Studying circular business initiatives

The CIRCLE project consists of several research activities. However, at the core of the CIRCLE project is a set of case studies, that are expected to generate data to be studied from multiple angles in several work packages. This methodology had to consider all CIRCLE project’s data needs. Because of this, developing a joint case study methodology was a challenging task that required collaborative effort. Developing the methodology took several discussions and consultations with project partners. After several months of work the methodology is finalised and we can look back and reflect on the major methodological challenges we identified in the process.

1.Choosing an object to study

The core task for the case studies is to assess circular practices, social-material structures enabling circularity and the performance of enterprises closing bioresource loops. We could have tried to solve these tasks by working with estimations provided by experts. However, we were not ready to lose the evidence coming from enterprises adopting circular practices. We felt that we must benefit from the possibility to work with real enterprises that are closing loops of bioresources. To do this we had to focus on enterprises and work with their experiences. However, focusing only on enterprises would have given us only a limited understanding of the bioresource loops. So we also had to find a way to focus on closed loops. Because of this, we decided that in our case studies we should focus on circular business initiatives (CBIs) as well as on the resource loops these CBIs are a part of. On the one hand, this approach provides an opportunity to analyse horizontal and vertical structural arrangements enabling or disabling the CBIs and assess the role of ethics for each case. On the other hand, CBA and sustainability assessment can be conducted for the circular practices focusing on the complete bioresource loop. Because of these considerations, the CIRCLE project agreed to the following definition of a case: a case is both a CBIs engaging with bioresources and a closed loop of the bioresources the CBIs is part of. Each case represents two things simultaneously – a CBIs (a set of strategies that among other things allow valorising some bioresource waste) and a closed loop of bioresources that allows valorising the bioresource waste. While this definition offers us a broader and more elaborated view of the studied subject, it also is a source of difficulties. The definition we adapted essentially had two different dimensions for each case that had to be aligned and explored. This complicated the selection of methods to be used for assessing the cases. However, it will also create some difficulties when we will need to present the data. We will have to give an honest presentation of the interlinkages between the business model and the loops not exaggerating the significance of one or the other and being honest regarding the interlinkages connecting the two.

2. Defining cross and intra-circularity

The proposal suggested that we will use case studies to analyse business models engaging in cross- and intra-sectoral circularity. The original assumption was that it will be more difficult for us to identify cross-sectoral cases. However, the selection of cases revealed a somewhat different picture.

The intra-sectoral circularity of bioresources can be easily spotted if simple forms of resource use within one farm are considered. However, it becomes much more difficult if structurally more complex arrangements are explored. In this case, it is much more difficult to affiliate loops with any particular sector – often the resources leave the borders of one sector just to end up in the bridging sector (like the food industry) to later return to focus sectors (potentially through another bridging sector – like energy). Energy production seems to be a particularly widespread destination for bioresource waste. Our initial assessment allows us to suggest that typical resource loops are longer than we anticipated. Furthermore, while from an academic point of view we were anticipating that typically bioresources will remain within one sector, in reality, we already observe that resources are not bound to the borders of sectors.

3. Focusing on enterprises

In our experience, the case study approach is usually applied to study phenomena occurring on a broader scale – either on the level of a sector, a region or in a particular period. In the CIRCLE project, the case study approach is used to analyse business models. This urges us to primarily look at the internal structures of an enterprise and the partnerships the particular enterprise has developed. Consequently, there is a very narrow field of people who can provide the information we need in our studies. Furthermore, the information we collect is very enterprise-specific and at some moments it might balance on the edge of what the enterprise perceives as confidential. Thus, we need to negotiate with enterprises our engagement with them and obtain consent that these enterprises agree to be studied. We have adopted the sustainable circular business model innovation approach to explore processes taking place within an enterprise. This approach recognises the multiple layers within and outside the enterprise that enable circular business models.

However, it is also evident, that structural arrangements developed in an enterprise are just a reflection of the entrepreneurial ecosystem and regulations in place in the territory. Thus, although the main focus of the case studies is on enterprises, it must not lose sight of the contextual processes. Because of this, we supplemented the innovation model with a STEEP analysis exercise focusing on the facilitating factors and barriers either allowing enterprises engaging with circular practices to thrive or – challenging their attempts to close the loops.

4. Identifying consumers

One of the questions addressed in the case studies is the target markets the case study enterprises have identified for their products. While discussing the methodology, we discovered that in the case of products developed adapting circular use of bioresources, identifying target markets might be more challenging than we anticipated. Our initial guess is that there might not be a particular market focused on closing the bioresource loops. We are making this statement based on two considerations: a) we struggle to identify groups of consumers who would be particularly interested in products that are closing bioresource loops (with an exception of energy markets), and b) we do not see particular elements that would allow a consumer to distinguish products that are produced while closing bioresource loops.

If we consider the difficulties to identify consumers, then a couple of additional issues should be noted. First of all – there are very few circular business initiatives that engage with the final consumers. Instead, most of the product produced is sold to other enterprises who are not buying the product due to its production strategy but rather because of its general properties. In B2B trade, we struggle to identify cases that would be favoured as a partner due to their role in closing the resource loops. And again, energy production is an exception that has emerged mainly due to policy intervention.

Regarding the second issue – we struggle to identify any elements that would allow consumers to identify that a particular product has been produced in a way that closes bioresource loops. Because of this, we doubt that even if there were such an indication, consumers would know what to make of it. Consequently, it is not a production strategy that has been marketed and thus consumers might have very little information about it. Again – there are some notable exceptions as, for example, the energy production.

5. Finding a comparative angle.

Finally, we had to ensure that the selected cases can be compared. While selecting circular business initiatives, we observed that the enterprises engaged with circular practices are extremely different. These initiatives represent different sectors, are scattered across the supply chain, have different target markets, and differ in size.

To ensure that there is a comparability between the selected CBIs we decided to select cases in pairs. We aimed to ensure that for each of the selected cases there is at least one relatively similar case in the sample – either representing the same sector and engaged in somewhat similar activities, or using somewhat similar inputs. This will ensure that there is at least one dimension of comparability. However, additionally, we also introduced analytical categories that allow fragmenting the CBIs and the context they are embedded in thus allowing us to compare the similar pieces of the cases.

The developed methodology will be used to conduct case studies across the four partner countries. The first results of the case studies are expected to come in due in May 2023.

Photo: UIrike Leone /