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The Role of Partnerships Focused on Consumer Involvement in Circular Initiatives

A Case Study on Recycling in Food Courts

Published onJul 04, 2023
The Role of Partnerships Focused on Consumer Involvement in Circular Initiatives
Claudia Arias1,*
1CESA Business School, Colombia
*[email protected]


Global Value Chains (GVC) have changed how products are manufactured, sold, and consumed, causing several environmental impacts. Organizations have undertaken efforts to tackle these challenges in the value chain, including those encouraged by the circular economy models. Despite the opportunities that circular business models could offer for several actors, some factors favor or prevent the adoption of circular business models, being consumer engagement a critical factor in the success or failure of circular initiatives. Additionally, circular business models require a systemic perspective in which partnerships among several actors are fundamental. This research links these two aspects through the question: How partnerships among multiple actors could be helpful to favor consumers' engagement in circular initiatives? To answer this question, we follow a qualitative approach through a case study methodology to explore the objectives, mechanisms, and outcomes of a multi-stakeholders’ initiative to promote recycling behavior in food courts. The results suggest that although there was a common logic that awareness to the consumer, and the consequent action of separating at source, was the first step to creating an effective chain for the recovery and use of different materials, there was a gap between the planning and the setting up of the partnership in several aspects. We propose a framework for future partnerships to engage consumers in circular initiatives based on these findings. 


Social Partnerships, Circular Business Models, Consumer Engagement, Recycling 


Global Value Chains (GVC) have changed how products are manufactured, sold, and consumed, causing several environmental impacts such as deforestation, greenhouse gas emissions, and the indiscriminating generation of waste (Gereffi et al., 2005; Pingali, 2007). Thus, GVC has imposed sustainability challenges both for production and consumption. To tackle these challenges, organizations have undertaken green management across their value chain to reduce the environmental's negative impact (Mathiyazhagan & Haq, 2013; Zhu et al., 2010). Both efforts, upstream and downstream in the value chain, are needed (Hsu et al., 2013, 2016); however, most of the initiatives have been done upstream, leaving a gap in green management towards the last links in the value chain. Within the few efforts undertaken forward in the value chain are those encouraged by the circular economy models (Hsu et al., 2016), conceptualized as models that create value through efficient reuse and ecosystem protection considering the careful use of resources and related waste reduction as strategic conditions for firms to gain a competitive advantage (Beattie & Smith, 2013; Linder & Williander, 2017; Planing, 2014; Ranta et al., 2018) (e.g., Recycling Business Models; (Martina & Oskam, 2021). These models are characterized by being a complex system of actors in which collaboration and coordination among suppliers, companies, recycling or returning facilitators, local authorities, and consumers are required for their success (Planing, 2014).

Despite the opportunities that circular business models could offer for several actors, including the environment, more than such benefits is needed to translate into a widespread acceptance of circular initiatives (Planing, 2014). Besides motivations, some factors favor (drivers) or prevent (barriers) the adoption of circular business models (Aitken & Harrison, 2013; Bicket et al., 2014; Moore, 1996). For instance, consumers, through their attitudes and behaviors, may become an enabler or barrier to implementing sustainable practices (Hsu et al., 2013). Mainly, the potential answer of the consumer is a critical factor in the success or failure of circular initiatives (e.g., the acceptance of reverse business models or new forms of re-manufacturing) (Bicket et al., 2014; Geissdoerfer et al., 2018; Tolkamp et al., 2018). Thus, previous literature has pointed out the importance of consumer behavior in the shift toward a circular economy (Planing, 2014), but few studies have paid attention to this topic so far (Arias et al., 2022).

Additionally, as we mentioned above, circular business models require a systemic perspective in which partnerships among several actors are fundamental to achieving the purpose of returning products to the product life cycle to improve the efficiency of the use of materials and to reduce the consumption of natural resources (Planing, 2014; Salvioni & Almici, 2020). The role of partnerships in sustainable business models has been studied from the perspective of specific sectors (e.g., see Rossignoli & Lionzo, 2018), associative models (Gallo et al., 2018), and the analysis of the supply chain (Gallo et al., 2018; Geissdoerfer et al., 2018). In all these approaches, partnerships are often established to leverage different stakeholders' collective capabilities, knowledge, and resources to tackle complex social issues and create sustainable solutions. In fact, since several years ago, different authors have pointed out the relevance of partnerships to address social causes and achieve common sustainable goals (i.e. social partnerships) (Selsky & Parker, 2005).

