Profile: Ellen MacArthur

Profile: Ellen MacArthur

The round-the-world yachtswoman has left behind her first love to become an advocate for change in the way business operates. Her Ellen MacArthur Foundation just launched a report called “Towards the Circular Economy”, which analyses the global economic benefits of sustainability, where products are designed to be reused through refurbishment, remanufacturing and redistribution; where the cycle is endless and mirrors nature.

Jenny Purt for the Guardian Professional Network (1 February 2012):

Ellen MacArthur: ‘When you sail you gain an understanding of the definition of finite.’

In 2009, Dame Ellen MacArthur took a radical change of direction and left competitive sailing to focus on environmental issues. The move, prompted by a trip to the Atlantic Island of South Georgia to investigate the plight of the albatross, lead to her founding the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which aims to help rethink and rebuild a more sustainable future.

This week, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation launched a report called “Towards the Circular Economy”, commissioned to analyse the global economic benefits of shifting to a circular economy.

As Ellen discusses on the Guardian Sustainable Business Blog, the economy currently works on the linear model of “take, make and dispose”, which creates a culture of excessive consumerism and generates more waste than is sustainable.

The report calls for a new way of thinking – one that offers a different business model whereby products are designed to be reused through refurbishment, remanufacturing and redistribution. This cycle is endless, and mirrors nature, where resources flow continuously, with waste generated from one species becoming food for another.

Significantly the report suggests that, through adopting this circular model, companies could see both immediate and long-term economic growth.

The transition will need to be at a global scale to take the world from the current dysfunctional, linear economic model to one that is able to decouple growth from resource constraints. The report also stresses that cross-sector collaboration will play a key role in this.

In a previous article, Jo Confino wrote for the Guardian Professional Network last year:

Dame Ellen MacArthur is not so much a breath of fresh air in the world of sustainable business as a force 10 gale.

She is bringing to bear on the transformation of business the same single-minded determination and courage that won her acclaim for her round-the-world solo sailing skills.

What sets the 35-year-old apart from mainstream sustainability professionals is that she is not shy about speaking her mind and does not feel bound by normal business conventions.

That generally means that she does not take no for an answer and has a way of getting what she wants. Every one of the five companies she targeted for support for her new Ellen MacArthur Foundation fell into line – Kingfisher, BT, Cisco, Renault and National Grid.

While sustainability has its stable of stars such as Leonardo Di Caprio and more recently Rio Ferdinand, there is no-one else so well known who has given up their career to dedicate their time and energy fully to the cause of a sustainable future.

But that’s the point. MacArthur is not someone who does things by halves, as demonstrated by fulfilling the dream she had when she was just four years old to sail around the world.

While she shows a toughness borne of months spent alone facing only herself and the elements, she also reveals occasional flashes of a touching vulnerability as she questions whether she is navigating the most effective path through the choppy world of corporate affairs.

The spur to her radical change of direction was recognising that while she was out at sea, she was bound by the resources she had on board, whether food or fuel. If she did not shepherd them well, then she would be in trouble.

Back on dry land she had a Damascene moment of recognising that the human race has the same issue with planet Earth and that we are being profligate and putting future generations at risk.

“I was not looking for this, and leaving sailing behind was the hardest decision I’ve had to make but I have absolutely no regrets,” says MacArthur.

“When you sail, you take the minimum of resources and you gain an overwhelming understanding of the definition of finite. When you are 2,500 miles from the nearest town you are not going to phone someone up and ask them to drop off a few litres of diesel.

“I had never connected this to a definition of finite on land, but when I stepped off the boat after the round-the-world race, I started to think out of the box and that our world is no different.

“That began a journey of discovery. I talked to CEOs, went to sit on the government taskforce on zero carbon schools, visited landfill sites, power stations and farmers. It was an incredible journey right across the country, soaking up information and trying to learn about efficiency and resources.”

The result was the creation of her foundation, which is taking a twin-track approach, energising young people through inspiring education to rethink and redesign the future, and encouraging business to move away from its traditional wasteful approach of built-in obselesence and towards the concept of a “circular economy”.

The primary objective of the circular economy is to eliminate waste by ensuring that the biological and technical component parts (nutrients) of any product should be designed for disassembly and re-purposing. The biological parts are non-toxic and can be simply composted. The technical – polymers, alloys and other manmade materials – are designed to be used again with minimal energy.

The other key elements are a greater reliance on renewable energy and that the pricing of products should reflect the real cost of our activity, such as the use of natural resources such as water.

The cradle-to-cradle approach to manufacturing is increasingly moving from the fringes into the mainstream of debate within companies as they start to explore how to continue to grow while decoupling themselves from resource use.

Ian Cheshire, chief executive of Kingfisher, and one of MacArthur’s key supporters, is already looking at how to develop this concept in its manufacturing of products such as power tools, as well as looking at other innovations such as fractional ownership.

Richard Gillies, director of Marks & Spencer’s Plan A, is also experimenting, for example by creating a system for recycling old cashmere jumpers into new products.

MacArthur also points out that Renault is looking to rent out batteries, and the carpet manufacturer Desso has designed its products so the materials can be recovered and reused.

MacArthur says that companies’ current concentration on simply using less resources will serve only to buy us time, but is not a solution.

This linear thinking can also end up causing more problems. She gives the example of one car manufacturer which reduced the copper in its window winding mechanism so much that it became uneconomic to recover it when the motor was replaced. The company ended up by putting more copper back in the production process.

That is why MacArthur is calling for nothing less than a systems level change: “The way things are made, the way business is run, needs to fundamentally change. We work in a linear system that will never work long-term and we are seeking to develop an idea of what business will look like in 15 years.

“This is in part about creating a very positive agenda that young people can latch on to. It says this is what you can do and it works.

“From a business perspective, this moves the conversation away from the CSR department, which is looking at issues such as cycling to work, to the boardroom and the long-term future of the company.”

MacArthur says she gave a workshop on the circular economy to 1,000 managers at National Grid. “We looked at redesigning aspects of their business and the feedback was that this was the first time they had the opportunity to think beyond just CSR and what they should be doing and look at real business opportunities,” she says.

At the last foundation board meeting with the CEOs of its corporate partners, MacArthur says there was a very strong sense that there can be a business advantage in moving towards a circular economy but also a recognition of the enormous scale of change across society that is needed to embed it.

The CEOs recognise that to move to the next level needs not only business collaboration but a different set of skills for young people coming out of school and university.

“I have never sat with a CEO who says he does not get this or says it does not make sense,” says MacArthur. “But they are not saying this is a quick fix. This is about putting a process in place to drive long-term change. This is exactly what business leaders need to think about.”

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