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Circular Business Models in Automotive Industry

A Global South Perspective

Published onJun 20, 2023
Circular Business Models in Automotive Industry
Adriana Marotti de Mello; Matheus de Jesus da Ressurreicao
School of Economics, Business and Accounting, University of São Paulo
* [email protected]


While researchers have increasingly investigated to what extent circular business models contribute to sustainability in various production chains, using circular strategies such as close, slow, marrow, regenerate, the automotive industry is little studied. Currently, most of the literature about sustainability and automotive industry focuses on exploring the impacts of vehicle use (on mobility, energy use, or air pollution), and there is almost no research on the production or post use impacts. Regarding circular business models, there is a lack of an integrative framework that analyzes the operationalization of these models in practice in the automotive industry, specifically in global south contexts, where circular business models are a relevant part of automotive markets, although they are almost ignored by researchers, public agents, and industry.

To fill this gap, this research aims to answer the following question: how are circular business models characterized in the automotive industry, specifically in global south contexts? To achieve this goal, a review of relevant literature was conducted and, illustrative cases are presented with the aim of relating the application of theoretical constructs in the observation of business practice. Thus, it is expected that the relationship between circular business models applied to the automotive industry will be better illustrated and clarified, allowing to illustrate the application of the theoretical constructs established in the relevant literature in the context of the Global South and to identify potential drivers and barriers, as well as future lines of research.


automotive industry, business models, circular business models, circular economy


The circular economy and circular business model literature has been growing rapidly. In this regard, there has been a marked increase in the number of related publications, despite the diversity of existing conceptualizations (Merli et al., 2017). Moreover, publications about circular business models (CBMs) are also growing. However, although researchers have continuously investigated to what extent circular business models contribute to maximizing the use of economic resources and minimizing waste, the automotive industry is still insufficiently studied.

The literature on circular business models shows several propositions for the implementation of approaches and strategies that aim, in essence, at greater efficiency in the use of scarce resources. These approaches have as their main objective to direct resource allocation decisions along the production chain of companies. Therefore, the literature presents strategies that address from the design of the solution to be offered to the definition of the business model. Therefore, the theoretical models that describe these strategies understand and act along the processes structured by an organization, and they can be applied at any component stage of these processes - e.g., from product design to the planned value delivery model (Nußholz et al., 2017).

However, this research identified that little attention is paid to the automotive industry, since there are few studies that highlight how to plan, structure, and make a business model viable in this industry, and more specifically in Global South contexts, where circular business models are relevant to automotive market, although they are almost ignored by relevant players – automotive industry, academia, and public agents. To fill this gap, this study aims to answer the following research question: how are CBM's characterized in the automotive industry, specifically in global south contexts?

To achieve this goal, the authors conducted a review of CBM's literature and sought to identify examples of circular business model practices in the Brazilian automotive market, to understand the practical implications of the general theoretical conceptualization evidenced here. The exemplification of these practices is presented in the form of illustrative cases, which, based on primary and/or secondary data, show the main processes and managerial practices adopted by the companies studied based on the conceptualization.

Our results show that few articles explore the relationship between circular economy and the automotive industry. It is well known that the automotive industry has historically developed a linear paradigm par excellence. In view of the large economic and environmental impacts caused by the production process of this industry and the end-of-life vehicle, it would be particularly relevant for the automotive industry to be analyzed from the Circular Economy perspective (Urbinati et al., 2017). However, most of the literature focuses on analyzing the use of the vehicle and little explores the post-use of the vehicle in a way related to the Circular Economy and, consequently, the different strategies and approaches that could be used for the operationalization of a circular business model in the automotive industry.

The intended contributions of this article are not limited to advancing only the frontier of theoretical knowledge of the topic, but also has practical implications. For business model managers in the context of the automotive industry, it allows them to identify which actions can be implemented in the process of proposing, creating, and capturing value aiming at the development of economically viable circular business models. In turn, for corporate strategy planners, it allows to identify to what extent the business model can be changed to promote the circularization of material flows and based on that, to direct the transition and innovation in the business model based on circular strategies.

