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Dame Ellen MacArthur

Following her retirement from sailing, MacArthur launched the Ellen MacArthur Foundation which champions the circular economy.

By Stuart Crainer . 07 November 2013

In 2005 MacArthur broke the world record for the fastest solo world circumnavigation. Following her retirement from sailing, she launched the Ellen MacArthur Foundation which champions the concept of the circular economy, a different economic model based on a virtuous circle in which the goods of today are used as the resources of tomorrow.

Dame Ellen MacArthur

Aged 18 Ellen MacArthur sailed around the UK singlehandedly. She went on to finish second in the 2001 Vendée Globe solo round-the-world race and broke the world record for the fastest solo circumnavigation in 2005.


In the years following her world record, MacArthur remained involved in sailing.  But, through her sailing experiences, visiting the remote island of South Georgia and a thirst for knowledge, MacArthur became fascinated by the economic and resource challenges facing the global economy. She announced her retirement from racing in 2009 and in 2010 launched the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.


The Foundation champions the concept of the circular economy, a different economic model based on a virtuous circle in which the goods of today are used as the resources of tomorrow.  It is a system in which restoring and regenerating resources is designed as part of the system rather than as a neat but optional extra.  The circular economy challenges corporations to think in circular rather than linear terms about their supply chains, manufacturing processes, material flows, business models and the lives of their products.


Stuart Crainer met Dame Ellen MacArthur at the Foundation’s headquarters in Cowes on the Isle of Wight.


I am interested in the genesis of the concept of the circular economy.  Various people were involved.


Yes, I think, Walter Stahel, the economist, wrote his first book on the performance economy the year I was born! He’s absolutely phenomenal.  Bill McDonough and Michael Braungart, an American architect, designer, and a German chemist, pioneered Cradle to Cradle. Then there’s people like Janine Benyus who has been instrumental in the field of biomimicry.


The first time I came across this concept was during my journey of learning.


A journey of learning?


Very much so. Being a round the world sailor is fairly specific in many ways -- even though you have to learn many skills from understanding the weather to first aid to sailing. Economics wasn’t even a subject you could study at my school so I had absolutely no idea about global economics. It was a long journey of learning.


For me it was kicked off by the question of resources.  On a boat you have finite resources and you really realise what finite means. Translate that to the global economy and you realise there are some big challenges -- 3.5 billion new middle class consumers coming online, the population increasing, more and more demand on resources. We’ve seen a century of price declines erased in ten years. Economists don’t seem to think that’s going to change because there’s more and more demand for commodities. And for me the question was, so what works?


It was a journey similar to my goal, from the age of four, of sailing around the world. I had this goal and I had no idea how to make it happen but I knew where I wanted to get to.  It was difficult, challenging, amazing and it was an adventure, but I knew where I was going, so every decision I made took me one step closer.


With the circular economy I saw a diagram in a book by Ken Webster (now the head of innovation at the Foundation).  Suddenly there was this idea of a cycle. For me it made sense. It was a different way of looking at things.


Effectively a circular economy is a model for an industrial economy in which global material flows fit within one of two cycles – stuff that biodegrades and stuff that doesn’t – all running ultimately on renewable energy.


For me, this was the first seed. Suddenly, I thought this could work. This is an economy that could run in the long-term. And at that stage we had absolutely no idea of the economics. It made sense from a materials flow perspective and it made sense from an energy perspective but we had no idea whether it cost three times more than a current linear product. We had no idea.


Where did the term, the circular economy, come from?


The actual terminology the circular economy came from Chinese law. It’s in the eleventh five-year plan that China is working towards a circular economy. 


Reading your book, Full Circle, my sense was you were more frightened of your journey of learning than the actual physical fear of being in the Southern Ocean.


There’s no fear of being in the Southern Ocean. It is stressful sometimes but it’s an amazing place to be. I’d be there like that if I could again. It’s incredible.  Yes, you’re frightened at sea sometimes, absolutely, but you’re also frightened in a car sometimes. There are certain choices that are more frightening than others, of course. But for me stepping into this space was about the fear of the unknown.


