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Bosetti, L. Implementing and Monitoring Circular Business Models. Encyclopedia. Available online: https://encyclopedia.pub/entry/17677 (accessed on 17 April 2024).
Bosetti L. Implementing and Monitoring Circular Business Models. Encyclopedia. Available at: https://encyclopedia.pub/entry/17677. Accessed April 17, 2024.
Bosetti, Luisa. "Implementing and Monitoring Circular Business Models" Encyclopedia, https://encyclopedia.pub/entry/17677 (accessed April 17, 2024).
Bosetti, L. (2021, December 30). Implementing and Monitoring Circular Business Models. In Encyclopedia. https://encyclopedia.pub/entry/17677
Bosetti, Luisa. "Implementing and Monitoring Circular Business Models." Encyclopedia. Web. 30 December, 2021.
Implementing and Monitoring Circular Business Models
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The transition from a linear to a circular economy (CE) is at the center of the debate among institutions, enterprises, practitioners, and scholars. The CE emphasizes the importance of closing material loops, pointing out the need to shift from a “take and discard” logic to a “reuse, recycle, and recover” logic.

Small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), with their high presence in the business environment, play a pivotal role in the successful implementation of CE principles. This is particularly true in Italy, where flexibility, creativity and speedy decision-making characterizing a large number of SMEs make them the ideal candidates to guide the transition to a CE.

circular economy sustainability SMEs survey awareness benefits barriers circular economy-related KPIs reporting on circular economy

A few considerations can be drawn from the results of a broad questionnaire survey, which involved 623 Italian SMEs of different sizes (micro, small and medium) operating in various sectors (manufacturing, construction, and services).

1. Need for Information and Training on the CE

To be effective, the transition from linear to circular should rely on in-depth knowledge of CE principles, which is unfortunately lacking in half of the sample analyzed, as reported by the respondents. Insufficient knowledge seems to be a widespread problem among SMEs, as other studies have already revealed. For example, Fonseca et al. [1] discovered a general lack of knowledge on legal, fiscal, technical, and organizational aspects of the CE among Portuguese businesses. Moreover, Dissanayake and Weerasinghe [2] observed a lack of education of the workforce on corporate sustainability and poor understanding of social and environmental impacts of the company’s behavior.
If we refer specifically to the construction sector, which is one of those considered in our study, we note a slightly higher awareness of the CE than in the rest of the sample. This could be due to the need to find ways to manage and reduce the large quantities of discarded materials generated by construction and demolition. Adams et al. [3], who also investigated the construction sector, identified the lack of knowledge on the CE as a barrier to the greater implementation of circular business models. However, this study proved the existence of other more significant factors (such as the failure to consider end-of-life issues) limiting the construction sector’s transition to a CE.
According to our research findings, knowledge of the CE mainly derives from business experience, while structured education, training and information programs have played a secondary role until now. Undoubtedly, greater emphasis on the CE is required in different kinds of university courses, from Chemistry and Engineering to Management and Law, as well as in business school programs to ensure solid and extensive knowledge of CE principles and implications. A successful CE transition depends on an adequate education system, which should promote an innovative design education and provide all the necessary skills to develop and manage circular processes and products [2].
In the same way, stronger efforts should be made by trade associations to disseminate information on the CE and to promote and organize training for professionals in order to improve knowledge and understanding of the CE among entrepreneurs and managers, including those in charge of SMEs. Moreover, the collaborative exchange of valuable experience and sharing of successful CE practices, such as workshops and other major events developed at the industry-level or engaging the supply chain [4] can stimulate micro, small- and medium-sized companies to improve and expand their knowledge of circular business models. This should lead to a comprehensive modernization of the non-financial economic system in Italy—in which SMEs accounted for 99.9% of enterprises, 76.1% of value added and 64.3% of employment in 2020 [5], making it more sustainable in the greater interest of all stakeholders.