Furthermore, the contributions of this research also have relevant implication which are of interest both to public policy and to companies that operate in the automotive sector. In this regard, it is noteworthy that the concepts outlined in this research assist in establishing management systems for the disposal of end-of-life vehicles, which includes the various vehicle components (e.g., steel, batteries, plastics, fluids, etc.), considering the best use of the economic value of these resources throughout the production process through the different planning and operationalization strategies of CBMs. And, as it adopts a global south perspective, it intends to bring a different market and policy paradigm, based on economic restrictions, but that might indicate a more sustainable (economic, socially and environmentally) path for global north markets, which new (zero km) automotive markets are much more relevant than second hand autos.

This research is structured as follows: first we present the rationale for the literature review. Then, we highlight the research methodology adopted and explain how the review process was carried out. Next, we present the conceptual definition and theoretical constructs used to analyze in practice the illustrative cases presented. In turn, we perform the analysis of the illustrative cases according to the previously defined theoretical model, with the aim of highlighting the relevant conceptual frameworks related to the practices adopted by the automotive industry, to answer the intended research question. Finally, the results and insights from each illustrative case are presented and discussed, identifying possible lines of research and possible future research.

Rationale for Literature Review, Analysis, Definition and Characterization

One of the gaps identified by this research is that, to our best knowledge, no other research has been conducted that articulates the concepts necessary to answer the research question posed here. In fact, there are few studies that analyze the planning, structuring, or application of a circular business model in the automotive industry in global south contexts. For this reason, in view of this gap, we conducted first a literature review with the objective of identifying, based on the adopted conceptualization, how circular business models are characterized in the automotive industry.

According to Hart (1999), the function of the literature review is to clearly specify what research should be conducted in an area of study and why it is important to conduct it. Moreover, a literature review should point out opportunities and streams of future research, since it’s one of its goals is to show what are the gaps and directions from the existing literature for the further achievement of this research (Okoli and Schabram, 2010; Randolph J.J., 2019). Thus, at the end of this article, the facts that are shaping the development of the topic and possible lines of research that could benefit from the better delineation of the analysis of the conceptual frameworks presented here are presented.


This research first gathers the main studies and models related to the theoretical and conceptual construction of CBMs, to then demonstrate their application (Le Loarne Lemaire et al., 2022) from selected cases from the automotive industry in Brazil. These examples are presented in the form of illustrative cases and the characterization of the intended theoretical constructs is performed from the analysis of these cases.

The search for articles was conducted through a succession of the following steps: search for the main search terms in the topic structure of the articles (title, abstract, keywords), by concatenating the search terms and then inserting filters in the databases. Subsequently, a meticulous reading of the titles and respective abstracts was performed to find relevant articles for the following categories: "circular business models" and "automotive industry & circular business models". This process was carried out considering the following criteria: as one of the objectives of this article is to assess the current state of peer-reviewed scientific literature, the respective articles analyzed were searched in the Web of Science (WoS) and Scopus databases.

The documents considered were articles from journals in English, belonging only to the sub-area of Business, Management and Administration and published from 2010, aiming at the analysis of a more recent literature and considering that the publications on the theme analyzed grew considerably in the last decade and that analyzing a literature before the period considered would not present relevant results. As a selection criterion for the articles, it was emphasized that only those articles in which the main discussion was related to the theme, or the characterization of the intended concepts were considered. Thus, articles that focus on a very specific aspect of the theme, that are tangential to the theme, or that do not deal directly with the characterization of the intended concepts were not considered. The main selection criterion consisted of a careful reading of the abstracts of the previously selected articles (Figure 1).

Figure 01 - Criteria for selection of articles for the analytical categories analyzed in this research.

For the analytical category "circular business models" only literature review articles were considered, since review articles focus on compiling the main theoretical advances of a given topic and often propose some tool and / or model that can be used for the analysis of business practices in general, i.e., also considering more specific industries or practices (Govindan et al, 2017; Kalmykova et al., 2017; Merli et al., 2017; Nußholz, 2017; Prieto-Sandoval et al.; 2017; Urbinati et al., 2017).