And did you have any sense where it was going? You looked at farming…


I looked at everything! 


I’d learnt a huge amount about sailing in a relatively short space of time by asking questions of anybody and everybody. It didn’t matter if it was taking the engine to pieces, changing the circuit board in a computer, sewing my arm up, or administering drugs because you’re 2,500 miles away from the nearest town. You learn all of that stuff. It’s a very broad range of learning.


Actually the winner of the race is not necessarily the fastest sailor. The winner of the race is someone who is a fast sailor but is able to keep the boat on track, maintain their energy levels throughout three months, able to look at and understand the weather, make the decisions, repair the boat, repair themselves. It’s a whole range of skills, which I picked up and learnt because there was this goal of racing around the world, which I was living for.


Sailing to me had been everything. It had been the one thing that had driven everything in my life and every decision took me one stage closer to that point of sailing around the world, but this was different. This wasn’t about my goal to sail around the world, this was about something that was just so huge I almost couldn’t comprehend it.


People must have been saying, no, stick to what you know.


My parents have never done that. They never encouraged me to sail, they never encouraged me not to sail. They didn’t help me to sail apart from taking me to the local reservoir. They didn’t tell me not to do it. They gave me the freedom. So, no, not at all. I think the biggest voice in my head was me because I knew I was stepping from my dream job which I thought I would be doing for the rest of my life, really, into an area I knew absolutely nothing about – nor did I know what I was going to do in it, to be honest. It was all so new. But I just had to learn.


The obvious thing would have been to carry on sailing and combined the two.


My journey of learning was trying to understand, do you sail around the world with a boat with a message on it? I thought, what’s that going to achieve? What’s the message? If you don’t know what the message is, if you don’t know what we’re trying to achieve what’s the point of sailing around the world with that message?


I’m an all or nothing person. I couldn’t get halfway involved with one project and then try and win a race carrying a message. I can’t sit between the two worlds because I know to win a race you need to put your heart and soul and every bit of energy into it. There’s no space for anything else. The balance had to tip at some stage. It had to become something different. And that was the journey to the Foundation.


There must have been offers to do other things.


There were lots of offers to get involved with other people’s initiatives, but nothing sat right because I needed to understand it properly before I made any decision as to what I was going to do.


That understanding came as the result of working with people at the Foundation.  You ask questions, go to meetings, speak to people and your understanding builds. What fascinated me was the systems change. It was the big picture. And obviously there’s lots of small detail in the big picture but if you can’t fix the big picture you’re always fire fighting.


Where I became fascinated with the big picture was through many of the little things I came across. Take farming and fertiliser, for example. Fertiliser is becoming more and more expensive, and farmers are relying on subsidies. Most fertilisers come from minerals which are dug out of the ground and which are finite.  The biological material that we have in food waste, in human waste, in agricultural waste doesn’t go back to the farms.  For billions of years that’s gone back to the land.  Now, we’ve broken that so the value is lost.  What fascinates me is if you look at the big picture where are these materials, where does the value lie, how can this system function?


If you look at the system and ask, how can we redesign it so that the fertiliser can go back to the farms, suddenly you’re not having a conversation with farmers and you’re not having a conversation around mining specifically; you’re looking at a systems change.


The more work we did with McKinsey the more it showed that there’s a huge economic benefit in shifting towards that model. You take one tonne of food waste and it’s got $6 of fertiliser in it, $18 of heat and $26 of electricity. Currently most of that’s lost. It is composted and covers landfills. There’s so much value there. You’re creating gas, which helps with energy. You’re creating fertiliser that helps farmers. You’re creating heat, that helps from a general individual housing perspective. All from something which at the moment leaks out of the system. So that systems element fascinated me.


Sailing seems to me to combine the big picture stuff with highly practical elements -- going up the mast to sort out a problem.


