Applying operations and supply chain management theories in the circular economy context



Increasing attention to circular economy (CE) initiatives and related socio-political interest has seen limited investigation from operations and supply chain perspectives. This is somewhat surprising as aspects of reverse logistics, remanufacturing, servitization and sustainable supply chain management are well- established fields of research and practice that can have a direct link with CE praxis.

CE research has grown significantly over the past few years, to the extent that it has become an applied field of knowledge driving research streams of strong influence on the modus operandi of a more sustainable world (Winans, Kendall and Deng, 2017). Not surprisingly, in the mainstream operations and supply chain management (OSCM) literature some studies use ‘circular economy’ as an umbrella term loosely applied to characterise the sustainability of production systems and related supply chains. The variety of CE perspectives contributes to contested claims about its theoretical underpinnings (Korhonen, Honkasalo and Seppälä, 2018), which posit conceptual tensions and create a constellation of disparate ideas (Sehnem et al., 2019). Some of these are undoubtedly important to OSCM research, but many others still present inconclusive concepts.

The circular economy is directly related to sustainable production and operations. Some scholars (Genovese et al., 2017) have acknowledged that the integration of CE principles within sustainable supply chains and related operations can provide clear managerial and competitive advantages. However, the linkages between CE and sustainability are still problematic (Schröder et al., 2019), as the similarities and differences between both concepts remain ambiguous, with blurred conceptual contours that undermine the development of theory supporting sustainable OSCM (Geissdoerfer et al., 2017).

Applied knowledge areas such as CE are not exempt from meeting scientific rigour in both scholarship and practice. The lack of sound CE theoretical basis hinders its advancement from achieving a broader consensus and a paradigmatic level acceptable by the research community. While the industry is beginning to embrace a paradigm shift from a linear to a circular economy, in the academia CE is still in a pre-paradigmatic phase. This scenario highlights the lack of a solid amalgamation of theory and practice to characterise it as an exemplar framework of paradigmatic status (Smart et al., 2017). Simultaneously, the elaboration of loose theories undermines the implementation and replication of CE operations and supply chain management practices.

Some key issues found in the current literature are:

  • Various CE perspectives in OSCM research are presented with limited or no theoretical considerations. The process of theory building beyond conceptualisations is overlooked; having little relation to explain real-world phenomena in production systems.
  • The CE field suffers from little theoretical guidance (Lahti, Wincent and Parida, 2018) that can be applied to provide sustainability foundations to the OSCM discipline.
  • Overall, CE is relatively absent in publication streams of leading operations and supply chain management journals. This gap leaves critical CE principles and theories underpinned by OSCM research to be addressed and disseminated mainly through sustainability-focused journals. These journals do not fully reach the OSCM research community and peripherally inform OSCM practitioners who may not realise that CE is much broader than environmental sustainability concerns.

The issues above suggest that Lewin’s maxim “There is nothing more practical than a good theory” (Lewin, 1952) is not being fully realised by the OSCM community when addressing CE. When Lewin put this proverb forward, he was proposing that applied research should make use of existing theories to support studies aimed at solving practical problems or finding answers to practical questions. The innovative aspects and findings of applied research should be used to expand or add knowledge to existing theories.

Indeed, theory and practice are crucial to advance understanding and knowledge of subject areas and domains of practical repercussion, such as CE, where our ability to promote purposeful change depends on meaningful linkages between theory and practice. According to Swanson and Chermack (2013), both theorists and interventionists need to treat a theory as a relevant entity whose form and substance rest upon it being rigorously applied, tested and refined in the field. The scientific community should, therefore, grasp the opportunities that practical interventions offer for theory testing and development. The findings of practical studies should stimulate and inform efforts to revise, refine, build or reject theoretical developments. This offers a fundamental basis for theory-driven OSCM research concerning CE.


The call for theory-building research in the OSCM community is not new. Decades ago Meredith (1993) raised concerns about the dearth of theories in OSCM, particularly theories that allow the formulation of hypotheses or propositions which can be tested and offer fundamental support for innovative, forward-looking, managerial practices. OSCM theory has substantially evolved since Jack Meredith put his concerns to the research community.  However, theory building still remains a current OSCM scholarship concern (Pagell and Shevchenko, 2014; Markman and Krause, 2016; Hitt, Xu and Carnes, 2016; Koh et al., 2017; Wu and Jia, 2018; Liu et al., 2018; Seuring et al., 2020).

The objective of this special issue is to stimulate theory-building research that further establishes CE within the mainstream of OSCM discipline. To this end, the special issue offers a platform to integrate empirical studies whose theoretical contributions provide clear and robust foundations for CE theory underpinned by sustainable OSCM.

More specifically, the SI will include papers that critically consider relevant theoretical strands that provide a sound and coherent basis to explain, support and underpin CE knowledge and managerial praxis in the realm of OSCM. Collectively, the papers in the SI will comprise relevant studies identifying directions and establishing a research agenda for scholars to make progress on CE theoretical lenses linked to OSCM research.

Potential Topics

In this SI, we invite the research community to address the central question of ‘how can OSCM theory be applied to advance CE principles, knowledge and practice?’ This question can be addressed from different theoretical strands.

We welcome any kind of theories and empirical settings. We encourage scholars to submit academically oriented papers that critically explore theoretical OSCM perspectives that can potentially rationalise CE theory and praxis. Thus, we expect papers to put forward theoretical propositions that not only explain and inform CE practices, but also help to shape a theoretical ground for CE itself. In this process, theoretical perspectives for sustainable OSCM can also evolve.

