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The proposed dissertation topic is to explore the relationship between sustainability and the Circular Economy considering its impacts on business models and innovation. This topic has arisen from the need to address the increased challenges of how to align economic growth with the need to address societal inequalities and environmental degradation which is seeing an increased level of stakeholder interest and demands for higher levels of action from governments and businesses (United Nations Climate Change 2019; Mulvihill and Harris Ali 2017; George et al 2016). These challenges include a wide range of issues from the concept of planetary boundaries (Galaz 2012; Rockstrom et al 2009) to the use of the Internet of Things as a method to address and develop solutions such as tracking products throughout the lifecycle to ensure that there is a higher level of reuse and recycling (Trott 2017; Braungart and McDonough 2009).
These challenges will be explored through the concepts of sustainability and the Circular Economy which present the opportunity to develop a greater understanding of the challenges of developing the links between the economic, societal and environmental factors of production and consumption (Mulvihill and Harris Ali 2017; Crane and Matten 2016).
This will undertake a literature review on the current perspectives of the concepts of sustainability and the Circular Economy and present the similarities and differences between these (Geissdoerfer et al 2017). These will then be further explored by evaluating the impacts of sustainability and the Circular Economy on business models and innovation by analysing the different business activities being undertaken to address these (Mulvihill and Harris Ali 2017; Markard 2012).
Research Aim and objectives
Research aim: To explore the relationship between sustainability and the Circular Economy by considering its impacts on business models and innovation.
Objective 1: To examine the similarities and differences between sustainability and the Circular Economy.
Objective 2: To investigate the impacts of sustainability and the Circular Economy on business models and innovation.
Objective 3: To evaluate the relationship between Sustainability and the Circular Economy.
The purpose of the literature is to not only explore the current academic research which is relevant to this proposed dissertation but to also locate the research gaps which will provide the dissertation with the opportunity to provide a contribution to the current level of knowledge in this subject area (Cresswell and Cresswell 2018). The initial literature review will include an exploration of the concepts of sustainability and the Circular Economy.
The concept of sustainability can be examined from a variety of perspectives which include the necessity to consider the finite nature of resources and to evaluate how these can be conserved and preserved to prevent their loss and to support biodiversity and ecosystems (George et al 2016; Galaz 2012; Rockstrom et al 2009). Sustainability also includes the need to address the challenges of intra and inter-generational equity and to ensure that the present quality of life does not compromise future generations by increasing the level of societal inequality and environmental degradation (Mulvihill and Harris Ali 2017; Geissdoerfer et al 2017). Sustainability is therefore focused on how the tensions between economic growth, society and the environment can shift from a process of exploitation, based upon current production and consumption methods, to one where there are greater levels of equality between these three areas (United Nations Sustainable Development Goals 2019; Mulvihill and Harris Ali 2017; Geissdoerfer et al 2017; Beder 2006).
The Circular Economy
The Circular Economy has gained increased levels of academic interest due to the increased level of awareness created by the work and support of government institutions such as the European Union and private institutions such as the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (European Union [EU] 2019; Ellen MacArthur Foundation 2017). This work has seen strategies and support being developed to encourage the wider use of the principles of the Circular Economy which undertakes a restorative and regenerative approach to increase resource efficiency and reduce waste (Ellen MacArthur Foundation 2017). The Circular Economy is based upon the need to move away from linear production and consumption patterns (cradle-to-grave) which to a closed loop system (cradle-to-cradle) (Braungart and McDonough 2009). Whilst this dissertation will focus on the Circular Economy, there are also an increasing number of similar activities which seek to address linear production processes to reduce the use and harm created by these and these include biomimicry (Benyus 2002); the looped economy (Stahel 2010) and the blue economy (Pauli 2017).