Yes, it comes back to that same thing. When you have a goal you try and make every decision in your life to get you one step closer. On the boat that’s what it is. You’re in this big picture, you’re racing a boat around the world, you have to understand the big picture in order to have any chance of getting through the Southern Ocean let alone crossing the finish line. But you still have to deal with the day-to-day things. You have to make day-to-day decisions which will help you get to that point.  You can’t make those day-to-day decisions if you don’t know what the goal is because you may be going in the wrong direction.


One thing that struck me is that there’s a sense in your book, there’s some things you don’t mention which I can understand to some extent, the day-to-day practicalities, things that ordinary people are worried about. Paying their mortgage, money…..


At sea, money’s not very useful! You’re better off throwing it over the side, it makes the boat heavier.


Setting up the Foundation, moves you from that sailing cocoon into a much more real and different world.


Different, yes. I suppose sailing at sea is very different from your life on land as well.  Money’s never been a motivator in my life. Never. I’ve never made a decision in my life based on, am I going to do this or this based on there’s more money involved in doing this. I can’t say money hasn’t been important because I saved my school dinner money change for eight years to buy my first boat so I know how useful money is and I know that the global economy is fundamental to prosperity in the world.


Now I talk about it a lot. We talk about the benefits of the circular economy, we talk about $630 billion for the EU economy on looking at the medium complexity goods, you look at $700 billion globally when we look at fast moving consumer goods. There’s a lot of figures in there because we believe whole-heartedly that the circular economy has to function in order for us to transition towards it.  Showing that economically it works is fundamental. So a big push for us has been proving the economics so, yes, there is a lot of talk about money.


What about the initial stages of the Foundation? Persuading people to come on board and give you money and get involved. It’s very different. Are they new skills or have you used them before when you were trying to get sponsors for the sailing?


Yes, I had. It was actually very similar and to go to business was a very natural thing for me personally because I’d spent a lot of time with various businesses through the sailing programmes. A link with business is something that has been continuous in my life since I was about 20 and the ability to do things through businesses. Previously it had been to sail around the world, which was a hugely successful eight-year programme for Kingfisher. They did very well out of it and they deserved to because they took a risk to sponsor a very young girl with no track record to sail around the world and it paid off, twice. But it’s not something you take on lightly because it’s a very public thing to do, but it was phenomenally successful. So that business link was there.


What felt very different for me with this was that it actually matters. We’re talking about a global economy that can run in the long-term. There’s no business leader that doesn’t have an interest in that. There are pressures on CEOs for quarterly and annual results. But if you talk to a CEO about raw material prices, economic pressures or the global economy, they’re on it.


You really learn a lot through conversations with CEOs, senior managers, board members and experts.  When we questioned the model there wasn’t an answer - though there was a huge curiosity among the companies we spoke with. Some had more projects than others when we started and we’ve worked very hard with them over the last three years to develop larger and larger projects.


They actually stepped into the Foundation before we knew the economics and I think the three axes that we work in were probably a fundamental reason for that. One is education. We need to inspire an entire generation of young people to think differently if we’re actually going to make this transition so they leave education thinking, I want to become a material scientist or a marketer that markets in a different way, or I want to go into reverse logistics or design. There are so many elements of this that really inspire young people and we see that month-after-month with the work we do in secondary and higher education and all the pilot work. It’s been phenomenal.


The analysis axis obviously appealed to companies. Six months in we went to McKinsey to look at the economics and prove the economic case. And then the third area was working with companies to create circular economy projects. This year we launched the Circular Economy 100, bringing together 100 companies, emerging innovators and regions to build circular economy capability and innovation within their own business models.


What new skills have you learnt since the foundation was launched? I watched one of your talks on YouTube. Were you always good at public speaking?


I’ve always done it. Was I always good? I hated it when I was a kid. I don’t really enjoy it now, to be honest. It’s not something I yearn for. I just say it how it is. That’s how I’ve always communicated and I’m very passionate about what I do so that is something that has translated from the sailing to this. I’m hugely passionate about this, I was hugely passionate about the sailing and you just communicate how things are.