In particular, the role of social partnerships in circular initiatives has been explored from several perspectives, one of which is stakeholder engagement (Salvioni & Almici, 2020). Under this perspective, the involvement of key stakeholders is a necessary condition and a strategic choice for the successful implementation of decisions related to the circular economy (Salvioni & Almici, 2020). Consumer engagement is particularly highlighted as critical. The research on collaborative efforts (i.e., partnerships) and stakeholder engagement has been mainly focused on actors in the supply chain or the value network within the same industry (Bocken et al., 2014). Moreover, the efforts to engage the consumer in circular initiatives have been addressed mainly by the companies (see some examples in Salvioni & Almici, 2020). Nevertheless, the systemic and complex features of circular business models, for instance, Recycling Business Models (RBM), require collaboration among several actors (Christensen, 2021; Jia et al., 2020; Siderius & Poldner, 2021). Thus, social partnerships (e.g., public-private partnerships and multi-stakeholder collaborations) and consumer engagement in circular economy initiatives still need to be explored. 

Despite the benefits of partnerships in circular initiatives and the critical role of consumer engagement in this kind of business model, the link between these two aspects has yet to be explored. Hence, multi-stakeholder partnerships' role in engaging consumers in circular economy initiatives deserves more attention. In particular, the involvement of consumers in recycling and waste management initiatives has been studied (Martina & Oskam, 2021); however, the role that collaborative efforts from social partnerships among different stakeholders may play in this purpose needs to be included in the current literature. To address this gap, we state the research question: How partnerships among multiple actors could be helpful to favor consumers' engagement in circular initiatives? To answer this question, we explore the objectives, mechanisms, and outcomes defined in a multi-stakeholders initiative to promote recycling behavior as the first step required to start circular business models. 


This research follows a qualitative approach through a case study methodology. The analysis involves a single case in multiple levels whose unit of analysis is the partnership that promotes recycling (Yin, 2003). The main selection criteria to choose the case study was that it included public and private actors who focus on consumer engagement in a circular-related initiative. Table 1 shows the general description of the case under study. Data collection was conducted through in-depth interviews with key informants of the stakeholders involved in the partnership. They were asked about the description of the initiative, the motivations, goals, mechanisms, and outcomes of the process, as well as challenges and future steps to the initiative. All interviews were audio-recorded and lasted between 45 and 60 minutes. Interviews data was complemented by files and documents (e.g., presentations, news, sustainability reports) as well as other available information on the websites and social media of participant organizations. Hence, we triangulated the information for the initiative through these different sources.

Table 1. General description of the case under study

Using NVivo software (v.12), we organized and codified material obtained from interviews, files, and other documents, including websites and social media data. We follow an inductive approach to answer the research question in which theory emerges from data (Gehman et al., 2018). We make tangible the “How” of our research question through the understanding of the objectives, mechanisms, and outcomes of the partnership. These are the big categories that frame our analysis. We coded the information through first-order and second-order themes that fit with each category to then “abstracting at a higher level” (Gehman et al., 2018, p.288). To do that, we contrasted the information and summarized the main findings regarding ideal vs. real objectives, mechanisms, and outcomes from the partnership.

Moreover, we identified the gap between the ideal and the real features of the partnership, representing the significant challenges to addressing the common purpose of consumer engagement. This approach allows us to suggest a framework for future partnerships that aim to involve consumers in circular initiatives. Tables 2, 4, and 5 show the detail of results in each category (i.e., objectives, mechanisms, and outcomes of the partnership).

Table 2. Objectives to do the partnership to “Separating Transforms.”

