Ellen MacArthur calls on designers to design for the circular economy
Ellen MacArthur calls on designers and architects to adopt circular design

Architects and designers "absolutely vital" in shift to circular economy says Ellen MacArthur

Circular economy champion Ellen MacArthur has called on designers to help transform the global economy along sustainable lines.

The British former round-the-world sailor and founder of circular-economy charity Ellen MacArthur Foundation said she wanted architects and designers to join her fight to eradicate industrial waste and pollution.

"The design fraternity is absolutely a target for us, because designers build the world," MacArthur told Dezeen. "So they're an absolutely vital fraternity in designing something that fits within the [circular] system."

"Design for recovery" says MacArthur

MacArthur, who gave up her record-breaking solo sailing career to launch her foundation, said it was vital to get designers and architects on board to ensure that products and buildings are designed to help regenerate the planet, rather than exploit it.

"I would encourage designers to think about how the creative process can build something much broader than their product, and how their product can fit in that much broader restorative system," she said.

"What happens when your product comes to the end of its use period? Can your product have many use periods? Can you design for the future, design for recovery, to deliver even more value in the future?"

Initiatives by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation include a guide to circular design

She added: "If you think about young people going through education today, if they want to be the designers of the future, what an amazing opportunity to be part of building a restorative, regenerative future; a future where we can recover materials and feed them back into the economy."

MacArthur proving benefits of circular economy

MacArthur, 42, spoke exclusively to Dezeen ahead of her foundation's annual summit, which takes place in London on 13 June. The summit features a discussion about the role designers can play in encouraging the switch to a circular economy.

MacArthur explained how, after breaking the record for fastest solo circumnavigation of the world in 2005, she quit sailing in order to dedicate herself to proving the economic benefits of circularity.

"[Today's] linear economy is a straight line, no matter how efficient you make it," she explained. "If you make a car with less material, if you make a car using less energy, you're still using stuff. You're still consuming materials."

"Whereas within a circular model, from the outset you design in a way whereby that product comes back into the system: the components are recovered, the materials are recovered."

"Linear is worth less than circular"

Her foundation has set out to prove the financial benefits of a waste-free economy, producing a series of influential reports on different sectors including plastics, fashion and fast-moving consumer goods.

"Every single time we've produced a report, it's been overwhelmingly positive," she said. "Linear is worth less than circular."

Her landmark 2012 report Towards the Circular Economy was the first to set out the business and economic benefits of a sustainable economy, while the influential New Plastics Economy report of 2016 set out to rethink the way plastics are used.

It found that 95 per cent of plastic packaging, worth $80-120 billion, is wasted each year. Its claim that by 2050 there could be more plastic than fish in the sea generated headlines around the world.

Design-related initiatives by the foundation include a guide to circular design, launched last year in collaboration with design company IDEO, and a $1 million prize for new materials to replace plastic.

In 2017 MacArthur teamed up with fashion designer Stella McCartney to challenge the wastefulness of the fashion industry.

During the interview, MacArthur discussed the work of her foundation as well as her views on how to tackle ocean plastic and the wastefulness of the fashion industry.

Read on for an edited transcript of the interview:


Marcus Fairs: Tell me about your background.

Ellen MacArthur: My background was ocean racing. From the age of four, all I ever wanted to do was sail, and very quickly I decided that I wanted to sail around the world. So it was my whole life focus, from leaving school at 17, becoming a sailing instructor, trying to find a sponsor, to doing my first transatlantic when I was 21.

Then in 2001, when I was 24, I competed in the Vendée Globe, which was my first solo non-stop round the world race. Then four years later, I set out to try to be the fastest person ever to sail solo nonstop around the world in a 75-foot trimaran, which I achieved in February 2005.

Marcus Fairs: Why did you give up sailing to focus on the circular economy?

Ellen MacArthur: I never for a second thought I would settle outside sailing. I had no wish to. I'd not studied anything else. But when you're on a boat, you have finite resources. You take with you everything you need for your survival. In the Southern Ocean, you're 2,500 miles away from the nearest town. What you have is all you have.

And this sowed an unexpected seed. When I got off the boat at the end, I started to translate that understanding of what "finite" means for the global economy. I understand what "finite" is for me: when I run out, I run out. I restock at the end. But actually, [the world] can't.

It was completely contrary to everything I've ever done before. I've never reflected on global economics, or design, or material flows, or anything. But I just couldn't get this out of my head.

This was 2006. I was starting to try and understand how material flows work, how the global economy functions. I spoke to experts, scientists, economists, chief executives; not just challenging them on their business models, but trying to understand what their solutions were. How do we fix this?

