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Investigating the territorial embeddedness of circular economic practices in the Brussels-Capital Region

Enquête sur l'encastrement territorial des pratiques de l’économie circulaire en Région de Bruxelles-Capitale
De territoriale inbedding van circulaire economische praktijken in het Brussels Hoofdstedelijk Gewest onder de loep
Deborah Lambert, Mariana Santos et David Bassens
Traduction(s) :
Enquête sur l'encastrement territorial des pratiques de l’économie circulaire en Région de Bruxelles-Capitale [fr]
De territoriale inbedding van circulaire economische praktijken in het Brussels Hoofdstedelijk Gewest onder de loep [nl]


L’économie circulaire (EC) figure parmi les priorités de la Région de Bruxelles-Capitale (RBC), car elle permet de concilier durabilité et objectifs économiques, tels que la fixation des activités productives dans la région et la création d’emplois. Le présent document s’appuie sur six études de cas dans le secteur agroalimentaire pour examiner la manière dont l’EC s’imbrique dans les tissus sociospatial, économique, culturel, financier et institutionnel de la région. Nous constatons que l’EC englobe une pluralité de pratiques, ce qui augure de nombreuses possibilités pour son expansion. Nous recommandons de tenir compte de cette diversité, dans la mesure où les politiques visent à créer des coalitions entre la Région, des entreprises dont les modèles économiques et les missions divergent, ainsi que des initiatives de proximité dans différents domaines. En outre, il apparaît nécessaire de valoriser les « emplois circulaires » et nous préconisons d’accorder plus d’attention aux activités d’EC urbaines au-delà 1) de celles centrées sur les marchés ciblant des consommateurs à revenus moyens ou élevés, et/ou 2) de celles qui font grimper la valeur marchande de l’immobilier.

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1The transition towards a more circular economy (CE) – generally understood as an economic system which tries to “close the loop” – is high on the agenda of the Brussels-Capital Region (BCR). The CE, as an alternative to the current linear economy, aims to optimise the use of materials and energy by creating new modes of conception, production and consumption, by extending the life of products and reusing them, and by recycling materials. The main CE policy was anchored in the Programme Régional d’Economie Circulaire 2016-2020 [PREC, 2016] aiming to transform ecological challenges into economic opportunities, bring production into the Region and create jobs. While the focus on ecological goals is clear, these objectives are linked to long-standing regional concerns around embedding economic activities territorially in BCR. The objectives of the PREC resonate with objectives of the regional Good Food strategy, where a relocalisation of food production and combatting food waste are high on the agenda. Based on insights from a four-year project sponsored by Innoviris (i.e. Circular Economy and the City), this paper explores these concerns and analyses the territorial embeddedness of the CE in BCR.

2A main political concern of the 2017 Innoviris call to which our project responded was to achieve an “equilibrium” between the socio-economic diversity of the inhabitants of BCR and the requirements of the potential transition of BCR towards a CE paradigm. While this is a key issue, it tends to reduce a complex problem to one of finding acceptance of circular solutions and technologies among citizens as consumers. By contrast, our concern with the territorial embeddedness of the CE considers economic activities as fundamentally integrated and shaped by social relations and institutions [Hess, 2004]. In this perspective, the CE transition entails a more fundamental question of what social structures and institutions are required at urban level to support such a transformation without overlooking the dangers of disconnection between CE solutions and the life-worlds of households. 

3As it situates and understands transitions in relation to the diverse CE landscape in BCR, this paper expands its scope beyond profit-oriented firms reducing CE to corporate worlds, which tends to depoliticise the debate [Corvellec et al., 2021] and locating stakeholders which play an important yet invisible role [Wuyts and Marin, 2022]. This is a perspective which brings to the fore the role of social innovation, highlighting the agency of inhabitants in instigating and advancing CE transitions [cf. Hobson, 2016]. The embeddedness of circular economic practices therefore has key implications for governance resonating with related concerns about the return or preservation of productive activities in the Region [De Boeck et al., 2017; Orban et al., 2021]. More precisely, we contend that policies aimed at urban transitions towards the CE can learn from an analysis of CE practices in the socio-spatial, economic, cultural, financial and institutional fabric of the city [cf. Keblowski et al., 2020]. These five dimensions are used to study cases of food-related CE practices in BCR, allowing policy recommendations to be made in support of a more embedded CE.  