2. Lack of a Clear Strategic Perspective concerning the CE

Enterprises that can count on accurate knowledge of the CE are usually more willing to implement circular practices, because they understand the benefits they can obtain, especially in the long term. In such cases, companies recognize the strategic value of the CE for business success. The literature has underlined that the implementation of a CE is of strategic importance in the mid and long term [6]  because it sustains a new business approach that [7][8]:
  • Ensures greater resource efficiency,
  • Reduces waste,
  • Encourages new sources of revenues,
  • Enhances corporate image,
  • Strengthens employee loyalty,
  • Improves investor interest in the company, and
  • Attracts new financial resources.
However, the adoption of CE practices can be high risk in the short term, when the increased costs due to the changes made to business processes can deter shareholders from investing [8]. In this sense, risk aversion has been defined as an aptitude barrier to the implementation of a CE[9].
As regards the strategic role of the CE, our empirical results are inconclusive, thus confirming the difference of opinion existing on this point: in fact, half of the respondents agreed on the strategic role of the CE, while the other half disagreed. However, recognition of the strategic importance of the CE tends to grow together with the size of the business; as stated earlier, this could be due to a greater availability of resources, which enables the recruitment of more qualified staff who better understand the advantages of implementing a circular business model. It could also be evidence of the strategic nature of the CE in meeting the different expectations of stakeholders—economic, social, and environmental—which increase with an increase in company size and require innovative, balanced and sustainable responses in the long term [10][11].

3. Sub-Optimal Exploitation of the Potential of the CE

A broad application of circular practices is essential for taking full advantage of the CE, a result that isolated initiatives cannot ensure. However, the findings of this study show that the implementation of CE practices by the Italian SMEs that took part in the survey is quite rare, particularly in micro-enterprises. The adoption of circular models increases with the increase in size of the business, thus reflecting the general attitude of Italian SMEs towards environmental sustainability, according to a trend already observed by ISTAT [5]. Overall, just 30.21% of the sample had already undertaken CE-related activities at the time of the investigation: this proportion is much lower than in other countries, such as Romania (where, according to Oncioiu et al. [12], it reached 62.8%). Italian SMEs are significantly behind the other EU Member States average. As early as 2016, 73.18% of European SMEs that had already invested in the transition to a more circular model and had implemented at least one CE practice in the previous three years. This was more than double the result we obtained for Italy in 2021. Based on that same survey in 2016, Italy was ranked 19th among the 28 EU countries, with 66.61% of its SMEs engaged in CE activities [13][14]. Therefore, our study conducted in 2021 appears to show a situation that has worsened in the past five years, although this could be due to the different composition of our sample from that investigated in 2016. However, if the decline is real, it could be caused by the increase in barriers to adopting a CE that our survey also highlighted; these barriers could be discouraging companies to design and implement circular business models, as revealed by the significant proportion of respondents (56.54% of a total of 566) whose enterprises were not even considering the CE in their future strategies.
Where the transition towards a CE has started, it usually consists in the internal recovery of materials, including packaging and production off-cuts, in the company processes and the purchase of recycled materials and products to be used by the business. In both cases, SMEs can benefit from cost savings, which our results identified as the most common advantage of a circular business model, in line with the findings of other studies [1]. Using recycled goods also protects companies from supply chain-related risks, such as those embedded in procurement processes and connected to the price volatility of raw materials, due to the increasing scarcity of non-renewable natural resources [15][16][17][18].
More complex actions, such as the redesign of processes, products, and services, are adopted much less frequently, probably because they necessitate technical and engineering skills [19] and the investment of financial resources that SMEs do not currently possess. Similarly, energy production from waste, which requires the installation of specific plants, is even rarer, as already revealed by other studies [20], also focused on SMEs [12].
The overall picture highlights sub-optimal exploitation of the potential of the CE. Italian SMEs adopt CE practices to reduce costs, but they do not specifically associate the CE with process and product innovation. In general, innovation is widely recognized as one of the most important benefits of the CE to business [17], and our research findings confirm this opinion: indeed, most of the respondents to our questionnaire agreed with the statement that “CE fosters innovation”. Nevertheless, Italian SMEs, which are traditionally renowned for their ability to innovate in-house and develop patents [5], still seem unaware of how to turn words into action when it comes to the CE. We discovered that they do not focus on the CE as a means of product and service diversification, through which they could instead enter new markets, build strategic partnerships downstream, reach different categories of customer and educate consumers to be more sensitive towards environmental issues [20].
The lack of strategic perspective can explain why increased revenues have been reported as a positive effect of the CE by only 22 companies of the 155 that, according to our research, have implemented circular practices. Likewise, only 16 SMEs have built partnerships based on a shared circular approach to business.
Most likely, the continued poor knowledge and understanding of the CE among Italian SMEs leads to a short-term and narrow view of its potential. In this regard, our survey proved that most companies are unable to assess whether a CE helps find new customers, supports industrial partnerships and is a distinguishing factor competitively. Given these nebulous ideas about the potential of the CE, it is not surprising that many Italian SMEs have been reluctant to embrace circular business practices.