I had no idea. I was just fascinated by the fact that the global economy can't work. It's not designed right; it can't run in the long term. It's linear: we take the material, we make something out of it, and ultimately it gets thrown away. And if your materials are finite, and you have a growing world population, that just can't add up.

I started to come across ideas like cradle-to-cradle design, industrial symbiosis, biomimicry, the sharing economy. I started to see that these ideas could come together to build a different economy that is designed to cycle; where not only are you cycling the materials that sit within that economy, but you are also keeping the product at the highest value. Suddenly you see the straight line turn into a circle.

Yet at that stage, I had no idea whatsoever of the economics behind it, whether it costs 10 times more to put into practice. But when I started talking to people about linear versus circular, something resonated: if linear can't work, maybe circular can.

So we created the foundation on the back of that, with a goal to accelerate the transition to a circular economy. The first thing we did was look at the economic rationale for it. What's it worth? Can it happen financially? And every single time we've produced a report, it's been overwhelmingly positive: linear is worth less than circular.

Marcus Fairs: What is the circular economy?

Ellen MacArthur: The linear economy is a straight line, no matter how efficient you make it. If you make a car with less material, if you make a car using less energy, you're still using stuff. You're still consuming materials.

Whereas within a circular model, from the outset you design in a way whereby that product comes back into the system: the components are recovered, the materials are recovered, the item itself is perhaps distributed in a different way, via providing mobility, rather than selling a car. And then you've created that circular system.

The first two elements of creating the circular economy are to design out waste and pollution; and to design so that you can keep products, materials and components at their highest value and utility at all times. This often requires a change in business model. So for example Philips would not be selling lighting, but actually providing lumens as a service. It's about the design of the business model as much as the product itself, so that it can fit within that [circular] system.

And then the third element is to regenerate natural systems; to look at biological materials such as compostable plastics, paper, cotton, human waste, or agricultural waste, and see how you can feed that back into natural systems to regenerate. For many years, we've talked about making an agricultural field last a bit longer, with fertilizer and pesticides. But actually, can you regenerate them, can you increase the value of the soil?

Marcus Fairs: What does it mean for designers?

Ellen MacArthur: When you begin to design a product, you have a design brief. It could be anything but let's take plastic packaging as an example. Is that design brief to keep that chicken fresh for as long as possible with clever design?

And more often than not today, the design brief is to be ultra clever to do this job. The brief is not for it to fit within a system. We're not designing for disassembly: either a chemical disassembly or recovering those materials. So it would be going back to the beginning of the design of a product, and designing it differently.

Marcus Fairs: You've worked with different sectors and produced a range of reports. Tell me about that.

Ellen MacArthur: In the early stages, we were looking at the economic value of a circular economy. The first report came out in January 2012. We took five products: cotton, a light commercial vehicle, a washing machine, a mobile phone and a smartphone. We didn’t know whether it would be economically viable for any of those to be circular. But in all five cases we found it was better economically to be circular than linear. The figure was $630 billion [in savings] per year - and that was only based on recycling less than 25 per cent of the components, materials and products. So actually, there’s a huge economic value in shifting from linear to circular.

Then we did a second one on fast-moving consumer goods, which was 700 billion US dollars [of savings], and a third one looking at global supply chains, which was over a trillion US dollars. We really began to prove that circular is an economic benefit.

Marcus Fairs: When did you start looking at plastic?

Ellen MacArthur: When you look at circular economy examples, heavy industry such as automotive or trains is actually relatively straightforward to do. When you look at high-volume, low-value plastic packaging, that's much more complex, because not even the biggest player in the world can fix it on their own. You need to change the whole industry. In order for that to be enabled, you need to change the system.

We looked at various different examples of material streams we could change, and the one we went for first was plastic packaging. We looked at these different reports, and we first of all wanted to understand the global flows of plastic packaging. Where does it come from, where does it go? It sounds like it should be straightforward, but it actually wasn't.

So we did analysis with McKinsey, and we produced the New Plastics Economy, our first report on plastic packaging, which came out at the World Economic Forum at Davos in 2016. It was, I think, the most picked-up report in the history of the World Economic Forum. It really did go big. And that was the report that said by 2050, there'll be more plastic in the ocean than fish if we continue on the current trajectory.

So that not only had a massive impact from a messaging perspective, but it was also the first time that we really saw the numbers. The fact that out of 78 million tons of plastic packaging, only 14 per cent globally gets collected for recycling, 32 per cent leaks into the environment, 14 per cent gets incinerated, over 40 per cent gets landfilled.

