1. Introduction: Hypes, Movements, Scientific Schools
Circular economy and sustainable development goals of the UN are far the most popular topics in the last two years in the business sustainability arena. This was not the case five years ago. It is an interesting question to try to forecast whether it will be the same in 2–5 years’ time. To decide that, in this paper we will look at the popularity of other similar movements. We will examine the hypothesis that these movements come and go as fashion, or they keep up the interest for sustainable development, as a whole approach, to prepare a paradigm change from unlimited growth to sustainable development.
The first sentence of the Book of Genesis (and the whole Bible) is: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth”. If once the “bible” of the modern business-environmental movements would be written, it could start with such a sentence: “In the beginning environmentalist created Recycling!”
Indeed, recycling is a very old approach. Written sources mention paper recycling from 1031 from Japan [1
], and the second utilization of resources were used as nation-wide strategies in World War 2 UK and USA. However, recycling, as an “environmental movement” or techno-scientific approach is much younger. The first mention of recycling in Google Scholar
is from the early 1800s, and we have altogether 1730 records till 1900. Currently it is about 20–60 thousand in a single year (32,500 Google Scholar hits between 1 January 2018 and 26 June 2019, 22,800 between 1 January and 26 June 2019, 308,000 since 1 January 2015.) and 2.8 million in total.
If we look at (normal) Google hits, recycling is a very popular topic. Its product life cycle is similar to Coca-Cola from marketing (Life cycle and life cycle assessment is used in two meaning in this article. The main meaning is from marketing science: How long a product can stay in the market, before it gets technically or fashionwise obsolete. Some exceptional): The product does not get obsolete, it does not go out of fashion, it stays on the top. If we hit the research phrase “recycling” to Google, we get approximately 332 million results (This article heavily relies on normal Google searches, Google Science hits and time series of hits etc. from Google Trends. It is necessary to deduce the “noise” and severe short-term time fluctuation of results. For this reason, all hits are from a period of three days: 27–29 June 2019, unless otherwise indicated). With these numbers, recycling is far the most popular movement among the 15 we are considering in this article, its dominance in everyday use is “oppressive” and irreversible, in scientific publications it is only highly outstanding and unquestionable.
This is the point to explain why we use the term movement
. We could call these fifteen things hype
, as they have characteristics of fashion, people are enthusiastic about them, but then they go out of fashion. However, they are too well supported and scientific to be called a hype. We could also call them scientific schools
, as they are well defined, we have scientific evidence behind them in forms of monographs [1
], primary research [4
], journal articles [6
]. For example, literature supports that circular economy can contribute to the energy [9
] and material [10
] perspectives, embracing topics from residential photovoltaic systems [9
] to sewage sludge biogas solutions [12
]. New movements are widely documented with systematic literature reviews [13
However, most of these studies come from semi-scientific sources like the consultancy sphere [15
] or the European Commission [16
]. These institutions—although making excellent and reliable research with hard work—have a primary interest to spread what they consider good politically, and these forecasts are often positively biased. So, these things do not show the characteristics of scientific schools in the long run, they might be called one scientific school (the business sustainability school)
in the long run. It is also often the case that a thing has a look of a scientific school or looks like a hype, but then another characteristic of it becomes more dominant. Marxism is an example for that: If it did not turn into a social movement with the aim to change the world very pragmatically, we would probably consider Marxism as one of the most elaborate schools of economics. However, the political movement faded this characteristic of being a scientific school.
We could also look for other expressions like paradigm, meme, program, etc., but we find that the connotation of the world of movement is the most proper for our purposes. This is the strongest common term but saying that we do not ignore that the 15 movements have different characteristics. For instance, recycling—apart from being a movement—is a very practical approach to waste management, zero emission is mostly known in the car industry, cleaner production is a very highly ranked scientific school with an excellent dedicated journal, and so on. For the sake of simplicity and our intention to compare these things, we call them movements. So, let us see, what similar movements can we consider as predecessors of the circular economy.
