Blog: Service Research for Sustainability: What Can We Offer and What Does It Take?2024-01-17
Neither academics nor managers need convincing regarding the urgent need to pursue environmental sustainability. Worldwide, nations are committed to advancing the circular economy through resource reduction, reuse, and recycling. Despite these efforts, the recent Circularity Gap Report (2023) reveals a stark reality—the global economy is only 7.2% circular, and this situation worsens year by year. There is a pressing need for research to propel the transition towards a more circular and sustainable world. What does that mean for service researchers?
A Lucrative Research Area
Sustainability and the circular economy present vast opportunities for relevant and interesting research. This emerging context allows scholars to delve into existing concepts, theories, and cultivate innovative ones. Large public funding schemes are earmarked for sustainability, and numerous journal special issues, conferences, and seminars actively seek contributions in this domain. Importantly, firms across industries have made the circular transition their strategic priority, motivated by both opportunities and regulations. This convergence creates a compelling space for scholars to tap into a growing, yet emerging area, and influence business practices and even policymaking.
What Can Service Research Offer?
Currently, academic research on sustainability and circularity is dominated by a technological and environmental focus. However, a circular society demands profound shifts in human behavior, organizational practices, and societal norms. Here, service research can play a pivotal role. Its unique capacity to explore behavioral, psychological, social, and cultural phenomena at individual and systemic levels is crucial for unraveling the human dimensions of the circular transition.
From a corporate standpoint, servitization is a critical means of extending and regenerating resource lifecycles. The shift to circularity often necessitates innovative service models, redirecting the business focus from sheer production to enabling more efficient resource usage. On the user front, an extensive body of service research focuses on understanding customer perceptions, experiences, and engagements—fundamental for driving sustainable practices. Additionally, service research provides metatheoretical frameworks, like the Service-Dominant Logic, that enable the analysis of systemic, institutional, and emergent aspects of sustainability and human behavior.
However, much of this potential remains untapped. A literature review by Karpen et al. (2023) reveals a scarcity of articles explicitly focusing on sustainable or circular service in service journals. While strides have been made in studying specific aspects like circular business models, a comprehensive theoretical understanding of how service research can advance the circular economy is lacking. Despite positive shifts, with a number of upcoming special issues on service and sustainability, there is ample room for groundbreaking contributions.
Navigating Challenges and Catalyzing Change
The research opportunities come with a challenge. As the circularity transition requires simultaneous changes in engagements, practices, technologies, and production processes, interdisciplinary research efforts are needed. Service scholars should step out of their comfort zone and reach out to expertise in other fields. This involves reading research published in unfamiliar journals, attending presentations by environmental researchers, and figuring out how our perspectives fit into their world. Moreover, scholars should communicate their own findings effectively, ensuring resonance with a broader audience. Even when focusing on a domain-specific concept, we could better explain, without jargon, how our findings contribute to the big picture of the studied phenomenon.
Another likely requirement is the adoption of new performance indicators that may starkly contrast current ones. Many service research theories traditionally focus on outcome measures tied to increased sales—aligned with buying and consuming more. However, a circular economy demands more nuanced metrics to understand and facilitate the mechanisms of the transition fully. For example, how to measure the performance of a customer journey when the goal is to discourage unnecessary impulse buying rather than drive purchases? How to adapt the nomological network of the engagement concept when studying stakeholder engagement towards recycling instead of customer brand engagement?
These considerations pave the way for renewing service research, ensuring its continued relevance in contemporary markets and societies. The transformative contributions of service research can serve as the bridge between technological advancements and the intricate fabric of human behavior. Embracing these opportunities can make our impact on business practices, policy-making, and societal norms profound.
Professor at University of Turku, Finland, and Visiting Professor at the Service Research Center (CTF) at Karlstad University
Karpen, I. O., Edvardsson, B., Tronvoll, B., Jaakkola, E., & Conduit, J. (2023). Circular service management: toward conceptual understanding and service research priorities for a more sustainable future. Journal of Service Management, 34(6), 50-69.