Like many key moments in Dame Ellen MacArthur’s life, it happened on a boat. “I suddenly realized what ‘finite’ really was,” she says. “The resources on my boat were like the world’s resources. If I ran out of them – if the food or the petrol went – that was it. There was no more. You don’t come into contact with that concept in life that often. But alone on the sea, it was so obvious and so real.”
It led to MacArthur investigating an idea called the “circular economy.” “The global economy is entirely dependent on finite resources,” she says. “It’s linear. We ‘take, make, and dispose.’ That can’t work in the long term.”
By contrast, the circular economy is “regenerative by intention.” This isn’t recycling. It’s about designing products in a totally different way. MacArthur talks of industrial carpet tiles designed to be deconstructed and remade, cars created with future disassembly and re-manufacturing in mind. Another circular economy principle is that manufacturers should retain the ownership of products and sell their usage – an idea that redefines how goods are sold and serviced.
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation works toward accelerating the transition to a circular economy. “I’ve always been driven by goals,” she says. When she was four, she decided she wanted to sail around the world. She went on not just to fulfill her dream, but to become one of the world’s most famous sportswomen.
In 2001, aged 24, she raced single-handedly nonstop around the world in the Vendée Globe, coming second. In 2002, she won the Route du Rhum from France to the Caribbean, and in 2003 founded the Ellen MacArthur Cancer Trust. In 2005, she became the fastest person to circumnavigate the globe singlehanded, and was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II.
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation was launched in 2010. It works with the world’s best universities, partners with businesses such as Cisco, Philips, Kingfisher, Renault, and Unilever, and produces economic reports, the latest of which was published in conjunction with the World Economic Forum in Davos in January.