by the researcher during this study and later processed in Nvivo12 for further assessment.

Wen et al. [60] wrote “Circular economy and eco-industry are effective ways to solve sustainable development problems on resources, the environment, and the economy” (p. 1).
The CE was defined by Yuan et al. (2008; as cited in Homrich et al. [12]) as follows:

The circular economy is a political strategy aiming to alleviate resource scarcity and reduce pollution, so it is essential to find effective ways to educate or train people so that they can implement the concept into their everyday work and life (p. 30).

The CE was defined by Geng et al. (2009, as cited in Grdic et al. [51]) as “An economy is based on a spiral loop, i.e., a system that minimizes matter, energy flow, and environmental deterioration without limiting economic growth or social and technical advancement” (p. 2).
The CE definition, as stated by the [61] EMF (2013), reads:

[CE] an industrial system that is restorative or regenerative by intention and design. It replaces the ‘end-of-life’ concept with restoration, shifts towards the use of renewable energy, eliminates the use of toxic chemicals, which impair reuse, and aims to eliminate waste through the superior design of materials, products, systems, and, within this, business models (p. 7).

As cited in Homrich et al. [12], the CE is defined by Su et al. [62]. (as follows: “The circular economy can be defined as an economy type with a closed-loop of materials, which is opposite to the traditional open-ended economy” (p. 29)).
As stated by Nguyen et al. [63]:

The circular economy aims to eradicate waste—not just from manufacturing processes, as lean management aspires to do, but systematically, throughout the various life cycles and uses of products and their components. Indeed, tight component and product cycles of use and reuse, aided by product design, help to define the concept of a circular economy and distinguish it from recycling, which loses large amounts of embedded energy and labor (p. 5).

Ref. [64] define the CE as follows:

The CE is a crucial way to protect the environment and resources and to achieve sustainable development; it can transfer a traditional linear growing economy that depends on resource consumption into an economy that relies on the development of ecological resources circulation (p. 488).

The CE, as defined by Haas et al. [65], reads “The circular economy is a simple but convincing strategy, which aims to reduce both input of virgin materials and the output of wastes by closing economic and ecological loops of resource flows” (p. 765).
Ref. [66] defined the CE as “A concept associated with the idea of closed-loop systems and economies, where wastes are put back into the system to become resource inputs for production processes” (p. 220).
The CE definition by Franklin-Johnson et al. [67]: “The center of CE is the circular flow of raw materials and energy consumption in multiple phases”.
The CE, as defined by Geissdoerfer et al. [14]: “CE is a regenerative system in which resource input, waste, emission, and energy leakage are minimized by slowing, closing, and narrowing material and energy loops. This can be achieved through long-lasting design, maintenance, repair, reuse, remanufacturing, refurbishing, and recycling” (p. 759).
The CE definition by Murray et al. [4] states it is “An economic model wherein planning, resourcing, procurement, production, and reprocessing are designed and managed, as both process and output, to maximize ecosystem functioning and human well-being” (p. 369).
The CE definition by Kirchherr et al. [22] states the following:

A circular economy describes an economic system that is based on business models which replace the ‘end-of-life’ concept with reducing, alternatively reusing, recycling, and recovering materials in production/distribution and consumption processes, thus operating at the micro level (products, companies, consumers), meso station (eco-industrial parks), and macro level (city, region, nation and beyond), to accomplish sustainable development, which implies creating environment quality, economic prosperity and social equity, to the benefit of current and future generations (p. 229).

The CE definition by Hollander et al. [31] is as follows:

In a circular economy, the economic and environmental value of materials is preserved for as long as possible by keeping them in the financial system, either by lengthening the life of the products formed from them or looping them back into the system to be reused (p. 517).

The CE definition by Ionescu et al. [68] is as follows:

The CE supports the harmonization of human needs for sustainable long-term development by optimizing resource usage so that you consume as little and re-use as much as possible. Optimizing natural resource use reaches a balance threshold where the number of natural resources consumed net does not endanger their rhythm of natural restoration for future generation needs (p. 101).