Of the 14 per cent that's recovered recycling, 4 per cent is lost in the sorting process, 8 per cent gets down-cycled to lesser quality materials. It's almost like one loop and it's out. And only 2 per cent of 78 million tons actually cycles into the material of the same quality. So whereas we felt we were quite good at recycling, actually there's the statistics.

Marcus Fairs: How is your message going down with big corporations that are big users of plastic? Do people like Unilever and PepsiCo understand? Do they want to change?

Ellen MacArthur: Yeah, absolutely. We work with PepsiCo, we work with Unilever. Through this whole plastics journey, we have always worked with the brands. And actually, it's not that often that Coke and Pepsi are in the same room talking about plastics. That's not traditionally been done.

I think what we've seen in the past was that these guys did care, and they were trying to do things, but everyone had their innovation and their own direction. Unilever is doing this, Coke's doing this, Pepsi's doing this, and everyone's trying to fix it, in inverted commas, but actually, the system has to change. That needs a concerted effort of everyone moving in the same direction, and that's what we set out to do with the New Plastics Economy.

Marcus Fairs: Has the foundation's work led to real change?

Ellen MacArthur: Yes, absolutely. As a result of the New Plastics Economy work, we've now got a significant group of countries, companies, organisations, who've signed the global commitment. I don't know, what's the latest number? 350 plus. It goes up weekly. The global commitment, absolutely committed to time-bound, changeable targets on plastic packaging, design, output, and feeding back into the system. Now we have over 20 per cent of the global market in plastic packaging signed up to our global commitment.

So this isn't just a report showing the numbers we need to change this; this is actually something that people are committing to. It's moving towards a tipping point where you have the biggest players in the world shifting their model to be recyclable, compostable, reusable, and making all their plastic have value.

Marcus Fairs: What about the oil companies? Are they on board with what you're doing?

Ellen MacArthur: We have many conversations with the chemical companies because they actually produce plastics. How they produce the plastics in the future is an ongoing conversation. Today, broadly, they're extractive and consumptive. But there is absolutely that question of conversation around the future of the plastics that they produce. Is it that virgin feedstock from oil? Or do they take in the materials that come from recycling facilities and make new plastics?

There is absolutely a conversation going on. Now we're seeing some huge shifts from some of the biggest plastic packaging producers in the world.

Marcus Fairs: Can you give an example?

Ellen MacArthur: Amcor was there right [with us] at the beginning. They're one of the biggest plastic producers. They're not going to make any single-use, non-recyclable plastic after 2025.

Marcus Fairs: So industry is signing up but what about governments and legislators?

Ellen MacArthur: You're shifting a system. And that makes it much easier for the legislators to change legislation because traditionally, legislation was lobbied against by business because it was going to challenge profits and employment and create challenges. But with the circular economy, we tend to see a parallel conversation between the companies that are producing the materials and the legislators. Companies want to be circular, and legislation can really help them.

Marcus Fairs: Where do you stand on the fossil-fuel plastics versus bioplastics issue? Is the solution to carry on pumping fossil fuels out of the ground, but make circular use of the plastics? Or is the solution to move to bioplastics?

Ellen MacArthur: Ultimately there's going to be a mixture of the two. I mean, oil is a really valuable resource. But you could say the same about steel. Steel comes out the ground, we're extracting iron ore out of the ground and making steel. Actually, steel recycling rates are quite high. But it's still something that we're extracting, we're taking it and we're feeding it into a system.

So do we use petrochemicals in that system? Yes, absolutely. But the petrochemicals need to be put into a renewable system, a recycling system. You have to design out the waste. Oil is an incredibly valuable resource; we can do so many different things with it. But when we make things from it, make sure that that product sits within the system.

And obviously bioplastics is part of that, compostable packaging is part of that, paper packaging, cellulose packaging, starch-based packaging, all of that. There will be many different solutions to enable the circular economy to happen. But what sits behind that is that the plastic packaging that's produced needs to be recyclable, compostable, or reusable.

Marcus Fairs: Plastic pollution of the oceans has become a huge issue. Is this something you became aware of when you were sailing?

Ellen MacArthur: When I went around the world I didn't go into the Pacific really. I did, but I was really far south around Antarctica.

Marcus Fairs: You must've seen plastic bottles bobbing around.

Ellen MacArthur: Not many really because I was in the Southern Ocean, where there were strong currents, where actually this stuff doesn't sit. If it's there, it just flows. Of course, I've seen stuff in the ocean, but generally around the coast of the UK, or France where I'm training, or the States where I'm racing too, or the Caribbean. Generally it's not out in the ocean. Not that it's not there; there's tons of it there. But that's not where I came to this from. I came to this from materials, from flows, and trying to understand the wider system.

