In recent years, researchers and practitioners have increasingly paid attention to food waste, which is seen as highly unethical given its negative environmental and societal implications. Waste recovery is dependent on the creation of connections along the supply chain, so that actors with goods at risk of becoming waste can transfer them to those who may be able to use them as inputs or for their own consumption. Such waste recovery is, however, often hampered by what we call ‘circularity holes’, i.e., missing linkages between waste generators and potential receivers. A new type of actor, the digital platform organization, has recently taken on a brokerage function to bridge circularity holes, particularly in the food supply chain. Yet, extant literature has overlooked this novel type of brokerage that exploits digital technology for the transfer and recovery of discarded resources between supply chain actors. Our study investigates this actor, conceptualized as a ‘circularity broker’, and thus unites network research and circular supply chain research. Focusing on the food supply chain, we adopt an interpretive inductive theory-building approach to uncover how platform organizations foster the recovery of waste by bridging circularity holes. We identify and explicate six brokerage roles, i.e., connecting, informing, protecting, mobilizing, integrating and measuring, and discuss them in relation to extant literature, highlighting novelties compared to earlier studies. The final section reflects on contributions, implications, limitations and areas for further research.
Our research responds to the growing interest in the circular economy on the part of both scholars and practitioners by showing what brokerage entails when its ultimate goal is to drive the recovery of resources that would otherwise, for a variety of reasons be doomed for the landfill.
Second, and partly related, our work contributes to the circular supply chain literature. The conceptualization of the ‘circularity hole’ emphasises the lack of connections between supply chain actors and enables a better understanding of the factors hindering the development of circular supply chains. We also shed light on ways in which a newcomer that relies on digital technology may enter a supply chain and drive its shift towards a circular one, by bridging the holes that hinder waste recovery. Our finding that a circularity brokerage entails a variety of roles implies that bringing about change is complex and requires different responses and an array of activities to overcome the barriers to food waste recovery and realise circular supply chains.
Based on our findings, policymakers might want to explore how they can support the roles undertaken by food waste platform organizations to increase the chances of closing circularity holes in food supply chains. For example, particularly local policymakers could back the platforms’ framing sub-role by designing communication campaigns that underline the environmental, social and economic losses engendered by food waste, so as to drive citizen and business awareness of the issues at stake.