Winans et al. [5] defined the CE as “A central theme of the CE concept is the valuation of materials within a closed-looped system to allow for natural resource use while reducing pollution or avoiding resource constraints and sustaining economic growth” (p. 825).
The CE definition by Homrich et al. [12] states that “CE is a strategy that opposes the traditional open-ended system, aiming to face the challenges of resources and waste disposal in a win-win approach with an economic and value perspective” (p. 19).
The CE definition by Prieto-Sandoval et al. [69]. is as follows:

The CE is an economic system that represents a change in paradigm in the way that human society is interrelated with nature and aims to prevent the depletion of resources, close energy and materials loops, and facilitate sustainable development through its implementation at the micro (enterprises and consumers), meso (economic agents integrated into symbiosis), and macro (city, regions, and governments) levels. Attaining this circular model requires cyclical and regenerative environmental innovations in how society legislates, produces, and consumes (p. 610).

The CE as per Korhonen et al. [70] is as follows:

The CE is a sustainable development initiative to reduce the societal production-consumption systems’ linear material and energy throughput flows by applying materials cycles, and renewable and cascade-type energy flows to the linear system. The CE promotes high-value material cycles alongside more traditional recycling and develops systems approaches to the cooperation of producers, consumers, and other societal actors in sustainable development work (p. 547).

Moraga et al. [36] defined CE as “An approach to promote the responsible and cyclical use of resources” (p. 452).
Velenturf et al. [71] defined CE as “A circular economy offers solutions for global sustainability challenges through the transition from the linear take-make-use-dispose economy to a better organization of resources” (p. 963).
The CE as per Corona et al. [72]: “The circular economy (CE) is perceived as a sustainable economic system where economic growth is decoupled from the resources used, through the reduction and recirculation of natural resources” (p. 1).
Ref. [73] defined the CE as “A system solution that aims to mitigate the adverse environmental impact of production and consumption, especially in the context of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and waste generation” (p. 471).
Suárez-Eiroa et al. [74] defined the CE as follows:

The circular economy is a regenerative production-consumption system that aims to maintain extraction rates of resources and generation rates of wastes and emissions under suitable values for planetary boundaries through closing the system, reducing its size, and maintaining the resource’s value as long as possible within the system, mainly leaning on design and education, and with the capacity to be implemented at any scale (p. 14).

Kazancoglu et al. [75] defined the CE as “A transition to CE creates value through closed-loop systems, reverse logistics, eco-design, product life cycle management, and clean production” (p. 1477).
Ref. [76] defined the CE as “A circular economy promotes system innovations that aim to reduce waste, increase resource efficiency, and achieve a better balance between the economy, environment, and society” (p. 1).
Alhawari et al. [41] defined the CE from an organizational perspective:

CE is the set of administrative planning processes for creating and delivering products, components, and materials at their highest utility for customers and society through effective and efficient utilization of ecosystem, economic, and product cycles by closing loops of concerning resource flows (p. 18).

After loading 27 selected CE definitions in Nvivo, content analysis was initiated; Figure 4 illustrates the highly used or frequently referred-to terminologies among the 27 sampled CE definitions; the more bold words and the larger the font, the more often it was found to be referred to in the sampled definitions. Figure 4 contains the top 100 most-used words (criteria: character in a comment ≥5).
Figure 4 shows terminologies like resources, system, energy, material, consumption, economic, et cetera, which were frequently referred to in CE definitions. At the same time, terminologies like micro, meso, macro, social, and innovations were also referred to but in a lesser frequency. From this world cloud, we can report that the definition of CE is diversifying and diffusing; numerous newer terminologies are evolving. While multiple authors refer to the languages like economic and environmental, the social factor of CE has not been incorporated in the definitions. Out of the 27 samples, only 2 definitions by Kirchherr et al. [22] and Korhonen et al. [77] have included the impact of the CE on the social frontier.