4. Need to Remove Barriers to the Extensive Implementation of a CE

The existence of different kinds of barriers to an extensive transition from linear to circular business models, as already stated in earlier investigations [21][22][23].
Some obstacles, which are mostly connected to SMEs’ internal organization and functioning, are managerial and technological: the shortage of CE know-how and skills and difficulties in rethinking processes, products, and services with the purpose of closing the loop [19]. In addition, a silo mentality that can cause a certain reluctance by some departments to share information with others constitutes a further barrier to the CE transition [22][24][25].
The lack of the necessary knowledge and expertise could be exacerbated by a mismatch between the demand for and the supply of labor [16][26][27] in a market where large companies attract the most qualified workers, thus depriving SMEs of the expertise required to implement CE measures. This could obviously hinder the innovation of industrial processes and the development of more sustainable products and solutions.
However, even enterprises that employ valuable human resources could face barriers to the widespread adoption of a CE; there could be cultural barriers when consumers are neither aware nor interested in the advantages of using products with a longer life cycle [21] and a lower environmental footprint [28][29].
According to Winans et al. [30], the barriers to the CE transition can be actually due to a lack of stakeholder involvement in a shared vision. Similarly, Ratnasabapathy et al. [31], who investigated the construction industry, identified the lack of communication and coordination among stakeholders as a specific barrier to waste trade.
In such an uncertain context, only few SMEs may be prepared to invest large amounts of capital in promoting a CE, especially if this requires borrowing. The lack of financial resources poses serious challenges for the implementation of the CE in small- and medium companies, as already revealed by many studies [32][33][34]. The difficulty for CE-oriented SMEs in accessing finance was also observed [35] with reference to the European context.
In this regard, our study found that financial barriers have been hampering the implementation of circular business models in many Italian SMEs; hardly any of the enterprises participating in the survey have benefited from easier access to credit or public funds as an effect of adopting CE practices. Similarly, respondents expressed little conviction that a CE can help obtain financial resources. In addition, companies adopting CE practices do not benefit from tax concessions and they have to deal with overwhelming bureaucracy, which creates a regulatory barrier aggravating existing difficulties [15][21][36].
In general, we observe the existence of a vicious circle that inhibits the implementation of a CE. In fact, the transition from a linear to a circular model requires the investment of a considerable amount of money. However, as noted by Adams et al. [3], the inclination of companies towards adopting a CE is poorly recognized and appreciated when the enterprise applies for private or public funds to support its transition. This calls for significant actions by national and regional authorities in Italy to support businesses engaged in the transition to a CE. Policy makers should introduce direct measures to promote the CE, such as incentives, tax relief and simplified bureaucracy. All these measures have been largely advocated in the existing literature [15][32][36][37], which has particularly underlined the need to connect incentives and tax exemption to higher resource efficiency [38]. In this respect, it is worth mentioning that the lack of incentives and public support was reported by the companies participating in our survey as the second most pressing obstacle to the implementation of a CE. Indirect interventions by public institutions, trade and consumer associations and civil society may also help overcome the skepticism that still exists surrounding the CE and makes its adoption difficult for Italian SMEs.
Awareness campaigns could be an important instrument for informing consumers about the lower environmental impact of circular solutions involving reusing, repairing, recycling, and refurbishing, with no negative implication on quality. Such campaigns should encourage the consumers who have not yet embraced the green transition [21][23][39] to purchase products and services provided by CE-oriented businesses and to return used products back to the producer [2]. These changes in consumer behavior can stimulate companies to incorporate eco-design principles [40][41] and reward their efforts towards greater sustainability.
In the same manner, more intense dialogue between business associations and the financial sector could make banks and other financial operators more conscious of the fact that CE-oriented SMEs are exposed to fewer risks and open up new market opportunities. Unfortunately, the investment community has often been accused of operating with “short-term blinkers” [24] looking for rapid return on investment and disregarding projects with wider social and environmental impact but longer financial paybacks [42]. Greater understanding of circular business models should convince the financial institutions that investment in SMEs committed to circularity is a safer option, thus facilitating access to equity capital and credit [43][44][45].