4This article proceeds as follows. Section 1 outlines our analytical framework, building an operational notion of embeddedness by detailing five key interrelated dimensions. It introduces the cases sampled in this study and the research methods used. Section 2 subsequently examines each dimension by building on data gathered from the sampled cases. The last section concludes and presents policy recommendations. 

1. A framework to study the territorial embeddedness of the circular economy 

5In order to unravel the complex socio-political entanglements underlying economic practices regarding the CE, we use the notion of embeddedness. Embeddedness is generally used to describe the integration of practices in socio-economic systems and refers more specifically to the insertion of economic exchange in social relations [Polanyi, 2001; Keblowski et al., 2020]. Scholars have been using various frameworks to explore the embeddedness of economic stakeholders. These various approaches are anchored in different disciplinary traditions. Each of these disciplines has added its own sensitivities [cf. Hess, 2004: 173]: (i) business systems examine how firms are set in institutional and regulatory frameworks, (ii) economic sociology studies how individuals and firms are part of sociotechnical and professional networks, (iii) organisation and business studies analyse how firms and networks are embedded in social structures, markets, technological systems and political systems, and (iv) economic geographers are concerned with a particular spatial scale.

6Embeddedness provides a useful perspective in order to explore the heterogeneity and complexity of our cases by placing them on a continuum which embraces a large range of practices, from profit-oriented to more embedded ones which are based on more “substantive” non-market economies, such as reciprocity and redistribution. Much like Hess [2004] who reconceptualises spatial-temporal embeddedness as an interplay of societal, network and territorial processes, we build an economic geographical framework which is enriched by the important considerations raised by the other named disciplines. We study five interrelated dimensions which together help to understand how CE organisations are locally embedded in existing networks:

  • Socio-spatial embeddedness refers to the insertion of practices in social networks and neighbourhoods: we compare the relationships of cases to the surrounding neighbourhood, how they are spatially anchored, where the public comes from, and who benefits from their activity.

  • Economic embeddedness refers to the insertion in capitalist-market oriented exchange: we look for forms of exchange, reciprocity and redistribution which tend to re-embed economic practices in social relations. We study organisational forms, and the ways surplus is produced, appropriated and distributed. Since labour is a central organisational element, we look at the multiple ways of performing and remunerating labour.

  • Cultural embeddedness refers to the insertion of practices in shared understandings of the world resulting in shared norms and values: we make use of the notion of imaginaries and study how the cases position themselves diversely in relation to wider urban imaginaries regarding urban redevelopment. We study how the CE imaginary is used by the different stakeholders.

  • Financial embeddedness refers to the insertion in concrete ecologies of financial institutions and practices: we examine the financial trajectories of the cases, including their sources of funding, the use of different financial instruments and the influence of intermediation and credit-debt relations on distinct CE projects.

  • Institutional embeddedness refers to the insertion in the regional institutional networks: we compare the support that organisations receive from local and regional institutions and the different ways in which stakeholders are able to mobilise the narrative of the CE to get funding. We study how the relationships with institutional arrangements and public stakeholders impacts their trajectories.

Table 1. Case studies


Date of creation




Atelier Groot Eiland



Molenbeek (headquarters, supermarket, garden and two restaurants), (additional projects in Anderlecht, Jette, Brussels, Saint Gilles and Schaerbeek)

Carpentry workshops, urban farming, restaurants, organic supermarket

People excluded from labour market

BEES coop




Supermarket with bulk products and a community kitchen



Holding SCA


Anderlecht-Cureghem (Marché Abattoir)

Urban aquaponic farm (fish farm, greenhouse and urban roof garden)


Brussels Beer Project



Anderlecht-Biestebroeck (brewery), Brussels-Dansaert (tap room), Ixelles-Bailli (tap room)



Collectmet (Cultureghem)



Anderlecht-Cureghem (Marché Abattoir)

