Cluster members
Cluster director

The Sustainability & Circular Economy Research Clusters engages with the most important global questions of our time: climate change, food and energy security, and resilience against environmental, social and economic shocks

Sustainable Innovation Lab (SusIN Lab)

The SusIN Lab is an initiative of cluster members Prof John Bessant and Dr Sally Jeanrenaud. Find out more about SusIN Lab research activities and events.

Sustainability & Circular Economy

The "Sustainability & Circular Economy" research cluster is an exciting new interdisciplinary research community at the University of Exeter Business School. We bring together political economists, supply chain experts, biologists, business administrators, mathematical modellers and social scientists from across the Business School to explore, interrogate and challenge a wide variety of ideas relating to how we can make life on this planet more sustainable, circular and resilient.


Circular Economy

The concept of the circular economy is fast gaining traction among policymakers, businesses and NGOs as a desirable alternative to the linear economy of make-use-dispose, where maximum value is extracted from resources whilst in use, and products and materials are recovered and regenerated at the end of life.

Food and agricultural systems and supply chains

The physical and economic access to adequate food and drink, or means for its procurement, is universally regarded as a human right. Yet food insecurity remains a worldwide problem, with even the richest countries seeing a rise in the use of food banks. At the same time, the food and agriculture industry is responsible for enormous environmental impacts including use of land, water, energy and raw materials, toxic emissions, with often vast waste implications.

Energy, climate change, and low carbon transitions

As an engine of economic growth, fossil fuels have undoubtedly contributed to a phenomenal rise in the living standards of humanity—albeit with the benefits unevenly distributed. However, we now recognise that burning hydrocarbons and releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere has come at a significant environmental risk in the shape of climate change, and, again the impacts won’t be homogenously distributed.

Philosophy, strategy and governance systems of sustainability

The concept of sustainability has spawned hundreds of definitions and countless books, academic courses and government policies. In this theme, we examine the sustainability narrative and discourse in detail, exploring the epistemologies and philosophies of people-nature relations.

Health & wellbeing

This theme explores the challenges facing the delivery of all forms for sustainable healthcare.

Our research includes system modelling approaches to primary and community care and GP attrition, the social impact of the hygiene hypothesis, and the urgent care network. We also investigate how nature contributes to people’s wellbeing, for example when people participate in local food projects, such as Community-supported Agriculture (CSA).


Our sustainability research explores many other topics, with new promising themes for investigation arising all the time, including sustainable tourism, innovative business models, systems change and SME development.

Cluster events

Food and the Circular Economy (Penryn Event)

Penryn Campus, Friday 3 March 2017, 12:45 in the Environment and Sustainability Institute (ESI)

"Food and the Circular Economy - South West" explores the opportunities and challenges for SME food and drink processors in the South West in transitioning towards the circular economy (CE) – as well as evaluating the CE concept itself.

Speaker: George Eustice, MP for Camborne and Redruth and Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Farming, Food and the Marine Environment

Food and the Circular Economy (Exeter Event)

Streatham Campus, Friday 10 February 2017, 12:45 in the Innovation Centre

"Food and the Circular Economy - South West" explores the opportunities and challenges for SME food and drink processors in the South West in transitioning towards the circular economy (CE) – as well as evaluating the CE concept itself.

Speaker: Neil Parish, MP for Tiverton and Honiton and Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee.

Embedding  the Circular Economy

Streatham Campus, Friday 9 December 2016, 2pm in XFI Seminar Room A

The circular economy has emerged as an influential concept to address questions of resource efficiency. While it has already proven powerful in terms of energizing practitioners, a critical analysis reveals limitations in its current use. The seminar provides insight into these, focusing on (1) the relationship between circular economy and sustainable development, and (2) the lack of attention given to the organizational and institutional requirements for establishing a circular economy. 