3. Method: A Proposed Life Cycle
According to our hypothesis, a hypothetical life cycle of the business sustainability movements can be constructed. They are known and practiced long in history, for example [1
] mention paper recycling
from 1031 Japan, waste minimization
was probably a practice—although not under this name —in all historic times, due resource scarcity and common sense. William Foster Lloyd in 1833 [46
], and Garrett Hardin [47
], popularizing him in 1968 described the sharing economy in the Tragedy of Commons
, which was rather the mainstream and not the exception before the massive enclosure in the 18th century England. However, waste minimization and sharing economy did not appear as a comprehensive and broad movement until the recent decades. So “historic times” on Figure 4
can take centuries or millennia, but as a movement, hype, widely spreading business initiative or public policy instrument by the UN, EC and other respected international agencies is normally taking place from the 1990s, when global environmental problems have been commonly understood and accepted. The historic (latent) period and the fashion (explicit) period is depicted on Figure 4
with red turning to green respectively. The figure proposes a life cycle as well: Steady and slowly accelerating growth, peak and going out of fashion, where the horizontal axis is a logarithmic scale.
Compering historic practices and modern renaissance of these approaches we could conclude that modern societies keep on reinventing the wheel. What is worse, from the catalogue of the previous section we could conclude that we have reinvented at least 15 different wheels. As we emphasized, these movements we consider one wheel, although varying in shape, material and other important characteristics. Only the business sustainability movement is a wheel, with slight variations.
However, the main purpose of this article is not to create a catalogue of business sustainability movements, but to look at their respective life cycle. Is it true that they really emerge, fly high and disappear? Do they add new peaks and keep up public interest for business sustainability? In the next session we will see, that this hypothesis is only partly true, at least with our methodology: It is easy to be present on the Internet, it is hard to top the hit lists, but what is really impossible to disappear from there.
On Figure 5
we tried to depict a somewhat pessimistic hypothesis: business sustainability movements come, flourish and go. The thin color curves represent recycling, waste minimization, cleaner production, blue economy etc., the heavy grey curve represents the business sustainability movement in general. Colors extend a bit the total life cycle, but unless new hypes come, public interest will turn to other topics, in this accelerated and pulsing era of big data and mass information.
This would mean that we have to produce hypes in every 5–10 years, and repeat the tedious efforts of defining, finding positive examples, publishing handbooks, case studies, technical guides and policy documents, etc. This would also mean that these approaches hardly come to the boardrooms and university textbooks or they disappear very quickly. In the next section we use statistics of Google searches and hits in both the public pages and the scientific arena, in the last fifteen years. Google trends gives and excellent tool to produce time series in all different combinations.
Basically, our method is relatively simple: as we look at fashion and popularity AND presence in scientific publications in parallel, we look at 1) overall Google hits [this is what we call “normal”, without any screening] AND 2) hits in qualified scientific databases. The latter is twofold: Google Scholar and Science Direct. Normal and scientific hits normally correlate, but not necessarily: sometimes they show fairly different results (as seen on Figure 6
and Figure 7
, e.g., sharing economy is very popular in normal Internet, but not visible in Google Scholar).
4. Analysis: The Comparative Table and Citations
In the table below (Table 1
) we summarized the main characteristic points of fifteen sustainability movements of business and economics. In column II is the oldest paper in Google Scholar. Columns III–V are calculated values from Google Trends (as of 28 June 2019), showing the respective hits in Google and Google Scholar. We show highest and lowest values and their time (year and month). Columns III–V consider a 15-year period between January 2004 and June 2019. Column VI is again a somewhat anecdotal piece of information, but it is mostly agreed upon and easy to check. In column VII we cross-check Google trends and choose the scientific database over the common one: We decide the approximate length of the movements’ fashion based on hits in Science Direct (as of 20 July 2019. We consider a movement “on top”, if Science Direct lists minimum 100-300-1000 papers per annum, in relation to the total hits, to keep a balance and add a positive discrimination to less visible movements).
Composing the comparative table of the business sustainability movements in a precise way is harder than expected. In column II, should we specify the first historic example? The first proven use of the expression? The first scientific book or article solely devoted to the topic? We used a mixed approach. For example, even Wikipedia denotes that Platon spoke about recycling 2500 years ago. However, most of much of Platon’s and Aristotle’s work was lost, the latter for example only survived in Arabic translations and were later translated back to Greek and Latin. Most of the movements, as we keep on emphasizing, refers back to some ancient and modern wise philosophers, scientists. A good example is the last line in the table, where Kenneth Boulding [44
], David Pearce [30
] and Tim Jackson [45
] are referred to as “founding fathers”, but also the Tragedy of the Commons (and herewith Hardin 1968 [46
] and Lloyds 1833 [47
]) are specified as theoretical basics. Anyway, roots and exact “who said first” is not so important, we could refer this question to monographs dealing with the specific movements (e.g., in CSR [21
What is more important from our special perspective, is the recent “web-footprint” and scientific records of the movements in question. The first we approximated with the (normal) Google hits of the last 15 years, the second with the hits in Google Scholar and we made a cross check through Science Direct. We specified some characteristics of these time series in the comparative table.