For instance, the progressive adoption of ‘circular’ supply chains concepts (Batista et al., 2018) seeks to incorporate notions of reverse logistics, closed-loop supply chains and SSCM to support organisational collaborations that can be applied to implement value chain ecosystems advocated by CE. Fundamental premises of sustainable product design and process reengineering (Vanegas et al., 2018) can be linked to CE principles of materials recovery, reutilisation and design out waste. Similarly, remanufacturing and servitization operations based upon product recovery practices (Kastalli and Van Looy, 2013) can be closely related to regenerative and restorative production systems encouraged by CE. Overall, many different aspects of OSCM can be considered from sustainability perspectives (Walker et al., 2014) that can be associated with triple bottom line dimensions of CE.

We invite authors to apply theoretical perspectives that help characterise sustainable OSCM phenomena and, at the same time, bring forward empirically based CE theory. Potential research topics and issues include but are not limited to the following:

  • Sustainable OSMC concepts, models, strategies and practices that can be applied to characterise ‘circularity’ fundaments and principles of CE.
  • Dynamics of sustainable production and consumption ecosystems and related organisational relationships that link with industrial symbiosis perspectives of CE.
  • Manufacturing servitization, product-service systems (PSS) or product availability contracts that characterise restorative and regenerative CE principles (e.g. reuse, repair, remanufacturing, etc.).
  • OSCM supporting business collaboration models and strategies shaping CE collaborative consumption phenomena.
  • Policy, macroeconomic and sociological theories have been used to consider CE at the broadest levels, how do these theoretical perspectives mesh with organisational or microeconomy level OSCM theories?
  • How can OSCM concepts and practices related to Extended Producer Responsibility inform CE life-cycle principles?
  • Can new theoretical perspectives such as Natural Resource Dependence Theory be advanced by linking CE to OSCM or OSCM to CE research?
  • Can contested concepts of CE be addressed through greater linkages to OSCM concepts?

Key Dates and Submissions Information

Submissions open: 11th October 2021

Submissions deadline: 31st January 2022

Submissions are to be made through the IJOPM ScholarOne manuscript submission portal, and authors are encouraged to consult the journal's author guidelines.

Guest Editors

Luciano Batista is a Senior Lecturer (Associate Professor) in Operations Management at Aston Business School, Aston University, UK. He is also the founding Director of CEAS (Centre for Circular Economy and Advanced Sustainability) at Aston. Luciano is Chartered Member of the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport (CILT), Member of the European Operations Management Association (EurOMA) and Member of the Microeconomics of Competitiveness group at Harvard Business School, Harvard University. Luciano is also Principal Investigator of the UKMSN+ (UK Manufacturing Symbiosis Network plus), a £1 million nationwide project funded by the EPSRC to develop CE capabilities in the UK economy. His research interests focus mainly on the sustainability of operations and supply chains, new business models for the circular economy and the interface between the circular and the digital economy.

Stefan Seuring is Professor in Supply Chain Management at the Faculty of Business and Economics, University of Kassel, Germany. He is one of the globally leading authors on the topic of sustainable supply chain management, but also covers a range of other relevant topics in the OMSCM literature, such as supply chain strategy and digitisation. Stefan has collaborated interdisciplinary in research projects with colleagues from agriculture, engineering and political sciences. In 2016, he was listed among the 27 globally most-influential researchers in logistics and supply chain management by a panel of French Researchers. Over the last three years, the Web of Science and Clarivate Analytics acknowledged and listed Stefan as a highly cited researcher for cross-field Economics and Business.

Amrik Sohal is Professor in the Faculty of Business and Economics at Monash University, Australia, where he has held many leadership positions including Director of the Australian Supply Chain Management Research Unit, Associate Dean (Research Development) and Associate Dean (Research). Amrik has received several research grants from the State and Federal Governments, the Australian Research Council and industry. He has authored over 200 research papers published in refereed journals, as well as three books and a number of book chapters. His current research interests cover aspects of operations strategy, supply chain management, technological innovation and sustainability improvement. Amrik was the Asia Pacific Editor of the International Journal of Operations and Production Management (IJOPM) for many years and he is currently a member of the Editorial Advisory Board of IJOPM.

Andrea Genovese is a Professor in Logistics and Supply Chain Management at Sheffield University Management School, The University of Sheffield, UK. His primary research interest lies in the development and application of decision support methodologies (based on both qualitative and quantitative approaches) in order to solve complex problems in the field of Supply Chain Management, with a special emphasis on Environmental and Social Sustainability aspects and significant societal challenges. His recent research has been focusing on the transition towards a circular economy; within this context, he has been leading major EU-funded projects.

Joseph Sarkis is a Professor of Management within the Foisie Business School at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Buffalo.  His research and teaching interests include Sustainability, Technology, Operations and Supply Chain Management.  He has authored over 450 publications and has been a highly cited researcher as recognised by the Web-of-Science for five years straight.  He is an AT&T Industrial Ecology Fellow and has served as a research scholar at universities throughout the world.  He is a coordinator within the Future Earth Systems of Sustainable Consumption and Production (SSCP) Knowledge-Action Network in the Circular Economy Working Group.  He is also an international program coordinator for the Greening of Industry Network (GIN) along with the Greening of Industry Networks book series co-editor for Springer-Nature.  He is currently Editor-in-Chief of IEEE Engineering Management Review and Associate Editor for the journal Resources Conservation and Recycling on the topic of sustainable supply chains. He holds editorial positions in many other leading journals.  He has been recognised as one of the world’s most productive scholars over the past 40-50 years on Supply Chain Management, Sustainability, and Operations Research topics.


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