For the 'circular economy & automotive industry' category, all articles that address the relationship between circular economy strategies or the application of circular business models in the automotive industry were selected. Regarding the application of the concept, studies were selected in such a way that they were not too specific or in any way possible to be related to the automotive industry. Priority was given to studies that aimed to understand, in a holistic way, what are the main structures that characterize circular business models. Few articles were found precisely for this concatenation, which evidences that little is researched of the relationship between circular economy and automotive industry, as presented in the results of this research. Studies that directly related these two topics were prioritized for case categorization in the conceptual framework adopted here (Agyemang et al, 2019; Agrawal et al, 2021; Shao, J et al, 2020; Urbinati et al, 2021).


To specify the conceptual basis adopted in this research, based on the analysis of relevant literature and the succession of the literature review process, the basic concepts and terminology used are defined below. The constructs presented here will be used to characterize in practice the application of circular business models in the automotive industry.

Circular Economy

Circular Economy (CE) has gained increasing interest from researchers, academia, and industry. The interdisciplinary nature of the concept and its different manifestations, approaches, definitions, and understandings by these actors stand out (Kalmykova et al., 2017). This diversity, if beneficial on the one hand, has fostered the lack of the widely spread and accepted definition shared in the form of a common language with stakeholders (Geissdoerfer et al., 2020; Merli et al., 2018; Murray et al., 2017). However, despite the many definitions, it can be said that there is an assumed general understanding that the goal of EC is, in short, to promote the transition to an economic system in which the dominant paradigm is the prevention of resource depletion and the closure of technical and biological material cycles, thus promoting the best use of economic resources by considering the human-environment interrelationship (Prieto-Sandoval et al., 2018).

However, based on this assumption, the big challenge is how to promote the transition from the current economic paradigm to one that fosters a circular economy? Many scholars have suggested that proposing new business models, innovating in existing business models, and operationalizing so-called "circular economy strategies" are key steps for this transition (Bocken et al., 2017; Geissdoerfer et al., 2018; Govindan and Hasanagic, 2017; Kalmykova et al., 2017; Lewandowski et al., 2016; Murray et al., 2015). Despite the differences, researchers draw attention to the need for change from business as usual and the way companies plan, manage, and operationalize their supply chain to create and deliver value to their consumers (Geissdoerfer et al., 2018; Govindan and Hasanagic, 2018; Kalmykova et al., 2017).

Different strategies for promoting circular economy have been addressed in the literature, whose scope of analysis is comprised along the basic supply chain management (SCM) model: raw material sourcing, product design conception, manufacturing, distribution, use, and product end-of-life (Bocken et al., 2016). Thus, despite the various nomenclatures, there is a direct relationship between these strategies and the company's supply chain analysis (Geissdoerfer et al., 2018; Govindan et al., 2018). Geissdoerfer et al. (2018) propose in this regard that when planning which circular strategies the business will sustain, it would be relevant to analyze the value delivery networks (supply chain) next to the organization level (business model). However, part of the circular economy literature studies the topics of circular supply chain management (SSCM) and circular business models (CBM) in isolation, which brings losses of possible synergies arising from a holistic and integrated analysis of these concepts, including factors external to it and affecting resource allocation decisions in companies (Prieto-Sandoval et al., 2018; Urbinati et al., 2017). Therefore, in this research, CBM's are considered as direct drivers of the circular economy and are taken in a broad sense, to seek an integrated analysis of the processes that occur in the company and the planning and implementation decisions of these models.

Some scholars have suggested that CBM's and EC be viewed in a systemic, holistic, and integrated manner. For example, Rovanto et al. (2020) propose a multilevel analysis to identify the adoption of circular strategies in companies. The authors separate the adoption of these strategies into three levels: company level (company strategic level), supply chain level (supply chain level), and society level (society level). The preference for the multilevel analysis lies in the fact that it allows an analysis of the governance mechanisms and the respective interactions that occur at each level, which is fundamental to determine the incentives of the economic agents acting at each one, as well as the respective governance mechanisms to be used to change these incentives in order to promote the transition to EC (Mello et al., 2022)

