Ellen MacArthur with her pet dog

Interview - Dame Ellen MacArthur

Dame Ellen MacArthur is famous for her exploits at sea, but since stepping away from the world of sailing she has dedicated her life to promoting the Circular Economy through the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

At the tender age of 24 Ellen MacArthur sailed the monohull Kingfisher single-handed around the globe in 94 days, finishing second in the Vendee Globe. Three years later she repeated the feat in a 75ft trimaran, B&Q, and became the fastest person to circumnavigate the world alone.

For her exploits she was knighted by the Queen in 2005 and awarded the Legion D'Honneur from French President Nicholas Sarkozy.

Soon after, however, she left behind the world of sailing that had been her life and turned first to establishing a charity to help young cancer patients recover their confidence, and more recently to protecting the Earth's dwindling resources.

Humble beginnings

It seems a curious aspiration for a three-year-old growing up in Derbyshire - which is, incidentally, about as far as you can get from the sea in the UK - but from an early age MacArthur was determined to be a sailor. Her formative years in the hamlet of Whatstandwell, near Matlock, were spent daydreaming of life on the sea.

"I have sailed since I was four years old," she says. "My family and I would spend our Easter holidays sailing with my auntie. She had bought an old boat and spent two years doing it up. My brother had gone the summer before and I was absolutely devastated because, at only three years old, I was too young to go.

"I will never forget the feeling I got when I saw the sea for the first time and climbed on board the boat as we hoisted the sails. It gave me the greatest sense of freedom that I could ever imagine and it totally changed the course of my life. Really from that moment I absolutely knew that I wanted to sail and ultimately sail around the world."

The determination and focus that MacArthur has displayed in her sailing achievements and later work were apparent from an early age. "As I was growing up at school all my books had boats on. It was one of those things that I really wanted to do yet had absolutely no idea how to achieve it."

It was a challenge that she would face when she stepped away from sailing in 2010 and started the Ellen MacArthur Foundation; knowing where she was trying to get to but not knowing how to get there. "I knew that every decision that I made in my life would get me one step closer to my goal," she says.

For her sailing ambitions it meant skimping on school dinners and hoarding the change to purchase her first boat. "I needed a boat; I didn't get pocket money so I used my dinner money," she recalls. "I had mashed potato and baked beans every day for seven years at secondary school and it was with the change that I ultimately bought the boat that I sailed around Britain on. So for me it was lots of small steps towards that goal of sailing and then ultimately trying to sail around the world."

From the age of 17, until she completed her second round the world 12 years later, MacArthur lived and breathed sailing. "I thought I would be doing that until I was 100. I had no want or wish to stop. It was what I dreamt of doing since I was a kid and I was living the dream, I absolutely loved it."

Realisation dawns

As she set out on her second around the world journey in 2004 she had no inkling that her life was about to dramatically change and that she would step away from the sailing world that she had immersed herself in for the past two decades. "It kind of dawned on me, and I wrote it in a log while I was at sea. You realise that what you have on that boat is all you have; there is no more.

"You only have so much diesel for the generator to keep the batteries charged to keep the boat the right way up; it literally goes with the auto pilot. If the batteries go flat you would be upside down in five <'seconds. You manage the food - you have one small bag of supplies to last seven days. Every other bag contains a little gas bottle that would last you two weeks. All you had was a kettle; boiling the kettle was your only way of cooking by pouring it into a freeze dried meal."

MacArthur continues: "You develop this overwhelming notion of the definition of the word 'finite'. I never translated that to life on land, I just thought that it was part and parcel of what I did at sea and then I stepped off the boat and I suddenly realised that our economy is no different; it's driven using finite resources or resources with constraints, resources where there is more and more demand on the global economy."

She admits that at the time it was just a feeling. "I had no idea about economics or how we use resources globally at all, but I began learning. I guess a bit like living your dream job and seeing something underneath a stone and you have two choices. You can either put the stone back and carry on with your dream job, sailing around the world, or you can put that stone to one side and you take a risk and start to learn."

Focus on finite resources

That was in 2005. MacArthur plunged into learning the intricacies of global economics; how we use energy and materials and how reliant the economy is on these. "The more I learnt, the more I realised that we had some pretty big challenges ahead of us.

"As the years went by, more reports came out. The first ones I read were predominantly about energy. It struck me that ultimately no one knows how much coal, oil and gas there is. You can't put it down to the nearest year, but what we do know is that it is finite."

MacArthur readily admits to being captivated by engineering. "I am fascinated by how we design things and how things function. I always have been. One of the elements of sailing was to understand how everything fits together and being able to fix everything from the computer to the engine.

"It was the fact that our economy is so reliant on these finite resources that was the catalyst to making the decision that I thought I would never make to leave competitive sailing and focus on creating a foundation."

The establishment of the foundation was still a few years away, first came the challenge to try and understand more. "I had never come across anything like it," says MacArthur. "It had never crossed my mind before stepping off that boat and for me it was a real turning point. I was going into the unknown.

