Dame Ellen MacArthur: Looking at Everything Differently

In 2005, Ellen MacArthur became the fastest solo sailor to circumnavigate the globe. Five years later, she set up the Ellen MacArthur Foundation to accelerate the transition to a circular economy.

Spending 71 days alone at sea with nothing more than the bare essentials made me understand something for the first time: the meaning of the word finite. My boat was my entire world and what was in it were the only things I had for my survival. I had to manage what I had down to the very last item. Stepping off the boat at the finish line, it hit me that all of us are living in a world dependent on finite resources.

Once I had made that connection, I couldn’t put down the thought. I began asking questions; speaking to scientists, economists, academics, business leaders from many different industries all over the world to better understand the way our economy uses resources. One thing that I learned very fast was that the issue isn’t just about our dependence on fossil fuels. It’s also materials like tin, indium, copper, zinc and silver, which are also ultimately finite. And although no one knows exactly how much of each we have under the ground, it’s predicted that some will last us less than a generation.

As I learned more, I began to adapt my own behavior. I started to buy less, use less, do less, but that alone never sat right with me. Surely this wasn’t the answer. Even if everyone on the planet started using fewer resources, that would still just be a way of buying ourselves more time, making the materials we have stretch a little further. I realized the system itself is fundamentally flawed and that we needed to rethink and reshape our entire economic model. We need to look at the whole thing differently.

In natural systems, materials flow in cycles. The nutrients from one species become food for another, organisms live and die, and eventually they are returned to the soil and the cycle starts again. But, as humans, we have created a different system. Our system is linear, extractive and wasteful. We take materials from the planet, make products from them, and throw them away.

What if we created a system that was regenerative and restorative by design—one that reuses resources, rather than using them up? What if the model were not linear, but circular?

From that four-year journey, continually asking questions about how our economy can work in the long term, the Foundation was launched. Our mission is to accelerate the transition to the circular economy. Since we began in 2010, the concept has generated huge momentum. Hundreds of companies are now working to incorporate it; analysts and researchers are applying it to design innovative solutions; governments are waking up to the opportunity. And the urgency to redesign our economic model to one that is fit for the future is becoming clearer to everyone.

That’s why we’re truly excited about the opportunity ahead of us. A circular economy model can be applied to finding new solutions to so many of the global challenges we face, from plastic waste to climate change to biodiversity loss. At the Foundation, we’re changing gear because perhaps the greatest challenge of all is adoption at scale. We aim to spread this idea quickly and across the whole economy.

Ellen MacArthur's TED Talk, "The Surprising Thing I Learned Sailing Solo Around the World," has been viewed almost 2 million times. 

Photographs: Courtesy of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation

Read our interview with Andrew Morlet, Ellen MacArthur Foundation CEO.  

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