Chen et al. (2020) proposes an integrative framework for a holistic and extended analysis of the strategic implementation of CBMs. The main advantage of adopting an integrative perspective lies precisely in analyzing the transition process on an ongoing basis and what would be the most appropriate management tools to be used at each stage of the transition process. Therefore, in this research, we argue that business models are one of the main drivers for promoting EC (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2012; Rovanto et al.; 2020). Therefore, it would be of particular interest for CBMs to be further explored in a CE-related manner (Kirchherr et al., 2017) and in different industries, seeking to identify which are the most relevant drivers and barriers for the adoption of these models and the possibilities for innovation in current business models (Linder et al., 2017)

Circular Business Models

Like what happens with EC, the CBM literature also does not present a consensual definition or a widely accepted model that integrates the various existing business model typologies and the analytical tools possible to be used in each of these typologies (Chen et al., 2020). Fatalistically, what we have seen is the lack of an integrative framework that accounts for explaining how and to what extent companies should modify their business models or even create new business models to foster the transition to a CE. Recently, however, some integrative efforts have been undertaken and strategies that promote business model circularization and circular innovation of existing business models have been better described in business practice (Bocken et al., 2021).

However, even moving towards a more integrative framework, there is still great reluctance to operationalize CBMs in practice, as there is great pressure from the decision maker regarding the "best possible allocation of resources," with the predominant tone being maximum risk and uncertainty reduction (Linder et al., 2017). In this regard, as already documented by canonical articles, business models exist as a simplified representation of a more complex phenomenon, and as sound as a model may seem, it is insufficient to guarantee business success (Teece, 2010). However, they have assisted in planning strategies for creating, delivering, and capturing value, as well as communicating with stakeholders and potential investors. We argue that the benefits arising from the representation and abstraction of a BM should not be disregarded for the case of CBMs, as the component constructs of the model do not have their morphology altered. In fact, the typologies of CBM's identified in the literature review highlight the activities of value creation, delivery and capture according to EC principles, despite the specificity of the proposed structure or the wording made by different research (Lewandowski, 2017; Ludeke-Freund et al., 2018; Urbinati et al., 2017).

Ludeke-Freund et al. (2018) show, in summary, that the dimensions used to represent CBM's are essentially the same as in the WB literature, with the different circular strategies fitting into each of the subcategories of WB's (products, services, target consumers, etc.). To avoid the overlapping and ambiguity of the concept, we adopt in this research the definition of CBM's expressed by Nußholz (2017), which understands CBM's as the planning and/or innovation in a WB to implement the circular strategies. Moreover, to ground the analysis undertaken in the illustrative cases, we consider his theoretical framework as a foundation. The preference for using this definition and model lies in the fact that resource efficiency strategies are related to the life cycle stages (LCA) for each typology of business models while considering the circular strategies that best fit each stage of this process. Thus, the model allows a holistic analysis of the business model typology with the component stages of the product life cycle. We maintain that this approach, for the cases analyzed in this research, allows for a better understanding of the business practice of CBMs.

Circular Business Models in Automotive Industry

Currently, it is found that there is little research investigating the adoption of CBM's particularly in the automotive industry. We found few studies in the peer-reviewed literature. Some barriers to the adoption of CBM's (general and specific) have been highlighted in the literature. Urbinati et al. (2021), thinking about remanufacturing, highlights some challenges such as low potential quality of remanufactured products, complexity of the supply chain and joint involvement of the company with customers/users. Other research (Shao et al., 2019; Schulz et al., 2021) attends to policy barriers, lack of government support, lack of legislation, technological incapacity, and lack of consumer awareness. On the other hand, the key drivers highlighted are potential profitability through circular value delivery, availability of resources and technical solutions, promotion of customer engagement with circular value creation, business fit with CSR principles, and government incentives - if any (Agyemang et al. 2019; Schulz et al., 2021; Shao et al., 2019; Urbinati et al.; 2021).