Similarities and differences between the concepts of sustainability and the Circular Economy
One of the main similarities between sustainability and the Circular Economy includes the focus of each upon the need for business models to undertake innovations to address the challenges of societal inequality and environmental degradation (Geissdoerfer et al 2017). However. One of the differences between the two concepts relates to the scope and this presents sustainability as a far broader approach to the challenges of economic growth, societal inequalities and environmental degradation (Mulvihill and Harris Ali 2017; Geissdoerfer et al 2017). In contrast, the scope of the Circular Economy is more focused on the economic perspective and the benefits which this can provide for society and the environment (Geissdoerfer et al 2017; Braungart and McDonough 2009).
The research gaps from the initial literature review includes the lack of academic research into the relationship between sustainability and the Circular Economy which has failed to robustly address the similarities and differences between the two concepts (Geissdoerfer et al 2017). There is therefore a lack of conceptual clarity as regards the definitions and understanding of sustainability and the Circular Economy and how these can be more successfully integrated to address the challenges of social equality and equity; increase environmental resilience and maintaining economic prosperity (Geissdoerfer et al 2017; Mulvihill and Harris Ali 2017).
The methodology will provide the selected research paradigm and the data collection and analysis process and the justification for this (Cresswell and Cresswell 2018; Saunders et al 2016). This decision-making process has been based on the most appropriate and effective way in which the research aim can be explored, evaluated and communicated in the research to ensure that it provides a contribution to the current level of knowledge, both from an academic and business perspective (Cresswell and Cresswell 2018; Saunders et al 2016).
The selected research paradigm in interpretivist and the rationale for this includes the following:
- The interpretivist paradigm supports the development of multiple meanings and thus allows the complexity of the relationship between sustainability and the Circular Economy to be more fully explored (Cresswell and Cresswell 2018; Saunders et al 2016).
- Interpretivism supports the researcher’s assumptions about the world which include their ontological (nature of reality) and epistemological (validity of knowledge) outlook (Saunders et al 2016; Bryman and Bell 2015). Within the interpretivist paradigm, the ontological assumption supports the development of multiple meanings regarding the research topics such as the similarities and differences between the concepts of sustainability and the Circular Economy and enables the communication of these in the data collection and analysis process (Cresswell and Cresswell 2018; Gill and Johnson 2010). In addition to this, the epistemological assumption in the interpretivist paradigm supports the development of a greater understanding of the research topics by considering different meanings (Cresswell and Cresswell 2018; Saunders et al 2016).
To further support the selection of the interpretivist approach, the methodology will also include the rationale for the rejection of the positivist paradigm which includes the following reasons (Cresswell and Cresswell 2018; Bryman and Bell 2015).
- Positivism, despite its strengths in employing a range of robust research conventions, undertakes a cause and effect approach relying with a reliance on specific variables (Cresswell and Cresswell 2018; Saunders et al 2016).
- Positivism seeks to prove or disprove a theory which in the context of the high level of uncertainty and complexity relating to the concepts of sustainability and the Circular Economy would reduce the level of meaning of these (Bryman and Bell 2015; Neuman 2013).
Data collection and analysis
The data collection will include secondary data from an academic literature review to explore the concepts of sustainability and the Circular Economy and the similarities and differences between these. Secondary data will also include the analysis of case studies of businesses to further explore the practical application of sustainability and the principles of the Circular Economy in terms of changes in business models and innovation (Trott 2017; Mulvihill and Harris Ali 2017). The data collection will include multiple sources and will therefore support a mixed methods approach (Molina-Azorin and Cameron 2010; Tashakkori and Teddlie 2010).
The data analysis will undertake a thematic approach based upon the research aim and objectives (Saunders et al 2016). This analysis is based on an exploratory approach which seeks to increase the level of understanding of a particular topic and the inductive approach which relates to the context of the data within the case studies of the selected businesses (Cresswell and Cresswell 2018; Yin 2018).
Whilst no primary data is being collected, it is still important to consider ethics within the research process to ensure that no harm occurs to either the researcher, the research participants nor to the university (Cresswell and Cresswell 2018). The research ethics for this dissertation proposal will therefore include the need to ensure that information from the secondary sources is presented fairly and accurately (Saunders et al 2016; Bryman and Bell 2015).
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