Sea change

Written by: Geraldine Faulkner | Published:

Since launching in 2010, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation's research and reports on the circular economy have gained in stature and caused people in power to take notice across Europe, at the World Economic Forum and beyond. Geraldine Faulkner speaks to the charity's eponymous founder and its executive officer Jocelyn Blériot

On 7 February 2005, Ellen MacArthur became the fastest solo sailor to circumnavigate the globe. Although her record was beaten in 2008 by Frenchman Francis Joyon, MacArthur remains the most successful single-handed sailor the UK has ever had – yet today one is more likely to catch a glimpse of her at the World Economic Forum’s annual Davos event than at the start of an offshore race.

“Sailing around the world against the clock in 2004, I had with me the absolute minimum of resources in order to be as light, hence as fast, as possible,” recalls Dame Ellen. “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. My boat was my world. I was constantly aware of its supplies limits and, 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’, and when I applied it to resources in the global economy, I realised there were some big challenges ahead.”

On a sustainability journey

Over the next four years, Dame Ellen’s preoccupation with resources and their finiteness led her on a journey that – while very different from her solo circumnavigation of the globe – took her to many countries to meet with experts, economies and industries in order to better understand the global approach to the use of resources.

“You really learn a lot through conversations with CEOs, senior managers, board members and experts,” recalls the now retired long-distance yachtswoman.

Following her research, she announced the launch of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation in 2010 – a charity that works with business and education organisations to help accelerate the transition to a circular economy.

The model, which aims to gradually decouple growth from the consumption of finite resources, addresses the shortcomings of the traditional ‘take, make and dispose’ linear system.

In a circular economy, resources are kept in use for as long as possible, with the maximum value from them extracted while in use, after which products and materials are recovered and regenerated at the end of each service life.

Included in Dame Ellen’s team when the Foundation was set up, and still working with her today, is executive officer Jocelyn Blériot.

Establishing a positive framework

He recalls that the first year of the Foundation was spent in refining its framework and getting it into “understandable terms”. He emphasises the importance placed by the Foundation on making it a “positive framework that engages with the public and concentrates on the solution rather than pointing the finger at the issue”.

The work and research that went into the framework were obviously successful because funding partners B&Q, a partnership between BT and Cisco, National Grid and Renault didn’t hesitate to sign up to the fledgling charity.

The next step was to quantify the Foundation’s aims.

To this end, the team signed up management consultants McKinsey & Company to work on their first report and supply the analytics for an economic study on the potential of a circular economic model.

When ‘Towards the Circular Economy’ was launched at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2012, it showed that, for Europe alone, the circular economy could amount to US$630 billion of material savings per year, which immediately struck a chord in the business community.

“It was a ground-breaking moment,” remembers Blériot. “Commissioner Janez Potocnik, who initiated the European Resource Efficiency Platform at the time, was extremely enthusiastic. When the report was presented in Davos it resonated with businesses on a big scale and we had more and more people wanting to know more about the idea and how to apply and get involved.”

The keen interest in the study led to a second report the following year and the unveiling of the Circular Economy 100, a multi-stakeholder platform whose aim is to bring together businesses, governments and cities, academic institutions as well as innovators to help them develop new opportunities.

Crossing borders

“By having multi-stakeholders, we can cross sectors,” explains the Foundation’s executive officer. “One of the objectives of the group is for people who might not necessarily speak to each other on a regular basis to exchange ideas. For example, someone in the automotive industry could help another member of the programme to sort out a puzzling issue on mobility and transport in the food sector.”

Further to the publication of the foundation’s 2014 report, Towards the Circular Economy Vol 3, which proposed a joint plan of action for industry leaders, the Foundation launched Project Mainstream.

A cross-industry, CEO-led global initiative, it aims to fast track business-driven innovation by focusing on stalemates that individual organisations cannot resolve.