In Global South countries, as Brazil, circular business models are a reality in automotive industry: According to the National Federation of Automotive Vehicles Distribution (FENABRAVE), in the year 2022, for each vehicle with a license plate, approximately 5.2 used vehicles were sold in Brazil. The dismantling of cars and usage of used, refurbished, or recycled parts are also relevant – but it also led to a “grey” market, supplied by illegal dismantled cars, specially from robbery.

Traditionally, in mature markets, used cars are exported to global south countries, or simply recycled – normally, only steel is recovered. (Li, Yu and Gao, 2014). Even with the Directive on End-of-Life Vehicles (ELV) in the EU setting targets for the reuse, recycling and recovery of ELV materials at a certain level, there were more than 260,000 tons of automotive components ended up in landfills, instead of being processed and recycled to be more efficient resource utilization, as reported by Mehlhart et al (2018). There is an unexplored potential for developing different businesses that might recover value from ELV, from reusing cars, or using refurbished or recycled parts and materials.

Automotive industry, specifically OEMs, has been almost absent from this discussion – on the contrary, there are different examples on how the industry has played against circular strategies in the market – for example, advocating for legislation to forbid the use of refurbished parts1 , raising awareness against the use of them, claiming for safety reasons2.

But, recently, as Circular Business Models are attracting more attention from Public Authorities, Researchers and investors, many different initiatives are being conducted by players not only from outside the industry, but also from OEMs and other relevant players, as shown in the illustrative cases below:

Illustrative Cases

Renova Ecopeças

Renova Ecopeças is a company located in the city of São Paulo that recycles automotive parts from vehicles that can no longer return to circulation, that is, vehicles with permanent write-offs at Transit Authority. The company was created by an initiative of Porto Seguro, the largest Brazilian insurance company, in 2013. The main driver for the operationalization of this business, according to the interviewee, was legislation. Porto Seguro, before starting the operations of Renova, helped in the construction of the Dismantling Law, which regulates and disciplines the activity of dismantling land motor vehicles, providing for the identification and tracking of dismantled parts. This law brought direct benefits to Porto Seguro: it led to a 30% decrease in vehicle robberies. Currently, the company's revenue sources are the sale of parts, sale of automotive scrap (steel, plastic, copper) and the provision of environmentally correct disposal services of vehicles at the end of their useful life.

Renova Ecopeças seeks to maintain the quality of the parts that are sold in the market, offering a warranty of up to three months for them. Before being sold, the parts removed from the dismantled vehicles are classified in three categories: A (in perfect condition); B (with minor cosmetic damage), which are sold to companies that remanufacture the parts in these conditions; and C (without reuse conditions), which are sent to the manufacturer or sold as scrap to be processed and transformed into raw material. Currently, Renova purchases vehicles only from the insurance company Porto Seguro and on demand from the counter. Each process is explained below:

  1. Analysis of the documentation and write-off of the vehicle at Detran: the vehicle's documentation is analyzed and the write-off of the vehicle's registration at Detran is performed (cancellation of the vehicle's registration), once this write-off is mandatory for vehicles with total loss reports, and the insurance company or the dismantling takes on the obligation to write-off the vehicle when they acquire ownership of the vehicle.

  2. Decontamination and preparation of the vehicle: in the decontamination process, oils, gases, and other fluids are removed, which are later sent to companies specialized in recycling these residues.

  3. Disassembly: the bodywork, upholstery, glass, mechanical components, safety items, electronics, and monocoque modules are disassembled in this order.

  4. Classification and distinction of parts: The parts taken from the dismantled vehicles are classified into three categories:

    1. A (in perfect condition):

    2. B (with minor cosmetic damage):

    3. C (no reuse condition): parts that are unsuitable for reuse (e.g., seat belts, airbags, safety items, batteries, suspension items, steering box, etc.),

  5. Traceability application in the parts: the parts classified in categories A or B are identified with microdots (inviolable traceability marking that does not damage the part), catalogued in the company's information system and stored, and later sold with traceability, invoice issuance, and warranty of use.

In this way, it can be seen that Renova Ecopeças uses the Extending Resource Value strategy (end-of-life treatment) and creates circular value from the careful and documented selection of end-of-life vehicle parts, possessing legality and offering a guarantee for them (Nußholz, 2017). By offering these benefits, the company overcomes the barrier of the potential lack of quality of used parts and extends the value of the resource to its best possible application for longer than the incorrect disposal or non-reuse of parts, provided they can be reused, of end-of-life vehicles.