5. Need to Rethink CE-Related KPIs and External Reporting

The final objective of our study was understanding the use of CE-related performance indicators in Italian SMEs. Bocken et al. [46] indeed underlined the need to measure the benefits produced by the CE, but also observed the scarcity of such indicators. Haas et al. [47] emphasized the need for reliable KPIs, as the European Commission [48] did in its Action Plan for the CE.
Key performance indicators (KPIs) are helpful tools for driving and measuring a company’s progress towards the CE [49]. In fact, KPIs can be used to translate corporate and individual objectives into quantitative targets, the achievement of which can be monitored and assessed more [50][51]. Moreover, the proper sharing of CE performance indicators from the board throughout the whole organization creates a common vision based on sustainability principles. This should support the improvement of daily operations and promote strategies to extend product life cycles and reduce waste. Therefore, CE-related KPIs can be integrated with the traditional financial indicators of management control and encourage the monitoring of social and environmental issues as part of effective corporate governance [52][53][54][55][56]. In addition, good CE-related indicators provide relevant information for entrepreneurs and managers in their decision-making [57][58].
Enterprises should also disclose CE performance indicators in corporate reports for the general audience of stakeholders or specific groups [59][60]. By doing so, companies demonstrate their commitment to ensuring a lower environmental impact of their operations and products. In a wider perspective, companies should also report on the efforts undertaken to implement an innovative business model, which enables them to manage new types of risks (such as the difficulty in purchasing raw materials at affordable prices) and to promote green careers for longstanding employees and new recruits.
Despite that the above, we discovered that Italian SMEs make little use of CE-related KPIs to set targets and monitor results, on the one hand, and in corporate reporting, on the other. To date, few companies have consciously implemented CE-related indicators or intend to implement them. Where KPIs have been adopted, they are generally used to establish corporate and individual targets, as well as to monitor and assess performance. In addition, such KPIs are periodically analyzed by those in charge of governance decisions, which demonstrates the importance they attribute to CE for long-term success of their businesses. In these companies, CE-related indicators are usually discussed with the employees too: this approach is fundamental for sharing the vision of a business that creates economic and social value while reducing its environmental impact.
However, the majority of SMEs investigated in this study still have a long way to go in terms of CE planning and monitoring. The situation in Italian SMEs is further complicated by the need to improve the whole management control system, which is often not particularly advanced [61][62][63], as a condition for a broader adoption of CE-related indicators.
Similar considerations apply to external reporting, which is essential for fostering and managing stakeholders’ trust. Transparency in relation to CE performance, as well as on CE-related risks, strategies, and policies, requires improvement in most of the enterprises participating in our survey. In this regard, regulatory and standardization bodies can play a crucial role, as they can stimulate SMEs to publish information on their attitude towards the CE, at least by including it in their annual report.
The willingness to adopt sustainable supply chain can further encourage non-financial corporate reporting: the company’s need to present itself as a valuable and trustworthy business partner for suppliers of secondary raw materials and buyers of recycled products can positively affect its external communication on CE-related issues.
Finally, the financial sector can encourage transparency on circular business models implemented by enterprises seeking additional funding: greater availability of information helps the assessment of a business’s capacity to reduce operational and environmental risks, with important implications for its creditworthiness.

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