A systems view on organizations and circular economy

Elizabeth M. Miller

Research output: ThesisDoctoral ThesisCollection of Articles


Organizations are embedded in nested socio-ecological systems, in which entities at different scales continually shape one another, determining future options and potential resilience in the face ofshocks. Escalating ecological problems in socio-ecological systems, like climate change and freshwater depletion, pose serious threats for future societies and the organizations within them.These grand challenges can be interlinked with one another and cross geographical boundaries, making their management unclear. In this dissertation, I set out to explore how the methods and theories we use as management scholars can be adapted to take into account the complex dynamics that mediate the interactions between organizations and the socioecological systems in which theyare embedded. Global production systems are particularly relevant contexts for understanding relationships between organizations and socio-ecological systems. In many industries, globalization has led to vertical disintegration with networks of sub-suppliers spread across the world. This production system has led to myriad social and ecological harms. The concept of circular economy, which replaces disposal at the end of a product's life with economic activities to keep the materials in circulation longer, has been developed to reduce those harms. As the circular economy concept has filtered into policy and practice, how researchers study and develop such concepts needs to effectively take into account dynamics beyond the firm level if their full potential is to be reached in the face of complex socio-ecological crises. Thus, this dissertation explores the overarching research question: How does a systems view of organizations shape the interpretation of circular economy? The three articles in this dissertation each approach the issue of framing organizations and circular economy in socio-ecological systems from a different angle, together offering methodological and theoretical lenses for adapting sustainability management inquiry to fit thecomplexity of grand societal challenges. Article 1 offers a method for qualitative systems mapping adjusted for organization studies, specifically for theorizing socio-ecological system impacts of organizations and their supply chains. Article 2 advances this thinking by conceptualizing how information flows can lead to the development of circular economy supply chains using complex adaptive systems theory. Article 3 uses a problematizing review methodology to identify hidden assumptions in business, management, and organization scholars' framing of circular economy. I conclude by integrating the findings of this dissertation to offer insights on cross-cutting themes, specifically: emergence in complex systems, systems and framing, bringing the biophysical sphere into management analyses, advancing the circular economy concept, and methodological contributions.
Translated title of the contributionA systems view on organizations and circular economy
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor's degree
Awarding Institution
  • Aalto University
  • Halme, Minna, Supervising Professor
Print ISBNs978-952-64-1310-5
Electronic ISBNs978-952-64-1311-2
Publication statusPublished - 2023
MoE publication typeG5 Doctoral dissertation (article)


  • systems thinking
  • circular economy
  • socio-ecological systems
  • qualitative methods


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