Further nodal analysis was conducted in Nvivo to explore the themes generated across the sampled CE definitions; authors were found quoting the CE’s environmental and economic dimensions more frequently than the social dimensions. Likewise, the CE was referred to as the strategy and approach for achieving sustainable development. A few authors referred to terminologies like business model, reverse logistic, and a moderate use of language like waste management, design focus, value enhancement, and geography.

Table 2 lists 14 main themes (nodes) and subsequent sub-themes, along with the number of papers that have referred to those themes. It was observed that the CE was mostly defined as a closed-loop strategy and a strategy to balance people, profit, and the planet. It was noted as a strategy by 14 authors out of 27. In the same way, the CE was described as an approach that included terminologies like responsible, decoupling, and system approach. Nine of the papers highlighted the CE to help save resources and materials. Five scholarly papers were found stressing life cycle management and the life extension strategy to enhance the value of resources through the CE. The same number of documents pointed to the CE as a cleaner production and waste-management medium. Eight papers defined the CE as a modality to achieve sustainable development. Moreover, eight, four, and two scholarly articles represented the CE as a modality to manifest environmental, economic, and social gains. Further, four definitions were design-focused and attributed the CE as a restorative and regenerative approach. A territorial system to the CE was incorporated for four purposes where the papers talked about micro, meso, and macro-level CE activities and inclusions. Finally, terminologies like business model, reverse logistic, and political strategy have also evolved around the CE definitions.
Each node was further introspected along the horizon of time and respective literature. Table 3 lists the names of papers that used specific themes to define the CE. We can see that throughout the time duration, the definition has enhanced its scope. Some authors have seen it as an approach to obtain resource efficiency, some as a method to achieve sustainable development, some have focused on the environmental dimension, some on the economic, and some on the social implication of the CE.

It can be seen that some of the concepts like a closed-loop strategy, sustainable development, and environmental and economic implications, along with resource-saving have been present throughout the sampled period. Interestingly, the CE’s research and development has increased after the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s establishment. Further, it can be observed that from 2016 onwards, new terminologies like CBM, regeneration, restoration, social impact, organization aspects, and system thinking of the CE have come into existence.

Observation and Analysis: CE Definition Evolvement

The definition of the CE across the literature has varied, as summarized by Alhawari et al. [41]: Yap [80] emphasized recycling, Liu et al. [2] focused on the reduction in material used, Bocken et al. [17] stressed sustainable development, and the EMF (2013) and [81] focused on restorative and regenerative designs. Mahanty et al. [59] used lexical, as well as semantic, analysis to understand the evolution of CE and while the early dataset prioritized terminologies like resource, materials, recycling, China, environmental, economic, and industrial; the recent dataset highlighted language like innovations, business models, social, strategies, companies, supply chain, and sustainable development. Though the definitions have varied, most of them share common premises like closed-loop strategy, resource efficiency, and economic and ecological benefits.
Tapia et al. [54] listed the core attributes shared by CE definitions found across the literature; they were: aspirational components (aspiring to achieve sustainable development, economic decoupling), strategic dimensions (instrumental concept to achieve business goals with innovative circular strategies), restorative and regenerative aspects (focuses on avoiding waste by closing the loop), efficiency principles (focuses on strategies to achieve material efficiencies through socio-technical innovations), design elements (restorative by intention and design, design of product for durability and repairability), the cooperation mechanism between societal actors (requirement of cooperation across the supply chain), and system perspective (CE requires holistic and system approach).
In a bibliometric analysis conducted by Alhawari et al. [41], terminologies like circular economy, sustainability, recycling, sustainable development, waste management, industrial ecology, resource efficiency, life cycle assessment, waste, China, industry 4.0, and remanufacturing were often repeated. Further, the definition of CE depends on the premises of the study undertaken; its definitions have varied across the industry. Along the same line, Saidani et al. [82] stated, to date, there is no standard definition of the CE. Moreover, there is still a lack of societal context in CE definitions which can have demotivated communities to incorporate the CE. The definition has been diversifying and contains newer domains but still lacks a precise standard of CE definitions.