Our analysis also has some deficiencies: for example, in cell 5/III–IV it is hard to believe that Zero growth is on the peak and in its lowest mention in a period of three months. The French term decroissanse has a more profound, every day meaning—in English degrowth is devoted to the movement, the French decroissanse also means decay, decreasing, reduction. This means we cannot look for Google searches for decroissanse without being extremely biased with our results.
Google Trends is an excellent tool for time series analysis (from intervals of days and hours to a maximum period of 15 years), it gives area specific and detailed geographical information. Its main disadvantage that it is primarily for marketing, not for scientific purposes, its main advantage is that it normalizes hits on a scale of 100. This is the scale we used in the comparative table in columns III–V.
The first result is very apparent from the table: Recycling is far the oldest and most searched referred term of all 15 movements. If we put it to the comparative analysis, other movements become almost invisible (although in scientific articles the difference is much smaller). For this reason, we put the five less known and newer approaches on a joint graph (Figure 6
). It is obvious, that single prophets (like Günter Pauli behind the blue economy
or Michael Porter behind CSV) can have a huge added value in marketing, but this is still a short-term and relatively small push. If it is a long-term strategy and a giant agency as UNEP and UNIDO behind cleaner production
, the effect is harder and longer. Nevertheless, general, easy-to-understand and appealing approaches like sharing economy
and circular economy
are the most successful in the evolution of business sustainability movements. Even the whole business sphere with all pioneering multinationals and their sustainability reports can have a relatively small leverage effect compered to this general appeal to the public. In the case of circular economy,
Google Trends show us another interesting aspect: at one point around 2004–2005, 2 of the 5 related search terms included Ellen MacArthur
, a champion yachtswoman from England. After retirement from professional sailing (at the age of 34) she established the Ellen MacArthur Foundation
, a charity that works with business and education to accelerate the transition to a circular economy. One famous individual can do a lot to popularize the public good.
On Figure 6
we see a limited effect of fashion: Sharing economy
was very popular around 2015, but interest is significantly lost in the last 2–3 years. Circular economy
was almost invisible till 2013, since that time its carrier is boosting. In science, however, the picture is slightly different. Sharing economy is very little discussed, and cleaner production keeps its positions much better.
We can observe significant regional differences in different countries. As apparent from Figure 8
, sharing economy is still almost more popular in Germany, than circular economy. In the USA, the latter has clearly taken over. As well, in a new market economy, like Russia, where sustainability is probably less on the top of the agenda than in the EU or US, we see basically no evaluable activity. Zero emission
is a more well-known term in the USA than in other countries, probably due to the fact that car development is more regulated by the market in the US, and more by the EC in the European Union (emission standards for passenger cars).
One major conclusion we can already draw here is that instead of competing movements, we should concentrate on strengths of each: Cleaner production has a very high scientific literature and technical background through the best available technics (BATs), circular economy is the newest concept with the contemporarily strongest appeal, sharing economy has the highest community (social network and ‘apps’) support, also there is the most fight around it taking the form of market regulation (Uber vs. taxi companies, Airbnb vs. hotel chains, pirate music sharing vs. traditional recording companies and Amazon, etc.). These fights create significant losses and some bankruptcies but are beneficial for the somewhat halted evolution of modern business towards a sustainable economy.
On Figure 9
we can see that circular economy
is the strongest in Scandinavian countries, South America, South Africa, sharing economy is strongest in Russia, US, core of the EU, Australia. However, a new finding is that cleaner production has very strong support and leads the poll in Brazil and Iran. Instead of looking at these selected pictures, I strongly recommend putting these five phrases to Google Trends, select the 15-year period, and look at individual, interactive maps and charts. If we look at the five individual world maps, one major learning is that the US is strongest in everything, which is connected to the Internet.
On Figure 10
we disclose one of these individual world maps, namely for circular economy
. Apart from the spatial distribution we also see the most common connected terms, which (including the other 14 movements) could be the topic of further investigation.
