Wednesday, May 23, 2012

“I’ve been driven by goals”

Ellen MacArthur, Founder of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, was in Paris this week to speak on entrepreneurship and skills at the OECD Forum. She was interviewed by Marilyn Achiron, Editor of the Education Department.

In 2001, a 24-year-old Ellen MacArthur fulfilled a 20-year dream and sailed, single-handedly non-stop around the world in the Vendée Globe. Not only did she achieve her goal, she also came in second in one of the hardest races in sailing. Three years later, she broke the speed record for circumnavigating the globe, alone, on a trimaran.

Today, MacArthur has set herself another challenge: to change, fundamentally, how we think about and use the world’s resources. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, established in 2010, links education and business in a drive towards a circular economy. The idea of the circular economy is based on “systems thinking”, the acknowledgement that nothing occurs in a vacuum; that context matters. And the context we’re all living in right now is that of finite natural resources.

When asked, MacArthur says she is driven by goals; but that seems only half the story: the other half is passion. You hear it when she speaks of her first sailing experience, as a 4-year-old, with her “auntie”: “It was the greatest feeling of freedom I could ever imagine. That boat could have taken us anywhere in the world.” And you hear it when she speaks of her work now: “The ‘big click’ happened when I first started to understand the circular economy. It’s a whole different system. Suddenly I had the same feeling I had as a 4-year-old.”

In her 20s, the context of MacArthur’s life was the confines of impossibly small vessels. “You realise what ‘finite’ means; how you behave when you have limited resources.” Now, the context may seem far larger, but the constraints are no less challenging: “We don’t have enough resources to sustain our economy. You can re-start your boat at the end of a race, but you can’t do that with finite resources.”

In addition to making the case for a circular economy among business leaders her Foundation is piloting, testing and producing materials for secondary school teachers based on systems thinking and “restorative” recycling that can be built into the design of nearly everything we use, from washing machines through cars and carpets to packaging. “When people learn about recycling, they learn that they should be doing less. And everything they’re learning is, at best, just buying time. It doesn’t inspire creativity and innovation. In the circular economy, there’s an extraordinary message about what you can do, not what you can’t do. And that message comes through in the classroom and in the boardroom.”

MacArthur recounts how, in front of a class of teachers, she takes what looks like a plastic bag, stuffs it into a glass of hot water, watches the bag dissolve and then drinks the nutrient-filled contents of the glass: a show-and-tell of how design for a circular economy can feed (in this case, literally) the future. The teachers, she says, “are not used to seeing that; they’re not used to the idea of a circular economy. It’s an exciting way to teach.” And what they’re learning, at the same time, is a notion that is central to a circular economy: that consumers pay for performance, not for the material product. “You look at how you can design something so that you can re-sell and re-manufacture it.

“The idea of the circular economy is an enabler for young people—and for businesses,” says MacArthur. “The more creative they are, the better. That’s what it’s all about.”

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Photo credit: Nautilus shell / Shutterstock

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