3.4. Confusions and Contradictions in the Development of the Circular Economy

The CE is not limited to a single domain or any isolated discipline; it is evolving and complex; the CE still requires in-depth grounded studies. Saidani et al. [82] asserted that the CE, rather than being an entirely new concept, is a combination of fundamental and founding concepts. Korhonen et al. [77] (Table 12), applying [166] framework, put forth the CE as an “essentially contested concept” (ECC) and mentioned a lack of CE-related studies to examine its impact on social values, societal structures, and cultures. Korhonen et al. [77] further added that ECC ideas have internal complexities and involve different schools of thought, actors, and interest groups, which often makes the theory easy to adopt. Over the last decade, the circular domain has rapidly grown, but the study is limited to material science and new CE business models. Korhonen et al. [70] studied the CE’s concepts and limitations and inferred that the field is still in its infancy. The CE performance assessment methods still lack a standard approach [136].
Kirchherr and van Santen [138] noted the lack of empirical evidence to support the circular transition. They stressed limited research in the service sector to support CE transition in the service industry. Most of the research was limited to manufacturing sectors. The circular domain lacks consistency and uniformity, Muradin and Foltynowicz [167] stated a lack of agreed global vision on circularity. Inigo and Block [139] studied the impact and principle of responsible research and innovation (RRI) in fostering the CE concept along with the socio-ethical consideration of the CE on the community; the same was studied by Kalioujny and Ermuskho [168] to determine the ways to make the integration of CE easier in society. Some scholars have stated the circular concept to be unclear, confusing, and hard to realize; Millar et al. [169] noted the existence of inconsistency across the literature on the ability of CE to achieve sustainable development.
The transition to CE is still blurred; the global enterprise with high public coverage has still not been an agent to foster CE [170]. Sectoral research was tremendously carried out to see the inclusion and implication of CE, and still, a plethora of research is being carried out to clarify its concepts; Istudor and Negrel [171] produced a paper to bring clarity between the concept of the CE and its relation to the economic system and systemic ecology. Christensen and Hauggaard-Nielsen [155] noted that the concept of the CE being a paradigm approach has been derived from preexisting concepts like cleaner production, industrial ecology, and cradle-to-cradle.
Velenturf and Purnell [56] asserted the CE as an emerging practical ideology lacking enough of an evidence-based theoretical framework to guide its implementation. Centobelli et al. [45] pointed to the lack of adequate studies to support a company to transition from the LE to the CE model of P&C. In the same line, Hosseinian et al. [165] added that there is increasing interest in the CE across multiple domains. Still, CE is more focused on the end-of-life strategy like recycling which has overshadowed important circular activities like designing circular products, dematerializing society, and developing service-based business models.
A study by de Oliveria et al. [159] concluded the existence of nano-level (product-level) circularity indicators driven by environmental and economical objectives and noted the lack of social dimension; in the same line, Murray [4]) and Velenturf and Purnell [56] also asserted the same; CE lacks social dimensions. The academic and empirical test related to the CE is still in progress, but no common ground has been established. Scholars are investigating the development of the concept of the CE [59]. Upadhyay et al. [172] write that scholars are still trying to find practical solutions to curb the pressure on resources through their effective reutilization, and Grafström and Aasma [173] noted that despite the estimated gain of the CE, the progress across the micro, meso, and macro level has been sluggish.

Table 12.
List of papers stating the confusions around the CE.

Table 12.
List of papers stating the confusions around the CE.