Based on the literature on reverse logistics, we understand mechanisms as all the activities required to recover products (Hsu et al., 2016; Ilgin & Gupta, 2010; Östlin et al., 2008). Across these activities, there are two fundamental elements: actors who assume specific roles in the recovery task and infrastructure needed to develop related processes or activities. Table 3 shows the expected role of each actor involved in the partnership and the activities identified to achieve the purpose of separation and recovery of the material.

Table 3. Mechanisms to implement the program “Separating Transforms.”

Following the same structure to present the detailed results in the objectives and outcomes, we summarize the ideal, real, and resulting gap between each activity (see Table 4).

Table 4. Mechanisms used in the partnership “Separating Transforms.”

Table 5. Outcomes of the partnership “Separating Transforms.”


The results suggest that there was a common logic that awareness to the consumer, and the consequent action of separating at source, was the first step to creating an effective chain for the recovery and use of different materials. Nevertheless, the stakeholder that had the primary contact with the consumer (Commerce-Shopping Malls) also had a different perspective on the role of the consumer in food courts (e.g., consumers are who should be served, so they should not have to separate waste), what generated a conflict with the purpose of the partnership. The partnership had positive outcomes in terms of several learnings, like being the starting point of connections between critical actors in the recycling chain and the shared knowledge about waste management among the stakeholders involved. However, more than these outcomes would be needed to encourage the participation of actors to continue the program beyond the pilot.


Based on these findings and the gap identified between the planning and the setting up of the partnership (ideal vs. real) we concluded and contributed to the literature by proposing a framework that could guide future partnerships to involve consumers in circular initiatives. Although our analysis is based on a case study focused on a recycling initiative, and our results may be closer to initiatives that include the flow of materials, this framework presents insights that could be helpful for other circular business models that require consumer engagement to be successful. Figure 1 shows the proposed framework that is explained below.

Figure 1. Proposed framework to partnerships aiming consumer engagement.

This research aims to answer how partnerships among multiple actors could be helpful to favor consumers' engagement in circular initiatives. As Figure 1 shows, three key elements make tangible such "How" or the arrangement of a partnership: objectives, mechanisms, and outcomes. Focusing on consumer engagement implies considering specific aspects in each of these features: 

Regarding the objectives, the central insight is that "Consumer engagement requires specific and shared goals." This means that all the stakeholders involved in a partnership should define and agree on specific consumer awareness, attitudes, and participation goals, to mention some examples related to consumer behavior. 

About the mechanisms, the central insight is that "Consumer engagement needs more than consumer focus." It seems contradictory, but a partnership focused on the consumer should consider other aspects beyond consumer action. For example, communication must be consistent and constant. It is not enough to communicate to achieve action in a specific moment (e.g., consumption moment). Keeping the same message across all actors, activities, and several moments of the program/campaign is needed.

Moreover, organizations that want to collaborate and develop partnerships to start Circular Business Models should recognize that articulation before, during, and after a campaign could be the main challenge to address by all the stakeholders involved. In terms of consumer engagement, it is needed to be articulated in the expected role of the consumer (what should he/she does), the process after the action of the consumer (e.g., how collecting, keeping, and using the separated material, who guarantees these activities), and the actors involved in all the activities. Namely, in recycling initiatives, it is also necessary a systemic approach to consider every link needed in the value chain to ensure materials' proper recovery and transformation. Promoting one of the links in the recovery and recycling of materials (separation at source) without considering what happens next and all the actors involved may be a mistake with adverse effects on the continuity of consumer engagement in the long term. 

Finally, there is a crucial insight: "Good outcomes in consumer engagement require more than a common purpose." Consumers' involvement in circular initiatives is imperative, and multiple stakeholders are interested in their engagement. However, efforts from partnerships should go beyond this laudable purpose. Consumer engagement should be measured based on the defined goals, and good intentions should be translated into clear commitments of all the stakeholders in several activities that, in turn, imply specific actors and infrastructure. We call these elements the 'side-effects' of encouraging consumer engagement (e.g., much material collected implies several processes to their recovery). Last but not least, partnerships require leadership, but when the consumer is involved, such a leader should be an actor close to the consumers. Organizations close to the moment of consumption may be those called to lead these collaborative efforts to understand how consumers behave and take advantage of this knowledge toward successful circular business models.


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