Dame Ellen takes up the story: “Project Mainstream encouraged us to look at various material streams, which led us to plastics and the publication of The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the future of plastics report. The premise was to gather a lot of the actors from the plastics value stream: from the extraction to end-of-pipe to municipalities who have to collect the unwanted materials. We wanted to map out the system in its entirety; it’s easy to find data on each silo but you don’t see the chain as a whole.”

The executive officer reels off a few figures to demonstrate the scale of the plastics challenge: “310 million tonnes of plastic is produced each year. This is projected to increase to 1.1 billion tonnes, yet only 14% of plastic packaging is collected for recycling globally. Lightweight plastic packaging such as a sandwich wrapper is only used for a couple of minutes yet it has a life span of 100 years.”

The Foundation stresses that the aim of the plastics report is not to point the finger at who is to blame, and Dame Ellen adds: “We recognise that, as a material, plastic has fantastic applications in terms of food waste avoidance. However, lightweight plastic packaging contributes to the problem of plastic waste in that it is low value and high volume so there is no incentive to collect it.”

Three-year New Plastics Economy initiative

At the end of May, the Foundation launched its three-year New Plastics Economy initiative. This, according to the Foundation, aims to “overcome the limitations of incremental improvements and fragmented initiatives that, over the last 40 years, have failed to move the needle”.

By bringing together manufacturers and specialists who deal with the end product, the Foundation hopes that information will be shared. So that if, for instance, a chemical makes a product challenging to recycle, manufacturers might consider using an alternative. “There is a lot of potential for moonshots that may be construed as utopian to begin with,” Blériot says. “We can’t guarantee that not a single piece of plastic is going to leak out of the system, so maybe then it has to be bio-benign?”

What progress has been made by the plastics project? “We’ve set up a three-year initiative to mobilise the recommendations of our January 2016 report produced in collaboration with the World Economic Forum,” states the executive officer before adding: “The plan is to come up with a long-term strategy and we are setting this up at the moment.”

How is the Foundation coping with the speed with which it is expanding?

“We are expanding, but we have a good structure to handle this growth and, by virtue of the fact we have contributed dynamic ideas, we now have the responsibility to see the ideas through.” The Foundation has launched the CE100 business network in both the USA and Brazil, with other localised networks around the world to follow. “We are also looking at the potential of the circular economy in emerging markets by carrying out analytical work in countries like India,” explains Blériot, before adding: “The movement is happening and it’s happening now.”

Dame Ellen's CV

Dame Ellen MacArthur made yachting history in 2005 when she became the fastest solo sailor to circumnavigate the globe. She also claimed the Ostar, the single-handed trans-Atlantic race, the Route du Rhum, a transatlantic single-handed race which takes place between Brittany and Guadeloupe, and finished second in the Vendée Globe, a

non-stop solo round the world race without assistance.

By 2010, Ellen had become acutely aware of the finite nature of the resources a linear economy relies upon, she stepped away from professional sailing to launch the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which works with education, business and government to accelerate the transition to a regenerative circular economy.

The Foundation has published seminal macro-economic reports, featuring analysis by McKinsey, which have received accolades at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

Dame Ellen acts as vice-chair of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Meta-Council on the circular economy, and sat on the European Commission’s Resource Efficiency Platform between 2012 and 2014.

She received the French Legion of Honour in 2008, three years after having been made a dame by the Queen.

Elen MacArthur Foundation

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation focuses on four interlinking areas.

Education: Inspiring learners to rethink the future through the circular economy framework. Formal education work includes higher education programmes with partners in Europe, the US, India, China and South America, and international curriculum development with schools and colleges.

Business and government: Catalysing circular innovation and creating the conditions for it to flourish.

The Foundation works with global partners (Cisco, Google, H&M, Intesa Sanpaolo, Kingfisher, Nike, Philips, Renault, and Unilever) to develop circular business initiatives and to address challenges to implementing them.

Insight and analysis: Providing robust evidence on the benefits of the transition.

The Foundation works to quantify the economic potential of the circular model and to develop approaches for capturing this value.

Communications: The Foundation communicates ideas through its research, reports and books disseminated through its publications arm.


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