Interview: Dame Ellen MacArthur on going full circle

24th March 2022


Dame Ellen MacArthur tells Chris Seekings about her work promoting circular economy principles across the global economy, and how her experience as a record-breaking sailor helped prepare her for the task

Dame Ellen MacArthur was thrust into the spotlight when she broke the world record for the fastest circumnavigation of the globe as a sailor in 2005. She had no more than 20 minutes’ sleep at a time during the voyage, having to be on constant lookout day and night. “I had with me the absolute minimum of resources in order to be as light, hence as fast, as possible,” she explains. “At sea, what you have is all you have. Stopping en route to restock is not an option, and careful resource management can be a matter of life or death – running out of energy to power the autopilot means you can be upside down in seconds.”

MacArthur was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire on her return, and a Knight of the French Legion of Honour three years later. Other awards and honours followed, but her experience granted her a far greater prize: an appreciation of limited resources and sustainability. “My boat was my world – I was constantly aware of its supply limits,” she says. “When I stepped back ashore, I began to see that our world was not any different. I had become acutely aware of the true meaning of the word ‘finite’.”

“My boat was my world – I was constantly aware of its supply limits. When I stepped back ashore, I began to see that our world was not any different”

A new chapter

In October 2009, MacArthur announced she would retire from competitive racing to concentrate on resource and energy use in the global economy, launching the Ellen MacArthur Foundation in 2010. “In our current linear economy, materials flow one way – we take resources from the ground, make products, and then they are discarded and either burned or end up as landfill or as pollution in the environment,” she says. “I spent the next four years meeting with experts across a variety of countries, economies and industries to better understand our global approach to the way the economy uses resources. I realised there were some big challenges ahead.”

Her foundation promotes the circular economy – a production and consumption model that ensures materials and products last as long as possible via sharing, leasing, reusing, repairing, refurbishing and recycling, while regenerating nature. Working with businesses, policymakers and academics, her team is at the forefront of circular economy research, developing solutions for plastics, food, fashion, finance and cities. “Tackling some of our biggest global challenges, such as climate change and biodiversity loss, needs a systemic shift in the way we produce and use products and food, across sectors and industries at a large scale,” she says. “The foundation’s priorities lie in mobilising solutions by working with our network of private and public sector decision-makers, as well as academia, to build capacity, explore collaborative opportunities, and design and develop circular economy initiatives and solutions.”

System change

Changing the way we mass produce goods is a daunting task. Looking at the food system, for example, MacArthur highlights that while it has sustained a growing population and brought economic development, it is also the main driver of biodiversity loss, and accounts for a third of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions. “One of the challenges is creating change while locked in this linear system where we extract finite materials, make and use products and ultimately create waste,” she says. “However, due to the opportunities in shifting to a circular economy that eliminates waste and pollution, circulates materials and regenerates nature, there are more and more examples of the circular economy in action.”

Circular economy principles applied to food go beyond producing ingredients regeneratively and can extend to producing a greater diversity of ingredients, lower impact ingredients, and upcycling what might be wasted today. For example, Guima Café is collaborating with Nestlé/Nespresso and ReNature to extend the ingredients they grow, build the health of their soils, provide greater diversity of ingredients from the same land, and greater habitat provision for biodiversity. MacArthur explains: “New collaborative partnerships can ensure all the farm outputs are bought, including coffee, avocados, honey and rubber.”

PepsiCo, meanwhile, is partnering with CCm Technologies to turn potato peel from crisp factories into fertiliser, while the Nutrient Upcycling Alliance is working to turn inedible food waste into organo-mineral and organic fertilisers. General Mills is another leader in this area, having set an ambitious goal to shift one million acres of agricultural land to regenerative production by 2030, running pilots with farmers and providing coaching and technical assistance during the transition.

Food for thought

Collaboration lies at the heart of the circular economy, and the transition will require all stakeholders across systems to play their part. “Solutions to systemic challenges will not be found in siloed actions,” MacArthur explains. “In the food system, for example, businesses need to rethink how food products are made by applying a total mindset shift where, instead of bending nature to produce food, food is produced for nature to thrive.”

Although her foundation has done a huge amount of work to promote the circular economy across various sectors – particularly highlighting the wastefulness of fast fashion and the environmental damage of single-use plastic – the global food system has become an increasing area of focus. Last year, it launched its ‘Big Food Redesign’ to promote a “nature-positive food system”. “Food brands and retailers can play a huge role in creating this shift, as the top 10 brands and retailers alone influence about 40% of agricultural land in the EU and UK,” MacArthur says. “By applying the principles of the circular economy to the way brands and retailers design their food products – which includes the concept, ingredient selection and sourcing decisions, and packaging solutions – these businesses can go beyond simply sourcing ingredients that have been grown in better ways, to also include a greater diversity of ingredients, lower-impact ingredients, and ingredients that have been upcycled from what might be treated as waste today.”

“We need a systemic shift in the way we produce and use products and food”

The initiative encourages businesses to take five actions: creating ambitious and well-resourced action plans; creating a more collaborative dynamic with farmers; developing iconic products to showcase what is possible; contributing to and using common metrics and definitions; and advocating for policies that support a nature-positive food system. “Businesses can also play their part in marketing these new offerings, raising public awareness and providing better choices,” MacArthur continues.

Growing momentum

Although the circular economy is not as widely-understood as climate change and biodiversity loss, the issues are inextricably linked, and MacArthur says awareness is “gaining momentum”. It is in the long-term interests of businesses to apply the key principles, and a growing number are doing so, spurred by the events of the last two years. “The early stages of the COVID-19 crisis revealed the vulnerability of many global supply chains, but prior to the pandemic, the need for a system reset was already becoming clear,” she explains. “Forty-five per cent of greenhouse gas emissions and 90% of biodiversity loss come from the way we make and use things, including food. By applying the principles of the circular economy to build back better, we can eliminate waste and pollution, circulate products and materials, and regenerate nature from the outset by redesigning everything. The pandemic has forced us to adapt our daily lives and has also required us to rethink many of the systems we rely on.”

The European Commission adopted a new circular economy action plan in March 2020, which is one of the main building blocks of its European Green Deal, while the UK has launched a Circular Economy Package, which identifies steps to reduce waste and establish a long-term path for waste management and recycling.

Although it currently seems unlikely that a zero-waste society is feasible, MacArthur believes the principles of a circular economy can get us as close as possible, while providing the tools to tackle the causes of most environmental challenges. “We need businesses and governments to work together to create the system that allows us all to make better choices – choices that are part of the solution to global challenges, rather than part of the problems,” she says. “No one can say how long this transformation will take, but what we can say is that it is already under way – and it is accelerating.”

Image credit | Ellen Macarthur Foundation |Liot Vapillo

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