Conceptualising a Circular Economy—an Enquiry into Circular Economy Conceptual Metaphors

Emma H.E. Fromberg*, Conny A. Bakker, David Peck

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review


Numerous academic scholars argue for a radical transformation of the economy towards a circular model, in response to pressures from planetary and social issues such as energy, climate change, inequality, and resource depletion. This study examines how the academic community perceives the concept of a circular economy in comparison to traditional economic discourse, through the lens of conceptual metaphors. Conceptual metaphors are systematic properties that reflect one’s understanding of abstract phenomena like a circular economy. Through a structured review of the literature, seven dominant conceptual metaphors were identified that shape the understanding of traditional economics. The study also conducted a textual analysis of the ten most frequently cited academic papers on the circular economy. The analysis revealed that certain dominant metaphors from traditional economics have been influential in shaping discourse on the circular economy. The most common metaphors were the machine metaphor, competitive metaphors, the journey metaphor, and ecological metaphors. Each conceptual metaphor has its own strengths and weaknesses, which may include poorly explained areas or missing dimensions. These two aspects are referred to as misconceptions and blind spots, respectively, and the paper reflects on the implications of these for the current academic discourse on the circular economy.

Original languageEnglish
Number of pages25
JournalCircular Economy and Sustainability
Publication statusPublished - 2023

Bibliographical note

Green Open Access added to TU Delft Institutional Repository ‘You share, we take care!’ – Taverne project Otherwise as indicated in the copyright section: the publisher is the copyright holder of this work and the author uses the Dutch legislation to make this work public.


  • Circular economy
  • Conceptual metaphor theory
  • Rhetoric


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