Surplus food collects and redistribution + cooking activities

Volunteers and beneficiaries

Too Good To Go




Multiple locations across BCR with a concentration centre + south-east

Marketplace application for surplus food

App users

7Our analysis focuses on a diverse sample of six cases (see table 1): Atelier Groot Eiland (AGE), BEES coop, Building Integrated GreenHouses (BIGH), Brussels Beer Project (BBP), Collectmet and Too Good To Go (TGTG). While not all of them present themselves as circular, such as BIGH, they all have circular objectives (BEES coop, AGE), circular products (BBP) or a strong focus on reducing food waste (TGTG, Collectmet). Some of these cases deal with food production: BIGH is a high-tech for-profit urban aquaponic farm, while AGE is a social organisation for professional reintegration managing several urban gardens and farms as well as restaurants. Other projects mainly deal with food transformation: BBP is a brewery which researches different ways to reduce its use of resources. Yet others are in food distribution: BEES coop is a cooperative supermarket specialised in organic, local, fair trade and zero-waste products, TGTG is a mobile app enabling users to buy surplus food at a discounted price, and Collectmet is a local food redistribution project. Both TGTG and Collectmet work at the end of the chain with activities to reduce food surplus.

8The cases reflect various geographies as they are found in both impoverished (BIGH, Collectmet) and gentrifying neighbourhoods (BEES coop, BBP). They are also multi-sited (AGE) and online (TGTG). They represent different types of structure, from cooperative (BEES coop) to social organisations (AGE, Collectmet) and private companies (BIGH, TGTG). They portray various development stages, from newly formed (BBP and BEES coop) to historically anchored (AGE). Finally, concerning their relationships with institutions, the selection of cases aims to illustrate the tension between state-supported flagship projects (BBP, BEES coop) and market-driven initiatives (TGTG, BIGH).

  • 1 One researcher involved in the project was a member of BEES Coop and was working 3 hours a month in (...)

9The three main data collection methods for this study were participant observation (including field visits making use of field notes and photography1), semi-structured interviews, and document analysis. Crucially, 31 interviews were conducted with the different food initiatives as well as with food experts and public institutions between 2018 and 2022.

2. Analysing the multidimensional embeddedness of circular food organisations in the Brussels-Capital Region 

2.1 Socio-spatial embeddedness

10Our cases demonstrate that CE activities tend to be more embedded in their respective neighbourhoods when their first aim is to reinforce social cohesion.

11AGE and Collectmet illustrate how CE initiatives which focus on social cohesion are more embedded in their neighbourhood, even as they develop their own expansion strategies. AGE has been based in Molenbeek since 1986 and from its initial carpentry workshops has been expanding its activities along the canal. This expansion strategy aims to reintegrate more people into the labour market, while being sustainable and cost-effective. Collectmet is in Anderlecht on the site of the historical Abattoirs which hosts the biggest and cheapest food market in BCR. Collectmet was launched by the social organisation Cultureghem in 2012 to occupy the large space of the Abattoirs when it is unused and reinforce social cohesion. As a result of their different activities related to food (i.e. collecting, cooking and sharing meals), they have become a must in the neighbourhood, whether it is with volunteer residents, vendors or workers from local businesses.

12BBP and BEES coop show that while CE activities can be attached to their local community and improve social cohesion, they may encounter socio-spatial contradictions. BBP is an emblematic case of this tension. Although it is a project very much committed to working responsibly and locally, its products are sold to an international and wealthy public, mostly coming from the south-east of the canal as noted by one interviewee (2022). It is located in the gentrifying Dansaert area and its new brewery which opened in 2022 is at the centre of the new “Port Sud” district, an urban redevelopment attracting many investors. As for BEES coop, it opened its premises in Schaerbeek at the junction between an impoverished area and a wealthier “upgrading” neighbourhood in 2017 in order to have access to a more diverse public. Yet, co-operators are mostly white, highly educated and wealthy, which illustrates the tension between the discourse on fair access to “good food” and the lack of inclusivity which this type of project is facing.

13Finally, BIGH and TGTG illustrate how CE activities may focus primarily on the European and international expansion of their activities and not on their local anchoring. BIGH, located on the roof of the Abattoirs, aims to develop a European network of urban aquaponic farms and is disconnected from the local residents. It mainly interacts with private stakeholders during tasting and corporate events. Otherwise, the roof is not accessible to the public. The tension is apparent between the standard of living of market users and their activity: the trout produced on the roof are not sold at the local market but in the wealthier neighbourhoods on the eastern bank of the canal. Similarly, TGTG is internationally oriented, and since it was founded in Denmark in 2015 is now active in 15 European countries, the US and Canada. In BCR, it is operating across the whole Region as more and more retailers, hotels, restaurants, bakers and producers subscribe to the app. Still, TGTG is more active in wealthier neighbourhoods in the south-east area of BCR, and the most disadvantaged people are not among its users (interview 2019).

