Never before has there been a stronger global focus on solving the pressing sustainability challenges faced by humanity (Hauschild et al., 2020). The global population urge for change so that development happens within the planetary boundaries (Steffen et al., 2015) and help keep global warming below 1.5 °C (Rogelj et al., 2016). Nevertheless, sustainability-oriented action has not been enough as the world of climate promises has yet not been delivered. The total generation of GHG emissions is still rising (UNEP, 2021), while the world is only 8.6% circular (Circle Economy, 2022).

Well-intended human interventions often lead to unexpected, often undesired dynamics that hinder the intended benefits, frustrate, and even disarticulate the involved stakeholders. Such side effects are often blamed for increased resistance to necessary change, business models and policy failures. In the case of Circular Economy (CE) and complimentary sustainability transitions, the pervasive occurrence of rebound effects (Castro et al., 2022; Hertwich, 2005; van den Bergh, 2011; Zink & Geyer, 2017) and technological lock-ins (de Gooyert et al., 2016; de Jesus & Mendonça, 2018; Korhonen et al., 2018; Van Den Bergh et al., 2011) are jeopardising the urgent transitions and even casting doubt on the effectiveness of such approaches towards a sustainable society.

The disarray between sustainability-oriented action and the expected effects in resources and energy needs further clarification. This thematic session invites research investigating cases documenting and discussing the unintended consequences of CE and sustainability transitions, within and across several circular and sustainability strategies (e.g., circular business models and policy innovations, sustainable product-service system design, take-back systems, remanufacturing & recycling).

It is evident that intention is not enough to deliver the needed outcomes in CE and sustainability transitions. It is, thus, critical to acknowledge and understand the sources of complexity in such transitions in a proactive manner, so that we can provide science-based recommendations that can avoid potential unintended consequences from the outset. Only then our community will be prepared to further contribute to global and regional targets of sustainability.

Session owners: Daniel Guzzo and Daniela Pigozzo, Technical University of Denmark.

Sign up for plate updates