"What fascinated me was that I could see this massive challenge, but unlike my mission to sail around the world, I had no idea how to get there. I had no idea what to do other than to use less and that didn't seem like an ultimate solution, it just brought us time. That fascinated and frightened me."

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation

Armed with the knowledge she had accumulated, MacArthur finally established The Ellen MacArthur Foundation in September 2010, based in an old sail makers loft on the Cowes quayside. On the face of it the foundation may appear to be a departure; moving from an apparent solo effort in sailing into a true altruistic ambition. But as MacArthur points out, sailing is only an individual endeavour at the sharp end. "When I think back to the second round the world, the team was the best thing. Everything we did together: we built the boat together, we trained on the boat together; that atmosphere was phenomenal. We were like a family and that was very powerful.

"The teamwork aspect was something that was very important for me, but as you say, there are two elements of this. There is obviously the team at the foundation, which is now 25 people, but actually this is not about me or us or this, this is about the human population. It's about an economic challenge. It's way broader than anything that I have looked at before."

A circular economy

The real direction for the Foundation's future came from a meeting with Walter R Stahel, who first came up with the ideas about a circular economy. The circular economy is a generic term for an industrial economy that is restorative and in which materials flows are of two types, biological nutrients, designed to re-enter the biosphere safely, and technical nutrients, which are designed to circulate at high quality without entering the biosphere.

The term encompasses more than the production and consumption of goods and services, including a shift from fossil fuels to the use of renewable energy, and the role of diversity as a characteristic of resilient and productive systems.

Stahel, an architect, economist and founding father of industrial sustainability, is credited with having coined the expression Cradle to Cradle, in contrast to Cradle to Grave. "He is an absolutely amazing guy and he saw a very different way for society and the economy to function, whereby you try to recycle those materials and try to close a loop," says MacArthur. "You do that through moving towards a performance economy rather than a consumer economy. So rather than buying a vehicle you would pay for the use of one. This would guarantee that the vehicle would go back and be taken apart."

This concept was continued by Michael Braungart and Bill McDonough who ran Cradle to Cradle, where they looked at the design aspect. How can we design a carpet that's made to be made again? How can we design a chair that is made for disassembly, so that we can recover the materials?

The Foundation recently produced a report with McKinsey looking at biological aspects of the circular economy around consumer goods. "We believe that if you took all food waste, human waste and agricultural waste, you could replace the chemical fertiliser used in the world 2.7 times over. If you redesign your business model you have actually got a way to maintain all products as their absolute highest value at all times, thus bringing growth to the global economy.

"We launched the Ellen MacArthur Foundation with the circular economy as our goal; to accelerate this transition to a circular economy," MacArthur adds. "As a foundation, we chose to work in three areas - business, insight and education.

"With business we work on transition projects within the businesses that fund us to accelerate towards a circular economy and we have targeted projects of a value in excess of $1bn."

Saving billions

They also aim to provide insight for business, for education, for government, for economists. "What if you shift the global economy to a circular economy? If we look at manufacturing, what's this worth? Our first report was based on medium complexity goods in EU manufacturing; goods that would cycle between one and five years." The figure in the advanced scenario showed savings of $630bn per annum for Europe. That was based upon net material cost savings, excluding new business revenues from different business models.

The second report came out in January of this year. This looked at the consumer goods sector, for which the saving was $700bn globally through redesigning packaging and clothing and manufacturing food waste. Without a doubt impressive numbers.

The third area of work is in education. "We have successfully piloted a global education project here in the UK. By this September we will have reached 2,200 UK secondary schools and that's through teachers at those schools being trained by our team of field officers who take the materials that we have produced over the last two and a half years in design and technology. We have produced a piece called 'The Future of Energy' for STEM."

Today the Foundation employs 25 people, with support from a veritable who's who of global business including B&Q, BT, Cisco, National Grid and Renault. "We are very pleased with where we are today," says MacArthur. "To think that we only launched'two and a half years ago and now there have been four events in the circle economy and world economic forum with a global alliance of businesses across the world taking this on.

"Although we are really pleased with where we are we have only done a fraction. We have the goal to accelerate the transition to a circle economy and there aren't any bigger challenges. Whatever role we can play in that we will be very happy to do so, but you can feel good about something that happened and feel that progress is great and then look at the scale of it."

The view from the Foundation's offices sweeps over the town's harbour and the Solent beyond filled with boats of all sizes. For MacArthur it is a reminder of her past. "Do I miss it? Yes, I will always miss it because from a child it is the one thing that I wanted to do. I made the hardest decision of my life to say that I am going to leave all of this behind me. People say 'don't you want to go round the world again?'. Yes, I would love to, but I won't do it because what we are doing here has no finish line."

She adds: "I don't regret having made that decision in the slightest because this is the most extraordinary project and I end up talking to amazing people about amazing things. The conversations are fascinating and I have never used my brain to the capacity that I am at the moment."

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