2.2. Economic embeddedness

14Our cases uncover how CE initiatives may have to move between non-profit objectives and market orientation, experiencing contradictions and a need for compromise where market orientation is motivated primarily by financial stability and independence in order to further social and environmental objectives.

15Collectmet shows that CE practices may break from market logic with the absence of monetary transactions, the central place of sharing (food, cooking, meals as well as knowledge about cooking food waste, vegetarian, seasonal food and rare ingredients) and the use of volunteer work.

16On the contrary, BIGH and TGTG illustrate a market-driven approach of CE. BIGH aims to develop its farms “on a large scale and, if possible, internationally one day” (interview 2019). As such, it can be seen as a showcase to sell a replicable model abroad. Similarly, The main objective of TGTG is to grow as fast as possible in order to develop political advocacy and raise awareness: “we have to get indebted to hire more people, to expand, to develop ourselves (…) and do as much as possible, well, to save as much food as possible” (interview 2019).

17AGE, BBP and BEES coop illustrate a mixed approach to the market-oriented economy. The BBP case is representative of a profit-logic organisation which works genuinely to reduce its environmental and social impact (e.g. B Corp certification). AGE and BEES coop are very careful about their cost-effectiveness. Notably, for BEES coop, being profitable has become a key objective in order to show that another economic model is possible.

18The question of labour adds further complexity to the picture, with the inclusion of different approaches to work. At BEES coop, except for a few employees, all day-to-day store management is done by co-operators who are allowed to shop in exchange. At Collectmet, volunteer work and other forms of non-commodified exchange limit its participation in market practices. BIGH, meanwhile, relies heavily on subsidised labour and temporary workers from social organisations for low-skill activities such as packaging and harvesting. By highlighting the use of this social labour, it presents itself as a social project. Yet, these contracts are extremely precarious (i.e. short term and at minimum wage levels), which raises questions about how qualitative jobs can be generated in a circular food sector in BCR. In contrast, the self-styling of BPP as a socially minded, community embedded enterprise deploys the figure of the employee-shareholder, opening the company’s capital to employees as a way of securing long-lasting commitment and a stronger sense of community (interview 2022).

2.3. Cultural embeddedness 

19Our cases highlight how the CE is a place of competing imaginaries. The BIGH, AGE and BBP cases illustrate that CE activities can be aligned with regional narratives of “the productive city”, which constitutes a collection of already existing urban imaginaries: i) the sustainable city geared towards developing sustainable activities and business models; ii) urban metabolism, orienting the economy towards a rational and clever use of resources and limiting its externalities; and iii) the mixed city, mingling residential and work functions spatially within the city.

20For AGE, “producing in the city” is an important philosophy. AGE creates a limited localised closed-loop economy where the vegetables and fruits produced in the gardens are served in restaurants whose waste can be composted. Over-production is then sold in its nearby supermarket. Aligned with the public discourse about functional mix, BBP wants to become exemplary of a new type of urban industry, embedded in the local and urban fabric of the economy. Its communication mobilises a strong craft and post-industrial imaginary, aligned with the regional productive city approach. Relatedly, for the founder of BIGH, “(the) goal is to ensure that the circular industry develops itself, that is to be able to produce locally by using city or industry’s effluents” (2019).

21The BIGH case resonates as well with a dominant CE imaginary which circulates in consultancy circles (Lambert, 2020). Its rooftop greenhouse made of steel and glass invoke images of vertical farms which have been popping up in major cities across the world. This urban agriculture imaginary, in which a network of urban technologies can feed urban dwellers, goes hand in hand with the smart city imaginary, mobilised by TGTG. The TGTG initiative reflects an imaginary whereby technological progress easily addresses environmental and economic challenges. On its website, it calls to “try to keep an eye on the new technologies available to help save our planet” and suggests that it is “simple to do something good and get something in return.”

22The BEES coop and Collectmet cases illustrate how CE imaginaries can mobilise figures of reciprocity and solidarity. For example, Collectmet imaginaries focus on developing a strong community around the exchange of experiences and sharing. It shows how, from a specific practice of food redistribution, a strong imaginary of sharing has taken ground and guided the development of its other food activities such as the temporary kitchen.

