Management researchers in circular economy have traditionally focused on technological tools and economic processes. However, they tend to neglect the impacts on people and society. Philip Glynn writes that the paradox lens equips researchers with the tools they need to rebalance this critically important field by centring on its social aspects.
What if the world transitioned from a linear to a circular economy? In a world of eco-industrial parks, the waste of one company might be the key input for its neighbour. Products would abandon their factory-to-closet-to-landfill journey. Instead, they would be shared and re-used before being returned for repair or recycling. Such a model could perhaps sustain quality of human life and steer us away from ecological crisis. And it would certainly present managers with the competing demands of economic and environmental sustainability.
In studying how managers react to such situations, researchers have developed the paradox lens. A paradox exists when tension between “elements that seem logical individually but inconsistent and even absurd when juxtaposed” is sustained over time.This doesn’t allow us to simply choose between competing demands and live with the trade-off. It requires us to experience the salience of tensions and acknowledge the paradoxical reality they create.
Ask anyone in the circular economy field if social sustainability should be a goal of the transition and they will quickly say “yes.” Ask them to define social sustainability, and they are likely to hesitate. For some, it means widespread, accessible employment. For others, it means a healthy environment for workers. Mies and Gold (2021) claim that only rarely is it analysed in terms of social justice.
This is why those of us in the circular economy field must question a foundational assumption: if we overcome the myriad barriers to a circular economy, the social impacts will automatically be positive. We all know what will happen if humanity fails to address the climate crisis. Now we must ask: what will the firm, and as a result the world, look like if we succeed?
There is cause for hope. Global supply chains have already demonstrated their ability to get diapers on their way to sleep-deprived parents while the mouse they clicked to order them is still warm. Could these supply chains not simply accommodate the demands of circularity, just as a piece of music written for acoustic instruments could be played with electric ones?
There is also cause for concern. One can’t simply assume that a transition designed and led by technological and managerial elites will automatically be good for all people.
Think about supplier diversity programs—now a standard practice for many multinationals. Global shipping firm UPS, for example, spends approximately $2.5 billion annually in transactions with suppliers owned by members of historically marginalized groups.
To meet supplier diversity goals, a firm might buy inputs from a small, rural supplier. To meet their circularity goals, however, it might favour a large firm in a central location. The efficiency goal of circularity would be in tension with the social goal of supplier diversity.
How to respond? Managers could take what researchers have termed an integrative view, openly acknowledge the paradox, then choose from available strategies: opposition, separation and synthesis. Opposition is about acceptance. Don’t try to resolve the tension; live with it. Use improvisation to work toward the opposing goals on a daily basis. Separation and synthesis are about resolution. Either separate or synthesize the elements in tension and attempt to address both.
Imagine your primary formal responsibility is the design of a circular supply chain. Then imagine external stakeholders force your team to prioritize supplier diversity. You could try opposition. Form a voluntary team outside the reporting structure to brainstorm ideas to increase supplier diversity. This messy but useful process transforms conflict into debate and creates an environment from which a strategy might emerge.
You could try resolution through separation. Create a sabbatical program for team members to pursue social justice work but focus company resources on circularity. You could try resolution through synthesis. Change the reporting structure so that diversity and circularity officers must work together to design strategies—the formation of joint ventures or partnerships between diverse and non-diverse suppliers, for example.
In an atmosphere of ecological crisis, it is tempting to see our jobs as a series of binary choices. Through the paradox lens, the world looks more complicated. But embracing this complexity might be the only way for firms and their stakeholders to find their way through.
- This blog post is based on Responding to paradoxical tensions in global supply chains, ESCP Business School’s Geopolitics and global business impact series.
- The post represents the views of its author(s), not the position of LSE Business Review or the London School of Economics.
- Featured image by Nick Fewings on Unsplash
- When you leave a comment, you’re agreeing to our Comment Policy.