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.

In the global consumer goods sector a $700 billion opportunity is there for the taking. Ellen MacArthur

Can you give examples of the circular economy in action?

Take Philips, who have a lighting service called Pay Per Lux. You don’t buy lights from them. You rent them and pay Philips a flat rate. You don’t pay the electricity bill, either. They do. That means it’s in Philips’ interest to make the most energy-efficient lights possible. Over time they recover and re-manufacture the lights, and the user ends up paying less for a better product.

Or there’s Caterpillar, who are re-manufacturing engines, and Michelin, who are leasing tires under a pay-per-miles program.

Our current solution for dealing with scarce resources is to use less. Isn’t that enough?

No. It just means we’ll run out of resources a bit later. We can’t squeeze more growth out of the current linear system because raw material prices are increasing.We also have 3.5 billion new middle-class consumers coming onto the global market by 2030.

How easy has it been to get companies and organizations on board?

It takes a few boardroom conversations, of course, but it’s been hugely positive. Ultimately, CEOs want growth, which is what the circular economy can provide. Working with McKinsey, we discovered that the circular economy could generate a net materials saving of $630 billion per annum for European manufacturing alone by 2025, and that in the global consumer goods sector a $700 billion opportunity is there for the taking.

Is logistics important in the circular economy?

Logistics companies such as DHL are at the heart of all this, because we’re talking about creating a two-way flow, from manufacturer to consumer and back. That involves moving a lot of stuff around. Take the idea of washing machines, leased from the manufacturer, where the consumer pays per wash. Those washing machines need to be produced and delivered to the consumer. Then reverse logistics are needed when that washing machine goes back to be re-manufactured. Currently, logistics means taking products out to the consumer but, arguably, not bringing a lot back. So imagine if everything flowed both ways! Components and materials would be flying all around the circular economy, making logistics more vital than ever.

Has the circular economy changed your life?

I spent a long time learning about it, and the more I learned, the more I realized that this would become everything to me. That meant leaving behind competitive sailing, which was incredibly difficult.

Do you still sail for enjoyment?

I do. I relax by being outside. I love walking the dogs, paddling canoes, and I like making things. That might be welding, painting a wall, or a picture. The most fulfilling moments in my life are still ahead of me.

Published: September 2014

Photo: Neale Haynes/Contour by Getty Images