2.4. Financial embeddedness 

23Our cases reveal that CE activities are marked by financial “bricolage”, with complementarities often sought across public subsidies, bank loans and “alternative” finance (e.g. crowdfunding, impact investment funds). These financial trajectories are qualified by different economic models as well as socio-spatial embeddedness.

  • 2 Corporate social responsibility (CSR) refers to practices and policies whereby corporations seek to (...)

24The AGE and Collectmet cases suggest that initiatives less oriented towards market profit develop combinations of public subsidies, public and private foundation funding, and ad hoc donations and partnerships under Corporate Social Responsibility2 schemes. Notably, for AGE, such donations (in particular by KBC) allowed specific material investment needs to be met (e.g. the purchase of a van) without the encumbering process of developing a business case when applying for public subsidies (e.g. BeCircular), as one interviewee (2022) described.

25BEES coop and BBP illustrate how the CE threads across ecologies of “traditional” and “alternative” finance according to economic models and socio-spatial embeddedness. To open its shop in Schaerbeek in 2016, BEES coop combined a reward crowdfunding campaign on the French platform KissKissBankBank, with a loan for the purchase of the building at 19 Rue van Hove from a “trio of ethical banks”, including Dutch bank Triodos and Brussels-based social credit and investment cooperatives Crédal and Hefboom. In comparison, for its new brewery and taproom in Anderlecht, BBP combined a (self-run) reward crowdfunding campaign with equity investments from (Brussels-based) social investment fund Invest for Jobs, focused “not only on financial performance but also on employment”, and Business Angels. This was supplemented by a loan from BNP Paribas Fortis for the purchase of the premises, echoing the purchase of BBP’s first brewery through a loan from Belfius. Here, as one interviewee at BBP noted (2022), the location in a prime area (Rue Dansaert) played an important role when securing the loan.

26While real estate assets are key in accessing traditional finance (i.e. bank loans), crowdfunding appears as a pivotal enabler of diverse financial trajectories of CE. Uses of crowdfunding by Collectmet, BEES coop and BBP suggest that this lies in its flexibility to complement different funding mixes. In less market-oriented cases, it can work as standalone funding (Collectmet), a bridge between subsidies, or provide own capital in loan applications (BEES coop). In more market-oriented cases, it figures critically vis-à-vis debt (bank loans) and equity (investment funds) financing, as a tool for raising capital while presenting proof-of-concept to creditors/investors. Meanwhile, the comparison of Collectmet with AGE as another less market-oriented case where crowdfunding has not been used, flags limitations of crowdfunding in cases which are not about introducing a product to a market.

27BBP and BIGH show how hybrid (mixing debt and equity) and project finance (financing based on a project’s projected cash flows rather than on the promoter’s balance sheet) are used in more market-oriented cases, while TGTG shows how equity (including venture capital) becomes predominant as we move closer to digital platform economic models. Regarding equity finance, BIGH shows the role of real estate developers (Bopro, Fidentia) as suppliers of equity finance to the CE, through the trope of increasing property values with urban farming and integrated building technologies. This is a warning about how more market-oriented configurations of the CE/food nexus and territorial embeddedness can be harnessed by gentrification dynamics. Finally, it is worth noting how wealthy individuals come to hold a financial stake in urban CE transitions, including as Business Angels (BBP) and via private investment vehicles (Talence in BIGH; Blisce in TGTG).

2.5. Institutional embeddedness

28Our cases demonstrate how institutional support is key to developing more embedded CE practices. While some projects need public support to come to fruition, others will benefit from small grants for specific investments. Yet, even in the case of for-profit projects which do not rely on public funding, state support remains important in terms of visibility or strategies, for example.

29BEES coop and BBP are exemplary of how CE initiatives can become regional flagship projects. BEES coop received grants and support from a large range of public organisations and administrations. One interviewee mentions how the municipality of Schaerbeek was notably helpful for purchasing their building because it saw BEES coop as an asset for the neighbourhood (2018). Although its first objective is political, public stakeholders seem to have captured this project to make it one of its flagships for the CE. While BBP does not rely on public funding as a private company, it received support with the organisation by the Bouwmeester of an architecture contest for the new brewery. Above all, it has become a flagship project with regard to the topic of the relocation of productive activities in the city. BIGH did not rely on regional subsidies either. Yet, like BEES coop, it received informal support to allow them to build a rooftop greenhouse. The founder of BIGH founder had previously been collaborating with the Region as a consultant.