So what new skills do you think you’ve acquired?


You learn every day. An understanding of economics, that’s a pretty big skill and I’m not an expert, nor will I ever be. Really it’s learning about everything from politics to strategy to economics to how a business functions at every level. I’ve learnt a phenomenal amount in so many different areas and I’m only scratching the surface but it’s so interlinked with different areas you can’t say it’s just one topic. It’s that systems approach.


There’s a danger you spread yourself and the argument too thinly.


But I think we’ve never lost sight of the big picture whilst doing things that are really tangible. So the work that we’ve done here at the Foundation from the outset has been in three areas: education, analysis and business. All three of which we decided before we launched the foundation in September 2010. These are fundamental. We’ve continued to strengthen all of those three areas.


There are lots of opportunities that come along that we can’t do because we’re still a relatively small team. There are just over 30 of us.  We always revert back to what are we actually trying to achieve? Does this fit our goals?  You have to be quite brutal sometimes with decision making. It’s not easy because you learn that you can’t do everything.


How do you spend your time?


Learning, reading, speaking at key events.


Because you’re a very limited resource.


We all are. I’m in all the management team meetings, I’m the chair of trustees for the Foundation. I spend a lot of time looking at the big picture, high level strategy.


But also then this morning I was reading the latest report coming out of the World Economic Forum which is the result of a collaboration between WEF, McKinsey and the Foundation. So it could be reading a document and looking at the nuances of writing something in a certain way or it could be speaking to a group of CEOs or it could be sitting on the European Resource Efficiency Platform that we decided to step into so we could understand more about how politics work within Europe.


Some of the hardest things are making decisions on where you spend your time because there’s an argument that everything helps, everything’s beneficial, but actually it’s got to be the most beneficial. And that’s not just me, that’s everybody.


What are the achievements to date of the Foundation?


In this economic climate, still being here!  For any foundational charity that’s pretty cool. I would say that the biggest achievement so far is taking an idea which was unheard of, it wasn’t out there at all apart from in a few Chinese documents, to something which is now partnered with the World Economic Forum and they’re looking at as a major stream of work.  So I’d say the biggest achievement is probably to stay focused on what we set out to do in the first place.


I’ve always had the view that your biggest achievement is ahead of you, not behind you. We’ve got an amazing team of people. We’ve built the Foundation, we’re building the CE100, we’ve launched the Schmidt-MacArthur Fellowship Programme. There’s been a lot of work to put these things in place but I would say the biggest achievements are in front of us.


What does success look like?


A functioning circular economy.


But that’s a big change for you because going from A to B in a yacht or sailing around the world where the goals are crystal clear.


Yes, but it’s just a different race course. You still know exactly what you’re trying to get to. You still know that you’re trying to shift the economy from being a linear one to a circular one. So what we’ve tried to do is pull the biggest levers that we can as a small organisation, such as working with McKinsey, the World Economic Forum, and the best universities in the world. The Schmidt-MacArthur Fellowship programme means working with the students but also with academics.


So if you ask me what the goal is it’s to shift the overall economy from a linear to a circular one. How fast that can happen, I don’t have the answer. There are a lot of companies that won’t survive as the linear economy continues. So the speed of the change will be relative to the realisation of companies that there’s a better way of doing things and the benefits that brings. And that’s why we put the economic reports together to say there is an economic opportunity of X in this space to do this now.


This is happening at speed all over the world -- whether it’s flagged as the circular economy or not is another question. What we’ve tried to do is give it a rationale and a framework, pull these ideas together, put numbers to it and say this opportunity is there for the taking right now.


Do you think of yourself as a leader?


I think of myself as a team player but I’m happy to put my neck on the line if that’s needed. I’m not someone who has to be at the front; I’d actually rather be at the back. But if the best way to make it happen is to stand on a stage and talk about something I’ll be there without a breath of hesitation. But it’s about everyone in the team playing the best roles that they can. And I think we have a phenomenal group here of people from different backgrounds, countries, experiences, who all put their absolute utmost into what they’re doing.


