Copyright Mark Lioyd / DPPI / BT Team Ellen - Ellen MacArthur

Ellen MacArthur - the standard bearer of the circular economy

Posted on 19 June 2014.

Ellen MacArthur has won the Route du Rhum, broke the world record for the fastest solo circumnavigation of the globe, been made a dame by the Queen of England, and has even had an asteroid named after her.

And as if that wasn’t enough, the recently-retired yachtswoman is out to change the world.

Through her foundation, the ex-sailor is aiming to put the spotlight on the circular economy. This concept, inspired by the cradle-to-cradle theory, stresses the need to consider the economic cycle as a continuous flow in which nothing is lost. Waste would be a thing of the past, and everything we produce would be reused. In this way, the “nutrients,” whether natural resources or manmade products, would be conserved.

In a world still dominated by the linear economic model (produce, use, throw away), MacArthur and her foundation are swimming against the tide. But that’s exactly what we’ve come to expect from this iron-willed daughter of teachers from the Isle of Wight. As a child, she saved up her dinner money to buy a small boat. By the age of 18, she had already circumnavigated the British Isles. Indeed, it was her experience as a solo yachtswoman that inspired her enthusiasm for the circular economy. To survive for weeks or even months alone on her boat, MacArthur had to count on her reserves, which were calculated down to the very last gram before her departure. During her circumnavigation of the globe in 2004, she realized that the management of these resources could make the difference between life and death. Back on dry land, she was struck by the parallel between her experiences and the depletion of the earth’s resources.

Despite being set up just four years ago, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation is now the leading voice and advocate of the circular economy. Its message is mainly targeted at the younger generation, through educational programs for students of all ages. Teachers can even download activity ideas – including games and group work that introduce the concept of the circular economy – free of charge from the foundation’s website. These resources are already being used by over half of schools in Britain.

Ellen is continuing her world tour, but this time, rather breaking a new record, she’s hoping to convince decision-makers to take a radical new approach to society. And her work is already bearing fruit. A group of 100 public- and private-sector players set up in February 2013 – including Veolia, Ikea and the Scottish government – recently published an open access catalogue of best practices. If a business wants to get on board the circular economy train, it can now benefit from the expertise of these pioneering organizations. Training resources are also available to anyone who wishes to use them. MacArthur’s campaign has been a political success too, following the European Commission‘s adoption of a manifesto in favor of the circular economy in December 2012.

To those who doubted the ability of a 5’1” woman to become one of the greatest yachtswomen of her generation, MacArthur responded by breaking the world record. To advance the cause of ecological transition, who knows what’s she prepared to do next.

Learn more:

- CE 100 Summit

Main picture: Copyright Mark Lioyd / DPPI / BT Team Ellen - Ellen MacArthur