30The CE may be mobilised by stakeholders to foster already existing practices. Regional interest in Collectmet increased recently, allowing them to hire a coordinator and have new opportunities for subsidies, securing in turn the viability of the project. It illustrates how certain existing practices become more “fashionable” when they align their mission with current regional policy. Similarly, AGE first had to develop its ecological activities, and it was only when it started to get bigger that it received support from Bruxelles-Environnement for its circular aspect.

31The position of TGTG is quite different, as they have established themselves on the international market and aim to be positioned as an essential yet mostly independent partner of the different regions and countries in which they are present.

Conclusions and policy recommendations 

32In BCR’s plan for a CE, the transition towards more circular models of producing and consuming in the city is envisioned in close relation to the goals of creating economic opportunities, creating jobs and establishing productive activities in the Region. With this strategic commitment of CE transitions to the Region’s socioeconomic fabric in mind, this paper has aimed to offer a multidimensional picture of the variety of CE activities and their embeddedness in the Region. We considered how the CE materialises in BCR across diverse (urban) socio-spatial contexts, economic models, cultural discourses, financial relations and institutional frameworks, while focusing on different case studies in the agri-food segment providing distinctions and granularity.

33Overall, our findings reveal the CE as a set of varied and distinct practices in socio-spatial terms, and that drawing the boundary around “the CE” was sometimes artificial, when not at odds with how stakeholders are implementing the CE. While some stakeholders clearly position themselves as squarely within the CE, others have circular objectives and practices, but do not identify as “circular” as such. An overarching recommendation is then to be sensitive to the plurality of CE practices, as policies seek to build coalitions within the Region. A transition to the CE is still far beyond the horizon, yet the plurality of the CE already embedded in BCR provides multiple routes to develop while seeking to address social and ecological issues and connect with a diverse public in the process.

34The route to a CE transition does come with several challenges as the case studies have shown. First, while quite a few projects are well embedded in key neighbourhoods of the city, many are also divided by contradictions. These relate to mismatches between the instigators, employees and clientele of the projects and the socio-economic profile of the neighbourhoods, potentially fuelling ecological gentrification (Braswell, 2018). This is obvious in the more market-oriented cases, but also challenges less profit-oriented cooperatives. As evidenced especially by the cases of AGE and BEES coop, the process of building an enterprise which is both socially and ecologically aware, and is economically viable while nurturing neighbourhood relations, takes time and care. We therefore recommend that policies should be sensitive to entrepreneurship and citizen-led initiatives beyond the white middle classes and actively seek to build coalitions from the ground up in diverse neighbourhoods.

35Second, we find a striking contradiction between ecological ambitions and the kind of “circular jobs” created which stops short of delivering the policy goal of turning sustainability transition into economic opportunity for workers as well. A large segment of the CE runs on unpaid labour through volunteering, remains unremunerated by enclosure in mobile apps, or is precarious and short term despite good intentions as regards reintegration into the labour market. While even more market-oriented projects (e.g. BBP, BIGH) are sensitive to issues of community building and creating local quality jobs, the overall observation is that CE jobs are largely in line with those in the economy at large, calling for policies paying attention to job quality more than the number of jobs. One of the key challenges is to find ways to both improve currently precarious jobs without necessarily resorting to classic for-profit only. Growing a thick layer of social enterprises can incorporate strategies for practice-based education for residents enhancing labour market inclusion, and such approaches are also viable in the more profit-oriented section of the economy. The improved financial value of circular jobs which are often unappealing, dirty or mundane also requires a broader societal awareness of which essential sectors ultimately keep a region like BCR running (Bassens and De Boeck, 2022). That implies giving greater visibility to more mundane role models beyond enlightened entrepreneurs, waste warriors and the likes.

