Circular Economy and Start-ups: Business Models, Collaboration, and Impact
: (Alternative Format Thesis)

  • Alisha Tuladhar

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisPhD


The current ‘take-make-dispose’ linear system is unsustainable and wasteful considering the grand challenges we currently face, of climate change, resource scarcity, and environmental degradation. As a solution, the Circular Economy (CE) is gaining immense momentum. It is widely commended as ‘restorative’ and ‘regenerative’ by design, further replacing the end-of-life concept by reducing, alternatively reusing, recycling, and recovering materials in production/distribution and consumption processes (Schroeder et al. 2019; Rizos et al., 2016; Ghisellini et al., 2016). Its significance is further heightened as a relevant means of achieving certain United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGS) and generating sustainable outcomes.

Despite its promise to shift towards sustainable industry transformation, current literature lacks clarity and evidence about the operationalization of Circular Economy Business Models (CEBMs). Much of the CEBMs discussion revolves around incumbent firms (Frishammar and Parida, 2019; Bocken et al., 2017; Franco, 2017) at the expense of new ventures. Currently circular start-ups are ‘largely overlooked’ in the CE literature (Henry et al., 2020, p.1). They are, however, promising fields of research as start-ups are in a better position to deliver sustainable business model innovations and drive the circularity agenda forward (Bocken et al., 2016; Hockerts and Wüstenhagen, 2010). Hence, this thesis focuses on circular start-ups and investigates both how they partner with incumbents and how they conceptualize impact. To my knowledge, it is only the second piece of work to focus on CSUs exclusively (after Henry et al., 2020) (as of 22nd Dec, 2020).

This thesis comprises a portfolio of three research papers. The first paper is a narrative literature review, highlighting the history and antecedents of the CE and Circular Economy Business Models (CEBMs). The concepts and theories in the first paper lay foundational ground for the two empirical studies that follow. The second paper explores the mechanisms and forms of collaboration between circular start-ups and large firms. Interview and archival data from six circular start-ups are analysed using the CIMO framework, and the findings presented. The third paper is an empirical study which seeks to explain the modes in which start-ups conceptualize impact. Insights are gathered from seventeen cases/CSUs in the UK via interviews, observation, and archival sources, to learn about their impact perception and efforts in greater detail. Consequently, a model depicting impact conceptualization – the Impact Schema – is proposed. I find that circular start-ups conceptualize impact in three ways: impact as a vision, impact as a design constraint, and impact as a dashboard.

The overarching contribution of this thesis is both theoretical and practical. It contributes to the ongoing discussions of the Circular Economy and start-ups with a particular expansion on Circular Economy Business Models, collaborative mechanisms, and impact literature. It thereby pushes the frontier of CE research, linking existing theories and concepts to produce new syntheses. This thesis can also stimulate action by helping firms transition towards a CE (the discussion of business models in Paper 1 and collaborative mechanisms in Paper 2) and enhance our theoretical understanding of how start-ups conceptualize impact (Paper 3). In doing so, this thesis aims to contribute to knowledge in this sphere and is relevant to both theory and practice.
Date of Award1 Nov 2021
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Bath
SupervisorKostas Iatridis (Supervisor) & Dimo Dimov (Supervisor)


  • Circular Economy Business Models
  • CIMO framework
  • Impact
  • Literature Review
  • Partnerships
  • Collaborative mechanisms
  • Case studies

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