Toyota Certified Used Cars

Toyota do Brasil, although not the sales leader, assumes a prominent position in the Brazilian market. Its market share in December 2022 was 9.1%, which places it as fifth in the ranking. During the period of the COVID-19 pandemic, Toyota started a program to sell certified used cars, in which the consumer, when buying the vehicle with the certification, gets benefits offered by the brand. Some of these benefits are extended warranty on the new car, extended after-sales assistance ("Toyota 24-hour assistance"), and special conditions in plans with partner companies. According to the integrative theoretical model proposed by Nußholz (2017), the strategy undertaken by Toyota would be comprised in the typology of CBMs called Extending Product Value (use phase). In fact, there is a linear paradigm shift in value capture in the program, since even though it depends on the sale of new cars, the certification granted by the company that owns the brand also positively encourages the sale of used cars.

This is a paradigm shift from business as usual in the automotive industry, as the OEMs see the aftermarket as competitors to their BM. Thus, it is not uncommon to see advertising efforts by the brand owners negatively addressing the aftermarket. The Toyota Certified Seminew program starts with the dealership checking if the vehicle to be sold as certified seminew fits the rules of the program.

After the end of the process, the vehicle is stored in Toyota's database and advertised in the sales channels of interest. The benefits offered and communicated to the client for certified semi-new vehicles are: "1 more year of factory warranty in addition to the original warranty, 1 more year of the service "Toyota Assistance 24 hours", "security of investing in a vehicle that is in optimal conditions of use", "Toyota standard applied in the process of inspection and certification of vehicles", "Toyota quality seal, ensuring a much safer buying decision", "convenience and comfort provided by Toyota dealers". For all this, Toyota uses a circular value creation strategy by extending the use value of the product, selling used vehicles with additional warranty and benefits offered by the brand, changing the perception of customers regarding the quality of a secondhand vehicle, and creating, delivering, and capturing value in the automotive aftermarket.

Insights and Final Considerations

In this paper, we aimed to discuss circular business models in automotive industry, specifically in Global South contexts. Our results show that there is great environmental, economic, and social potential in exploring a circular business model in the automotive industry. The prospect of the Global South is evidence of this, where circular business models and practices form a market estimated in hundreds of billions.

The market for used cars and used parts is relevant and it is growing, especially in Global South, where most of this market is informal and fringe (gray), due to lack of regulations and public policies. There is almost no relationship with OEMs. An exception, we showed, is Toyota, which is developing a used cars business in Brazil 0 a potential market of 6-7 million cars sold/year. OEMs tend to see used cars and parts as predatory competition. The current supply chain crisis is an opportunity to Renova and other players in this market to grow and raise awareness from public agents and OEMs to this opportunity, not only for market growth but also an opportunity for transition to a circular economic model, reducing environmental and social impacts of a constant growth of the number of vehicles on the streets. For example, Renault has announced a Circular Economy Project – Re-factory for remanufacturing and retrofit of used cars, exploring idle capacity in an old plant in France.

We identified as main barriers for the development of circular business models in automotive industry in global south:

-Lack of regulation – bureaucracy and corruption inhibit the correct destination of wrecked vehicles.

-Concerns over quality – players must guarantee the same quality requirements for parts and cars to avoid safety and environmental risks.

-Taxes – there is necessity for creating specific tax mechanisms to avoid double taxation, and to induce circular businesses instead of creating obstacles to them.

This paper is an ongoing project, and to our best knowledge, one of the firsts to study automotive industry in the circular business model perspective. And those first insights and lessons from Brazil could help other Global South Countries, and Global North to develop public policies and managerial practices to foster the development of circular business models for automotive market.

This study has several limitations. It is the first attempt to develop a theoretical framework, and more robust empirical research is required than performed here to validate its internal consistency and logic. Therefore, we suggest, as future research, to develop more structured case research, including more cases in different institutional contexts.


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