Authors Focus
Freire-Gonzalez and Puig-Ventosa (2015) [174] Rebound effect
Bocken et al. (2016) [27] Stressed a need for more coherent terminologies and taxonomies to facilitate a transition from a linear to a circular economy
Kirchherr et al. (2017) [22] Transparency provides coherence to the CE concept, or else a concept may either collapse or remain in a deadlock due to permanent conceptual contention
Murray et al. (2017) [4] Lack of study in the field of business and sustainability
Kirchherr et al. (2017) [22] Lack of social dimension and time horizon perspectives
Zink and Geyer (2017) [175] Rebound effect
Kallis et al. (2018) [127] Expressed the skepticism for the achievement of the CE in the capitalist economy by stressing degrowth
Homrich et al. (2018) [12] Still, the study is exploratory, lacking a confirmatory approach and empirical validation, and further needs homogeneity in the nomenclature
Velis (2018) [128] Lack of an effective economic model and precise indicators have made the CE tougher to be followed and bring common points at large, which may ultimately lead to the collapse of the CE construct
Reike et al. (2018) [15] Argues the CE rather than being a fresh concept is a refurbished concept of preexisting notions and adding circularity has been a notion in EU for years
Homrich et al. (2018) [12] Described the CE as in the stage of inception; it still lacks structured definition
Babbitt et al. (2018) [129] The circular theories should be tested in the real-world scenarios to measure its effectiveness
Reike et al. (2018) [15] Lack of coherence, standardization, and uniformity in terminologies and semantics has also generated delusions
Garcia-Barragan et al. (2019) [176] CE still lacks unambiguous definitions
Friant et al. (2020) [38] 45% of the global population is under poverty and it can be challenging to restrain the consumption of resources
Friant et al. (2020) [38] The definition, objectives, and form of implementation of the CE are unclear, inconsistent, and contested
Luis and Celma (2020) [6] The passivity of countries like the USA and Canada to express their commitment towards CE can have a global implication
Korhonen et al. (2018) [77] Mentioned the lack of CE-related studies to examine its impact on social values, societal structures, and cultures
Sassaneli et al. (2019) [136] The CE performance assessment methods still lacks a common approach
Kirchherr and van Santen (2019) [138] Lack of empirical evidence to support circular transition and stressed limited research carried in service sector to support CE transition in the service industry
Muradin and Foltynowicz (2019) [167] Lack of agreed global vision on circularity
Inigo and Block (2019) [139] Responsible research and innovation (RRI)
Millar et al. (2019) [169] The existence of inconsistency across the literature on the ability of CE to achieve sustainable development
Geipele et al. (2018) [170] The transition to CE is still blurred; the global enterprise with high public coverage has still not been an agent to foster the CE
Christensen & Hauggaard-Nielsen, (2020) [155] Derived from pre-existing concepts
Velenturf and Purnell (2021) [56] The CE is an emerging practical ideology which lacks enough evidence-based theoretical framework to guide its implementation
Centobelli et al. (2020) [45] Lack of effective studies to support company to transition from the LE to the CE model of P&C
Hosseinian et al. (2021) [165] Though there is an increasing interest in the CE across multiple domains, the CE is still more focused on the end-of-life strategy like recycling which has overshadowed important circular activities like designing circular products, dematerializing society, and developing service-based business models
de Oliveria et al. (2021) [159] Existence of nano-level (product-level) circularity indicators driven by environmentally and economically objectives and noted the lack of social dimension

3.4.1. Critical Assimilation and Impressions

After conducting a systematic literature review of the topic, the following developments in the field of the circular economy were pointed out.

  • Nature of study

  • Throughout the study period, the studies related to the CE were exploratory. Most of the works focused on understanding the taxonomies and developing the concepts. The studies still lack enough empirical and quantitative data-driven results. Throughout the sampled period from 2016 to 2021, authors have frequently studied the conceptual development in the CE through bibliometric analysis.