Speaker: Professor Frank Boons, The University of Manchester

Modern slavery: the role of prototypes in categorizing extreme labor exploitation 

Streatham Campus, Wednesday 16 November 2016, 16:00 - 18:00 in Building:One Matrix Lecture Theatre

Prototypes have long been acknowledged as playing a critical role in the emergence and consolidation of new organizational and market categories. Forming around discursive subjects (e.g. perpetrators / victims) and practices (e.g. violence / incarceration / extortion), we show how each prototype draws on different linguistic mechanics and gives rise to distinct cognitive schemas that frame alternate conceptions of modern slavery.

Speaker: Dr Robert Caruana, Nottingham University Business School

Theory U Facilitator Training

Streatham Campus, 8-10 November 2016, Reed Hall

Theory U (also known as the U Process) is a socio-technology that is designed to address complex problems, foster innovation, and facilitate profound change. Theory U can be applied to challenges at the personal, business or economy level, including challenging multistakeholder processes. Join this 3-day experiential workshop and explore Theory U: a method for growing the capacity for innovative and collaborative action for a sustainable future.
Global Value Chains: Competing views on governance, firm’s performance and development outcomes 

Streatham Campus, Thursday 27 October 2016, 2pm in Queens LT4.2

Global value chains formed by the geographical dispersion of productive activities in inter-firm and intra-firm networks have become a dominant form of organization of economic activities, accounting for 80% of international trade (UNCTAD, 2013) and one in five jobs in the global economy (ILO, 2015). Several research streams offer competing views on these issues of governance, firm’s performance and development outcomes, that will be discussed on the basis of selected publications.

Speaker: Dr Florence Palpacuer, The University of Montpellier

Embedding Sustainability - A Preliminary Discussion

Streatham Campus, Wednesday 12 October 2016, 13:30 - 14:10 in Building:One Kolade Teaching Room

Speaker: John Burns, University of Exeter

Accountability of Fairtrade from the Margins

Streatham Campus, Wednesday 12 October 2016, 14:10 - 14:50 in Building:One Kolade Teaching Room

This talk will present a study that examines the accountability of Fairtrade with regard to its promise of providing sustainable livelihoods to small coffee farmers which is consistent with the notion of accounting from the margins.

Speaker: Sanjak Lanka, Sheffield University Management School and Steffen Boehm, University of Exeter

Lawyers, Accountants and Financial Analysts Competing Rationales in Regulating CSR Disclosure

Streatham Campus, Wednesday 12 October 2016, 14:50 - 15:30 in Building:One Kolade Teaching Room

Recent EU regulatory changes have introduced for the first time the obligation for large corporations to include in their annual reports CSR information. This regulatory change s creating a strange encounter between the parallel worlds of environmental and human rights lawyers; international accountants; and financial analysts.

Speaker: David Monciardini, University of Exeter

The Unbelievable in Pursuit of the Inconceivable: Empiricism and the Social Construction of Corporate Environmental Performance

Streatham Campus, Wednesday 12 October 2016, 16:00 - 17:30 in Building:One Kolade Teaching Room

The focus of this talk is the perceived inadequacy of empirical work investigating corporate environmental performance and its reporting and disclosure.

Speaker: Markus Milne, University of Canterbury

University of Exeter Business School in collaboration with the Environment and Sustainability Institute 

Penryn Campus, Tuesday, 21 June 2016, 10am in the Trevithick Room

Dr Giovanna Michelon, Associate Professor of Accounting at Exeter's Business School on Streatham Campus, will talk about “Fighting Pollinator Extinction: An Examination of the Corporate Response to the US Pollinator Decline Policy”

Summary: Despite the U.S. historical undiscerning stand in initiatives to combat biodiversity decline, recently the President of the United States (POTUS) launched a federal strategy to fight pollinators decline (The White House, 2014). With estimated species extinctions occurring at rates 1000 times faster than any other major historical extinction event (DeVos et al., 2014), and the Big 4 accounting firms all calling on corporations to examine their risks and opportunities related to biodiversity issues (KPMG Sustainability, 2011; KPMG, 2011; Deloitte, 2012; EY, 2013; PWC, 2015), the aim of this study is to provide an inter-disciplinary exploration of the impact that the POTUS’s call for cross-sector social partnerships (CSSP) on pollinator extinction has on corporate accountability for pollinator conservation, as measured by disclosures in U.S. sustainability reports.