When I look back to the sailing and the round the world record, the fondest memory for me without a shadow of a doubt is teamwork. I worked with an amazing team of people. You may spend 71 days, 14 hours, 18 minutes and 33 seconds on your own but actually for years you work with a team to design the boat, build the boat, put the boat together, trial the boat, test the boat, sail halfway round the world on the boat, prepare for records. Those guys and girls that you work with in many cases have your life in their hands. Working with them and having that amazing team spirit for me was what the project was all about. It wasn’t about being on my own, it wasn’t about me. I crossed the finish line on my own and felt absolutely nothing having broken the record until they got on board and then that was really quite powerful.


Going back to the beginning.  How did you amass the skills you needed to sail around the world? There’s no training course.


I worked at nautical school and taught navigation.  I went there in 1994 to do a day skipper course. Then I went back and did my yacht master navigation and several months later started working for the sailing school where I became an instructor teaching VHF. Then I started doing basic navigation and I asked questions of everyone around me, which was phenomenal because the guy that ran the school was an ex-ship’s captain.  He’d travelled all over the world and was an amazing navigator, a great seaman. So I learnt a huge amount. The best way to learn something is by teaching it because then you have to know it inside out. 


I did spend a day stripping an engine down but I’d grown up in the garage with my dad doing that so that was almost second nature. I did do some first aid training. There were the standard first aid courses you can go on but my uncle is a GP so, for example, before the Vendée Globe I remember sitting in his lounge injecting myself in my leg with saline solution just to make sure I could do it if I had to because although it was extremely painful it was less painful than trying to insert a drip into your own arm. I practised stitching. You carry morphine and everything on the boat because a hospital can be up to ten days away in the Southern Ocean.


In your book you reflect that you can be quite competitive. I thought you might have been understating it a bit. You’d just sailed round the world after all.


I’m selectively competitive. I’m not one of these people that have to win everything, I never have been. 


There was a degree of selfishness in your sailing goal, wasn’t there?


I think in the sailing round the world one, absolutely, it was 100 per cent selfish. It was my dream, my goal and actually it was incredibly painful for many people around me. At the top of the list, my parents, who watched their kid sail off round the world when the only person she’d ever introduced them to who’d done that race before didn’t come back from the race that winter. How they never even suggested that I might not go I have no idea. They never said anything, just watched me leave. That’s pretty phenomenal. So that’s hugely selfish.


I would say the Foundation is different. This isn’t about me. We called it the Ellen MacArthur Foundation because we thought it would help the fundraising. It’s about every single one of us playing the best role that we can to try and help accelerate the transition as fast as possible. And if that means using my name and going into meetings, I’m there, but this is absolutely not about me.


You invested a lot of your money in this as well.


I knew from the sailing projects that if you don’t have the funds to some extent upfront you’re trying to find funds when you don’t have a team and I couldn’t do that with this. So I kicked it off with my own money for the first year and a half until we could go and find the funding and put the programme together.


We signed our founding partners up for three years. We’re in the process now of resigning those partnerships. We’ve got the CE100 now, which diversifies funding. We’ve got the funding coming from the Schmidt Family Foundation specifically for the fellowship programme. We’re also looking at other funding streams, European funding and specific research projects. So it’s now a varied pot.


I’ve interviewed sportsmen who are retired who have fallen out of love with their passion in life. Has that happened to you?


I could never fall out of love with sailing. I love it. I was up at 6:30 yesterday morning sailing for just an hour and a half before I came to work.  It was a nice morning and I thought, I’m going to go for a sail. I’d be racing round the world tomorrow. In fact a friend has just arrived today from France who was the boat captain on the trimaran that went round the world. He’s just arrived and is out there now. It would be awesome to go and sail with him. But you make a decision. I don’t look out and think, I’m glad I’m not doing that. You make a call.

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