  • Progressive growth, evolving, and testing: Repetition with complexity

  • The growth in the field of the CE has been progressive. The same research topics were often repeated during the sampled period, but studies have become more complex. The CE matrixes, indices, and indicators have become inclusive and have been proposed and examined in diverse industries.

  • Research orientation

  • The exploratory research has a subjective orientation which can create a bias at the time of deriving inferences and conclusions. The literature review during the study period was subject to the researcher’s understanding, and objective orientations in studies were not found in significant numbers.

  • Availability of data

  • The primary reason for the absence of quantitative research in the field of the CE in the USA and Asia regions was the lack of the availability of CE-related data. The lack of archival data on the CE from recognized institutions has made it challenging to run empirical tests and has missed the objective orientation of CE-related research.

  • Ambiguity and lack of homogeneity

  • There has been no precise and standard definition related to the CE, the domain has been diversifying, and multiple concepts have appeared. Though it has provided multiple domains for analysis, it has also created confusion among practitioners.

  • CE and Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR)

  • With an increasing interest in the CE, the impact of technology is also being studied. The 4IR, signified by AI, blockchain, and 3D printing, can enhance resource productivity. It might not be wrong to say the CE is diverging and diffusing.

  • Disproportionate studies across industries

  • Throughout the study period, the CE-related studies were focused more on the manufacturing industry. Though the service industry significantly contributes to the economy’s GDP, there is still a lack of exploratory and empirical research related to the CE in the service industry.

  • Presence of confusion and clarity

  • Though study related to the CE has increased drastically, confusion about the CE still exists. Throughout the study period, authors were found working to clarify and define the CE.

  • CE indicators, matrices, and indices

  • With time, tests and studies related to the CE are rising, but there is still a lack of adequate and holistic indicators, matrices, and indices to measure the CE. Business entities have been unable to implement the CE due to the lack of circular toolkits and measurement instruments.

  • Fragmented verse integrated approach

  • While the CE was seen and studied as a fragmented and isolated subject before, now it is seen as a transdisciplinary domain. It incorporates multiple domains and cross-industry knowledge.

  • Concentrated approach on end-of-life strategy

  • Studies have listed a multiple CE approach related to closed-loop strategies and RLES; this includes a management strategy throughout the product life cycle for efficient utilization of resources. Still, in a practical word, businesses are found to be more focused on end-of-life strategies like recycling. Less focus has been placed on circular design and innovations.

3.4.2. Reconciling with the Umbrella Framework

The umbrella framework, which highlights the development of the theories across the time horizon, helps in understanding the diffusion and adoption of the concepts. In line with the previous studies by Hirsch and Levin [40] and Blomsma and Brennan [39], tremendous and significant diffusion in CE-related subject matters has been observed. Authors have incorporated multiple sectors in their studies; the CE has become a transdisciplinary domain that involves cross-industry knowledge. Studies of circular principles in fields like the environment, sustainability, built environment, metallurgy, waste management, and tourism have been conducted and are further evolving.

The CE and its impact on sustainability and sustainable development were studied from 2016 to 2021. Most authors before 2016 and the aftermath of 2016 have pointed to the CE as a medium to achieve sustainable development. In the same way, exploratory studies related to the CE were prevalent in each sampled year. Most of these studies were focused on citation and bibliometric analysis through the systematic review of literature whose focus was to understand the definitions and development in the concept of CE across the period. Still, at the same time, scientific studies related to the practical application of the CE are lacking.