36Third, related to the above, we argue that policies need to endorse a wider set of imaginaries beyond those of the circular city as a mostly technological utopia (Lambert, 2020). As our case studies show, CE transitions are a matter of social innovation as much as they are about technological change. Tackling food waste implies growing modes of collecting, sharing and redistributing food either through direct or platform-mediated social networks. In many cases, there is little need for new solutions beyond the old recipe of solidarity and how to infuse this in daily operations (Miret, 2022). Thus, CE policies would benefit from nurturing much more mundane ways of not wasting food, rather than including them in wider ambitions regarding territorial competitiveness per se.

37Fourth, our cases illustrate how CE transitions are currently differentially enabled by distinct financial ecologies (e.g. traditional banking, crowdfunding, impact funds) in which concerns regarding sustainable finance have developed. We find that CE initiatives have a wider range of options in terms of financial stakeholders and tools when catering to privileged consumers. Notably, food products crafted from recuperated, short-circuit agro-food waste, resonated particularly with civic crowdfunding platforms. This link between crowdfunding and a particular kind of market-based urban social innovation is in line with what researchers found in other European cities (Langley et al., 2020; McFarlane et al., 2021). Less market-oriented cases, in turn, currently only survive through a “bricolage” of public subsidy funds and corporate strategies for social responsibility and property valuation. Notably, the current financial landscape is more amenable to CE initiatives with marketable high value-added products and/or which inhabit valuable land in the city. Such a setting calls for policies which lower barriers for more diverse socio-ecologically viable initiatives which cater to larger groups of more mundane consumers.

38Fifth, and finally, promoting a wider diversity of social and collaborative regional and urban circular economies will require forms of institutional support (including public funding) less oriented towards market-based economic models. In this regard, we see scope for Finance & Invest Brussels – which seeks to finance start-/scale-ups, SMEs, social enterprises and cooperatives – to strengthen its role as enabler of a thoroughly diverse social innovation, notably by adopting investment screening practices more aligned with public interest and collective values than private investor criteria. Last, but not least, in order to give the CE a place in the actual fabric of the city, policies must take the issue of access to affordable land seriously, so that we avoid the risk of lower market value activities being pushed out of areas being upgraded (De Boeck et al., 2017; Williams, 2021). Policies should consider taking land out of the market in order to make room for such activities and circumscribe social and ecological business goals when zoning areas for circular activities.

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1 One researcher involved in the project was a member of BEES Coop and was working 3 hours a month in the supermarket during the period of this research (2018-2022), and was also involved in the Collectmet and Kookmet food collection and cooking in the Abattoirs as a participatory observer during a two-month period (April-May 2022). In addition to these extensive participant observations, three field visits were organised at BBP, one during an interview at BIGH, one during an interview at AGE as well as at their Belo kitchen one morning, and one with a TGTG sales representative while out finding potential clients in Uccle.

2 Corporate social responsibility (CSR) refers to practices and policies whereby corporations seek to integrate social, environmental, ethical, consumer and human rights concerns into their business strategy and operations.

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Deborah Lambert, Mariana Santos et David Bassens, « Investigating the territorial embeddedness of circular economic practices in the Brussels-Capital Region »Brussels Studies [En ligne], Collection générale, n° 173, mis en ligne le 06 novembre 2022, consulté le 05 décembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Deborah Lambert

Deborah Lambert is a PhD researcher at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel. Before studying geography, she worked several years as a campaigner with environmental organisations focusing on private actors' policies and practices. For her PhD, she has been analyzing circular economy policies, practices and imaginaries in the food sector in Brussels. Her recent publications include, Circular economy and the city: an urban political economy agenda, published in Culture and Organization (2020, 26:2)


Mariana Santos

Mariana Santos holds a PhD in Economic Geography from Durham University, UK. Her research interests encompass Cultural Economic approaches to the geographies of money and finance. As a postdoctoral researcher at Cosmopolis – Centre for Urban Research (Vrije Universiteit Brussel), her research has focused on European financial integration, the changes in European banking associated with digitization, and circular economy finance. PhD research looked at the wealth management sector, and how it shapes imaginaries and practices of capital of High Net-Worth Individuals.

David Bassens

David Bassens is Associate Professor of Economic Geography at Vrije Universiteit Brussels (Belgium) and is co-directing Cosmopolis: Centre for Urban Research. His research focuses on diverse urban economies, world and global cities, and financial geographies. He recently published an edited volume entitled De essentiële economie: Motor voor een Sociaal-Ecologische Transitie available at Academic and Scientific Publishers.

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