A growing body of scholarship has examined circular business models as a pathway towards sustainability. However, employee skills to support such business models have been largely overlooked. Addressing this research gap, this article proposes a comprehensive skill taxonomy for start-ups embracing circular economy transition. As the first large-N effort to develop a comprehensive skill taxonomy for circular business model implementation, this study uses a clustering analysis of self-reported skill profiles for 2407 staff working in circular start-ups. The taxonomy outlines 40 skills across six categories: business innovation, operations, social dimensions, systems, digitization, and technical issues. Findings suggest that circular business model implementation requires a set of general, sustainable, and circular skills, but some of these skills have been neglected in scholarship. Promoting circular narratives as a framing device for skill development can help advance CE towards mainstream uptake, and this study's taxonomy offers a practical framework for using talent to accelerate CE transition.
Businesses and policy-makers often view the circular economy1 (CE) as a promising way to reconcile economic growth and sustainable development (Corvellec et al., 2021; Geissdoerfer et al., 2017; Kirchherr, 2022). Years into conceptual development and refinement, CE has been seen in a variety of ways ranging from holistic and comprehensive to only partially beneficial (Corvellec et al., 2021; Geissdoerfer et al., 2017) and even detrimental (Harris et al., 2021; Zink and Geyer, 2017). While the conceptual foundations of CE remain contested (Blomsma and Brennan, 2017; Korhonen et al., 2018a, 2018b; Skene, 2018), the topic is receiving growing scholarly interest (Ehrenfeld, 2004; Kirchherr and van Santen, 2019; Lüdeke-Freund and Dembek, 2017).
Sustainability transitions research suggests that socio-technical transitions involve systemic changes in multiple dimensions beyond technology, including organizational and human decision-making. Such changes are expected to yield innovative products, services, and business models (Geels, 2004; Markard et al., 2012). CE transition is one type of socio-technical transition (Jurgilevich et al., 2016) and scholars have highlighted transition and innovation as conceptual elements of CE (Suchek et al., 2021) – both of which are seen as relevant to circular business models (CBM) (Antikainen and Valkokari, 2016; Bocken et al., 2016; Lewandowski, 2016; Santa-Maria et al., 2021). Relatedly, scholars have proposed various typologies of CBM (Henry et al., 2020; Urbinati et al., 2017) and have focused on CBM strategies, related experimentation (Bocken et al., 2016; Kane et al., 2018; Konietzko et al., 2020), and enablers and barriers around implementation (Hartley et al., 2021; Ünal et al., 2019; van Keulen and Kirchherr, 2021). While scholarship on CBM is growing (Ferasso et al., 2020; Lüdeke-Freund et al., 2019; Rosa et al., 2019), practical uptake remains limited (Centobelli et al., 2020; Kirchherr et al., 2018b; Urbinati et al., 2017).
The CE concept has gained substantial momentum in the 21st century as a key facilitator of sustainability efforts. Given the influence of business decisions not only on environmental conditions but also on consumer preferences and habits, the private sector is recognized as a key catalyst for society-wide CE transition. Nevertheless, substantive progress towards CE transition remains limited. While refashioned strategies and supportive infrastructure provide businesses with some pathways, skills for CBM are an often-overlooked topic in the academic literature and in practice. A modestly sized literature offers some useful insights (e.g., Janssens et al., 2021; Sumter et al., 2021) but a systematic understanding about the relevance of employee skills to CBM implementation has yet to be fully researched or integrated into practice. This study has sought to fill this gap not only by outlining skills in circular start-ups but also by presenting a way to refine understandings about these skills and help businesses identify and cultivate them.
This study proposes the first comprehensive skill taxonomy for CBM implementation in start-ups in the literature, as far as the authors can determine. The taxonomy includes 40 skills for CBM implementation and finds that CBM implementation requires a set of general, sustainable, and circular skills. It also finds that some skills, such as digital skills, have been neglected. Skills declared as specifically circular are not as common in circular start-ups as the literature suggests. Given that CBM is not an entirely new concept, some skills identified in this study have existed in the workforce for decades. Thus, the novelty of skills for CBM implementation lies in the shifting context of their application and in their utilization as microfoundations of organizational capabilities. Circular start-ups might need to develop existing employee skills in novel or differentiated circular application contexts. Consequently, using circular narratives as a framing device for skill development can promote understanding and recognition of those skills in efforts to mainstream CE.