Likewise, an attempt to quantify CE performance through CE-related indices, matrices, and indicators has been studied and proposed. Moreover, studies have stressed the positive impact of the CE beyond the environmental frontier, and several studies have highlighted the importance of the CE for the economic good of involved stakeholders. Still, the social and cultural implication of the CE has not been dealt with in detail [4]. As Blomsma and Brennan [39] concluded, the same topics have been revised and studied multiple times across the timeline but with higher complexity. The same pattern was observed in this study too.
Regarding the development in the CE concept and taxonomies, the authors [39], Friant et al. [38], and [15] all echoed the same version, CE is developing and diversifying, and the CE concept is in validity phase (as per the umbrella framework). For the assessment of circular development, a more holistic approach is taken in this study, as stated in Figure 5; for any theory to be successfully implemented/diffused in society, it has to have a solid theoretical background along with practical industry-level CE tools and kits.
As stated in Figure 5, a solid theoretical base is created by the pool of academic sources related to the CE. Regarding a theoretical base related to the CE, as illustrated in Table 1, significant research about CE concepts and topology has been recorded. But, during the same period, the studies related to the application of the CE have not been promising. For any theory to be quickly diffused and adopted, research and findings on its application are necessary and should be backed by evidence-based science [177].
Further, this assessment incorporated the parameters listed in the diffusion of innovation model by Moore and Benbasat [178] to test the level of the adoption of CE in the economy; Jebeile and Reeve [179] implemented the same model in their study to assess the diffusion of e-learning innovations in an Australian secondary college. Moore and Benbasats [178] model specifically provided seven factors that can support adopting a new theory and the same was tested in this study by making a case for the CE. Per Moore and Benbasat [178], listed factors are relative advantage, compatibility, ease of use, visibility, image, result demonstrability, and voluntarism. Table 13 lists the elements, their assessment, and their explanation regarding the adoption of the CE.
From Table 13, we observed that the CE lacks compatibility, has moderate visibility, is not easy to implement, and lacks the awareness to demonstrate and communicate its impact. Still, there is the presence of skepticism about adopting CE principles voluntarily. All these factors might hinder the diffusion and adoption of the CE in daily operations across the micro, meso, and macro levels.

3.4.3. CE Concept and CE Development: Progressive but Still in the Validity Phase

Compared to the last decades, there has been a significant increase in the literature related to the concepts and topologies of the CE (see Table 1). At the same time, scholars have studied the implication of circular principles across industries (see Table 10). From the previous research by authors Blomsma and Brennan [39]; Friant et al. [38]; and Reike et al. [15], this study confirms that CE is still going through rigorous tests and experimentation and the same time, its usefulness and positive impacts are being widely accepted and acknowledged in the global platform. This acceptance and diffusion have been geographically different; the circular approach and understanding across the global south and north are different [180].

While countries in the EU, Japan, and China have firmly accepted and adopted the CE, countries in the least developed countries (LDC) and developing countries are still unaware of the CE and its consequences. Contemporarily, most of the development in the CE has been in developed and advanced economies. Based on the previous literature studies and findings, we can infer that the CE is in the validity phase of umbrella framework. But also, at the same time, the theory is not widely accepted due to the lack of system-wide holistic studies.

Through the sample period (2016 to mid-2021), there have been a lot of concepts and application-based development in the CE. But still, the CE has not become homogeneously accepted in the global arena. As depicted, it is received and acknowledged in developed countries, but still, its adoption has been minuscule in the other half of the globe.