Giovanna Michelon will present a paper written with Romi and Longing (Texas Tech University) that examine voluntary public pollinator conservation disclosures of S&P 500 firms for the period 2013-2015. Results indicate significant increases in reporting after the U.S. government’s action, while the extent of disclosure remains constant. Approximately half of pollinator-risky industries demonstrate high disclosure rates and firms attributing conservation efforts to operational risks provide more extensive disclosures. Despite a general increasing trend in firms reporting on pollinator decline, our evidence suggests that the risk of species extinction is far from being valued from a moral or ethical standpoint. Rather, the impact of CSSPs on pollinator extinction disclosure has been very anthropocentric, in that actions are undertaken and accounted for only if they represent a significant and threatening risk to business profitability and survival. Consequently, if the act of reporting has the potential to influence and transform corporate behavior (Buhr, 2007), the establishment of voluntary CSSPs could achieve this potential only when decisions are based on an economic, rather than wider social, cost-benefit analysis.

The Circular Economy: A Wealth of Flows

Streatham Campus, Tuesday, 17 May, 6pm in the Henderson Lecture Theatre, University of Exeter Xfi Building

The Circular Economy: A Wealth of Flows’ - a presentation by Ken Webster, Head of Innovation at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

Employee Environmental Activism: Transition to renewables at a European utility

Penryn Campus, on Thursday 10th March 2016 at 15:00 to 17:00 in the Trevithick Room

Dr Annika Skoglund, Uppsala University, Division of Industrial Engineering and Management & Professor Steffen Böhm of the University of Exeter Business School, Director, Sustainability and Circular Economy Research Cluster

Abstract: This ethnographic study presents how environmental activism is enacted within a large European utility, Vattenfall. Employees working with Vattenfall’s wind power unit in Sweden and the UK have been interviewed, shadowed and observed, to trace what shape activism takes. Empirical focus is thus on those specific employees who express and act on their critique of traditional electricity production. By turning to studies on social movements, we conceptualize the different elements that constitute internal environmental activism. Our preliminary findings show that internal activism is formed by witness bearing, non-violent self-organised collectivity, encouragement of non-believers and environmentally friendly micro-practices. Three different activist characters unfolds; one which is protective of the possibilities the utility has to transform; another which is idealistic and strongly disappointed; and one that is rationally critical and asks for stronger alignment of what is said and what is done. Drawing on these findings we end with a discussion of how employee environmental activism contributes to the energy transition and facilitates the implementation of a more renewable and sustainable energy system.

Impact activities

Innovation for Sustainability

Innovation for Sustainability (I4S) has been the central theme of a European Commission Marie Curie Initial Training Network that received £2.5 million funding. The Initial Training Network included PhD Students and Senior Researchers in a consortium of 8 universities from across Europe and Africa, coordinated by The Academy of Business in Society in Brussels. The Business School, mainly represented by Dr Sally Jeanrenaud, participated as a key member of the I4S consortium. Between 2013 and 2016, this research group explored innovation for sustainability with entrepreneurs, SMEs, MNCs, and international organisations, around the world.

Relevant output

Food and the Circular Economy - South West

Food and the Circular Economy - South West is a major new two-year research project exploring the opportunities available to, and challenges faced by, small and medium-sized enterprises in the food and beverages manufacturing industry as they transition towards the circular economy. Kicking off in November 2016, an interdisciplinary team of researchers, led by the University of Exeter Business School and funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (ESRC), will work closely with a select group of dairies, bakers, distilleries and others across South West England.

Cluster research projects

Principal investigator & Co-applicant(s)


Dr Adrian Bailey
Dr. Jeff Jia
Laura Zuluaga-Cardona

Building capacity, publications and impact in the Business Nature and Value (BNV) research group

Since 2014, the BNV research group has collaborated with international academic partners in the area of food supply networks, agricultural supply and global supply chain management. The group seeks ways to involve smallholder farmers in value-added activities, providing environmentally sustainable outcomes. Projects have included case studies of organic food production and a life cycle analysis of beef supply chains between Brazil and China.