In Figure 11
and Figure 12
we compared hits for another set of five of our selected business sustainability movements. As already pointed out, recycling is far most the winner, although its lead is less obvious in Google Scholar than in normal WWW content. In the normal arena, even the second sustainable development is hardly visible (see averages on the left), in science in rare cases it takes over recycling. Recycling is with no question the most technical and least scientific general approach of all.
We could create other graphs and maps, but Google trends has two severe numeric restrictions: It cannot compare more than 5 search phrases on the one hand, and cannot produce logarithmic axis on the other hand, to screen out the powerful dominance of recycling. However, we showed a comparative table and massive statistics to justify, modify or falsify our original hypothesis.
At last we can produce a top list of business sustainability movements and draw conclusions (the top 5-6 movements are highlighted in the first column of Table 1
). It is remarkable, that we have to use exactly the 5 right search phrases from the 15 potential, and it is also important in what order we type them in to the statistical analyzer. It would be obvious to put the five top terms, but then recycling
(whose gold medal is not questioned) would fade the other four. So, we look at the comparative table and look for ranks number 2–6, based on the last column: most recent Science Direct hits. We got a slightly different list from Figure 6
, Figure 7
, Figure 8
and Figure 9
and waste minimization
are omitted, LCA and CSR are added). Although circular economy is ranked only sixth in the list of total Science Direct hits, if we consider time—apart from recycling—it leads the list. Cleaner production
takes the second place now, but it was leading at the beginning of the period (after 2004). It is clear from Figure 13
, that they changed place.
Finally, we have to put our vote whether we consider general Google searches or the scientific realm more important. We should decide about the second, but if we decided about normal Google hits, CSR would dominate the whole ranking.
Our analysis can create a basis for a new tool for ranking different business sustainability movements (to be proposed as a future work). If we employ a critical analysis of our results, we can say that Google hit time series is a good first approximation of fashionableness, but does not provide deep scrutiny, compare content of movements, or assess their contribution to sustainability.
5. Conclusion: Little Competition, Much Synergy
Google trends is not a 100% precise analytic tool calibrated for scientific analysis, but due to its comprehensive nature, enormous access to data, and ease to use, it is an optimal tool to make quick analyses about an arbitrarily chosen to set of research phrases. Hereby we used it to see the popularity of fifteen business and economic sustainability movements and their change over time.
This approach is fresh but not unprecedented, for instance Denise Reike, Walter J.V. Vermeulen, and Sjors Witjes very recently published an article [56
], looking at the Scopus hits of 12 movements similar to circular economy between 1970 and 2016. There is some overlap between the two studies, but apart from recycling
and cleaner production
, there are no common terms in the analysis. The reason for that is that we looked at circular economy from a broader perspective of sustainability, the Reika 2018 article is more precise and technology focused. They also used AND analysis, e.g., circular economy
AND reverse logistics
. Trends are very similar but focus of the study is also a bit different: we tried to look at life cycle of the business sustainability movements, and whether they can be seen as independent, competing, or symbiotic and mutually reinforcing concepts.
Another line of research does not take such a wide scope but tries to find common and differential points among some of the movements we proposed, for example between the blue economy
and circular economy
], cleaner production
], environmental accounting
] or specific areas of (nonsustainability) management [56
]. A very popular line of papers deploys the concept of circular economy for a certain industrial application, like a factory or a domestic industry [58
One of our basic questions were whether the 15 analyzed business sustainability movements are independent
, or symbiotic and mutually reinforcing
? We have enough evidence to say that they are symbiotic. If we look at the number of publications in Science Direct, we see that all movements are on steep rise in the last 5 years. In other words, our presumed life cycle (on Figure 4
) is valid to 80–85% only: till the absolute maximal point on the figure. In reality after that point the trend does not drop, only its acceleration is slower, the curve might level-off or keep on rising, but at a more moderate pace. The last phase of the trend line does not resemble the falling tail of a Gauss-curve, but a sigmoid curve. In a non-mathematical language: the business sustainability movements live in harmony, they refer to older movements as predecessors, the common field is much bigger, than the differences. I think, this is good news for all, who do not only seek publication credentials, but hope to contribute to make the economic system more ecologically and socially sustainable! We have a strong basis to hope that we do “much ado about SOMEthing”.