Figure 6 illustrates the final inference for this study, the current status of CE development, and its adoption globally. Until now, Blomsma and Brennan [39] stated the CE still to be in the validity test stage; Reike et al. [15] further classified the CE as CE 1.0, CE 2.0, and CE 3.0, where CE 1.0 signifies the period when waste production was seen as a negative to CE 3.0 where the focus was placed on long-term consumption and sustainability, and Friant et al. [38] laid down multiple topologies for the CE based on the adoption modalities of the CE in societies.
Throughout the assessment of developments of CE concepts, CE typologies, and the CE for the business world, most scholars have inferred that there still exists confusion in CE concepts and definitions; at the same time, there is no denying that CE philosophies are being experimented with across the industries, there still lacks a common ground and standard reports for the CE. This heterogeneity in the implementation of the CE has created confusion. Figure 6 portrays that, starting in 2016, the CE is still in the validity challenge phase. In the last decade, much more has been achieved theoretically and practically. It can be concluded that the development of CE concepts is progressive but has not been fully implemented. Hence, the researcher has concluded CE developments to be “Progressive but in Validity Challenge Phase”.
The green arrow in Figure 6, which is at an angle between the horizontal axis: permanent issue and line of coherence, is the present state of CE adoption. The degree of coherence, which is the sum of the degree of acceptance and degree of gap (Degree of Coherence = Degree of Acceptance + Degree of Gap), has illustrated that there still is a gap in the implementation of the CE. But there is also a degree of acceptance fueled by the circular developments and practices in advanced and developed countries. In the global context, after the inception of the EMF and the publication of its seminal papers, the EU and countries like China and Japan are aggressively trying to implement CE philosophies by bringing policy-level reforms, but the other hand, a vast majority of the countries and civilization are still either unaware or lack enough resources to transition from LE to CE.
Figure 6 states the development and achievements made in CE since 2016. Compared to the preamble and excitement phase, tremendous analytical and technical introspection related to CE has been carried out. CE is diffusing and diversifying, but still, there exist numerous challenges in the implementation of CE. Hence, this study concludes by highlighting CE to be in the validity challenge phase and, at the same time, notes that the development has been positive and progressive. However, most global communities are still unaware of the concept, importance, and implication of CE at the micro, meso, and macro levels of the economy.
Though CE has a positive and promising impact on ecological, economic, and social frontiers in society, there is still an absence of studies related to the practical implementation of CE that might support company, market, or the government to transition from the existing LE to the paradigm modality of the CE (see Table 1).
After analyzing 27 sampled CE definitions, the researcher proposed a CE definition incorporating the philosophy of responsible and ethical consumption, encapsulating cultural dimension and promising future for upcoming generations. The researcher noted the divergence in the definitions of the CE which justifies the diffusion of the CE across the industries. Still, at the same time, this heterogeneity and lack of homogenous nomenclature can have created confusion in the understanding and adoption of the CE [12]. A plethora of authors: Centobelli et al. [45], de Oliveira et al. [159], Hosseinian et al. [165], Masi et al. [113], Saidani et al. [116], Sassaneli et al. [136], Tapia et al. [54], and have mentioned the prevalence of a lack of clarity in CE concepts and definitions throughout the study.
The second section concluded that business communities’ and governments’ traction toward the CE is rising [33,36,76]. Table 1 portrays the increase in the number of CE-related papers in Google Scholar; it was 500 in 2000, which increased to 21,903 in the middle of July 2021. The CE is rapidly diversifying and diffusing across industries. The chronological study carried out through the sampled period from 2016 to 2021 has listed multiple themes generated across the sectors (see Table 4 to Table 10) and finally categorized 22 themes to which the sampled papers were related. While a significant number of articles were still referring to the lack of clarity of the CE, a sizable number of documents were also working to understand the CE concept (see Table 10).
Upon reconciliation of the extant literature related to CE with the umbrella framework as previously studied by Blomsma and Brennan [39] and Friant et al. [38], this study concluded that the development of CE concepts in theory as well as in the practical dimension is still in the validity challenge phase but is in the progressive and positive direction. As listed in Table 11, though there is still the presence of confusion related to the CE, it should not be neglected that there are also studies related to newer premises like circular design, the CE as a transdisciplinary field, CE matrices and indices, and sectoral studies related to the CE (see Table 11) which provides ample reasons for us to believe that the CE is being experimented with and tested rigorously. Figure 6 depicts that though there is a degree of acceptance, the degree of the gap must be eliminated for the CE to be fully diffused in the social spectrum. To minimize this gap, enablers for the CE should be implemented.

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And in case you missed it, here is our ultimate road trip playlist is the perfect mix of podcasts, and hidden gems that will keep you energized for the entire journey


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