Funded value: £10,050

Professor Steffen Boehm
Professor Mickey Howard
Dr Nav Mustafee

Modelling supply chain optimisation in the food and beverages industry: Helping SMEs in South West England work towards the circular economy

The overarching aim of this research is to model and understand the opportunities available to, and challenges faced by, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in the food and beverages manufacturing (FBM) industry in South West England in their efforts to transition towards the circular economy (CE). This project has funded support to develop a large EPSRC grant as well as several pilot projects with SMEs and other partner engagement activities.

Funded value: £5000

Dr Ke Rong

Organizing Business Ecosystems in Sharing Economy for Society Sustainable Development:  Research and Impact

The sharing economy is describes the creation of value from excess capacities for products and services by connecting different stakeholders, typically using information technologies. Key players in this emerging socio-economic ecosystem include Uber, Airbnb and YouTube. What are the typologies and major components of business models in the sharing economy? What are the implications for sustainable development? And how will the nature of work change? This research investigates. Results will be disseminated at key conferences including the Davos World Economic Forum Summit 2016.

Funded value: £4,960

Dr Nav Mustafee

An Investigation of Model Reusability in Practice: An Example of the Blood Supply Chain in South Devon and Torbay

The supply chain for blood used in the NHS faces many challenges including perishability of the product, competing demands from multiple hospitals and costs associated with testing. This research applies mathematical modelling and simulation approaches to reducing waste and improving efficiency using the supply chain of blood in South Devon and Torbay as a case study.

Funded value: £2,160

Adam Lusby
Professor Mickey Howard

A conversation with Ken Webster, Head of Innovation at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation

Ken Webster, Head of Innovation at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and author of The Circular Economy, A Wealth of Flows (2015), is a thought-leader in the development of the circular economy. During the this half-day event held in May 2016 Ken was invited to outline his current thinking, with the overall aim to raise awareness of the Circular Economy and Sustainability Cluster and to connect further with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and its network.

Funded value: £995

Professor Mickey Howard

Visit to the University of Exeter Business School by Professor Zhaohui Wu, Oregon State University

Professor Zhaohui Wu is a leading expert in supply chain dynamics, environmental management strategy, alternative food systems and agricultural cooperatives. Building on our existing relationship with Prof Wu, we have invited him back to Exeter in September 2016 to collaborate on research grant priming, publication development and the planning of future activities of the Circular Economy and Sustainability Cluster.

Funded value: £3,000

Dr Sally Jeanrenaud

Buddhist Economics – Fifty Years after Schumacher

In 1966 following a trip to Burma, E. F. Schumacher—whose book Small is Beautiful would later help launch the sustainability movement—coined the phrase Buddhist Economics. Five decades on, the role and relevance of this radical idea is explored in relation to the development of new business models, the sustainable development agenda and the emergence of ‘mindfulness’ practices. New theoretical perspectives will be grounded in interviews with Buddhist thought leaders at international and local levels, and in a case study of economic transition in Myanmar.

Funded value: £1,885

Dr David Monciardini

Building the regulatory framework for corporate sustainability reporting

The EU Directive on non-financial reporting (NFR) was adopted in 2014 requiring corporate accounting to disclose social and environmental information. The Directive comes into effect in 2017, but how will the transnational lawyers, accountants and financial analysts tasked with implementing the NFR rules interpret them, given their different cognitive and normative perspectives? This study investigates using a network analysis methodology—in collaboration with the Centre for Business Network Analysis, University of Greenwich (London)—to map the position of actors shaping this policy debate.

Funded value: £3,500

Professor Steve Brown

Supply chain leadership and followership in Tetra Pak China’s recycling chain

Supply chain leadership and, especially, followership, are emerging concepts in the supply chain management research. This study is a unique opportunity to explore how these ideas play out in the Chinese segment of the recycling chain of a major multinational corporation.

Funded value: £3,500