Marcus Fairs: What can we do about plastic in the ocean? We wrote a story recently highlighting the difficulties The Ocean Cleanup is facing as it tries to remove floating plastic from the Pacific.

Ellen MacArthur: When it comes to ocean plastics, we can guess at what's out there. No one really knows. The oceans cover two thirds of the planet, and there's an awful lot of it out there. Not just the big stuff like the bottles and crisp packets and the earbud stalks that we see in our rivers from our sewage systems - and more so in the developing world than the developed world. But still you walk along the banks of the Thames, you find stuff everywhere. It's a big issue. Nobody really understands the scale of that issue, not just from the big plastics perspective, but also micro plastics and micro beads, which legislation is moving fairly swiftly on.

But micro plastics come from washing clothes, and we reckoned in the New Plastics Economy report that there was half a million tons of micro plastics washed into the oceans every year, which is the equivalent of 50 billion plastic bottles. We can't even see that. And those micro plastics are being found on every beach pretty much everywhere in the world. They've been found in the Arctic. It shouldn't really be there at all. But we don't really understand the implications.

So trying to get what we can out of the ocean is really important, because it shouldn't be there. And it's causing massive damage to wildlife; it's horrendous. What we do at the foundation is go to the beginning of the chain to try and stop it getting there in the first place. We're not an ocean cleanup organisation - that's been done by many phenomenal organisations with new technologies, and a lot of time and effort has been put into that. That absolutely has to happen, but you need to change the system because every year more and more is going into the oceans. And that's where we sit. It's the design side. It's the upstream design. So there's downstream collection, but you need to innovate upstream.

Marcus Fairs: To stop it getting in the ocean.

Ellen MacArthur: To make it have value actually. So if you make 100 per cent of your plastic recyclable, compostable or reusable, everything has value. From the outset whatever that piece of plastic is, it has value and it's designed to fit within the system. And when you look at plastic packaging today, a lot of the waste is these small-format sachets made of multilayer film. They're massively sold in emerging markets. They have shampoos and soaps, and they're very cheap, they're very sellable. They're a fast growing part of the fast-moving-consumer-goods market.

But actually, the fact is, they're never going to be recovered, they don't really have any value at all, they're not really recyclable. And even if they were, they blow away. So part of what we've worked on with the New Plastics Economy is that we need to be able to design plastic so it's recyclable, compostable, reusable.

We believe 50 per cent of all plastic packaging should be designed to be recyclable. So we still have plastic, but it has a value, it will fit very clearly within the system. 20 per cent of plastic packaging needs to be reusable, so it's recyclable but gets used many times. And then 30 per cent needs to be redesigned. It's that small-format sachet that we don't believe can be economically recycled.

Marcus Fairs: Redesigned to not exist any more you mean?

Ellen MacArthur: To be out of different material, or a different business model for distribution. So rather than buying a little plastic sachet of soap in an emerging market, we need sachets of a different material, different dispensers, just different ways of getting that product to those people without creating millions of tons of plastic waste, because that's all it will ever be if it's designed in that way.

Marcus Fairs: Tell me about the work you did in the fashion sector.

Ellen MacArthur: We felt that textiles was another huge topic. Over the last 15 years, we've doubled our production of textiles, yet we wear them 40 per cent less. We started to understand the landscape around textiles, and then we produced our second report on a systemic initiative, which was looking at the textiles industry globally - the size of it, what percentage is recycled, what happens to the fibres, the complexity of it - to try to do the same thing, to get consensus from the industry.

It's not just the fashion brands: it's the yarn suppliers, it's the chemical companies that provide the materials for the yarns, it's the recycling companies that provide the technology to recover their materials. You have to everybody in to change that system.

Like with plastic, we started to uncover the numbers around what level of textiles are recovered for recycling, which was staggeringly low. 75 per cent of clothing is thrown away. And only 1 per cent of clothing that is recovered actually gets recycled into new clothing.

Marcus Fairs: What happens to the rest of it?

Ellen MacArthur: Landfilled. 75 per cent gets landfilled or incinerated when it's thrown away. That's huge. So again, you have this massive industry. From a carbon-emissions perspective, the textile industry today is the equivalent to all international transport and shipping combined. It's huge, and it's growing.

Marcus Fairs: You worked with Stella McCartney.

Ellen MacArthur: Yeah, we spent a lot of time with her team. They worked on the initial report. They're very forward thinking when it comes to sourcing different materials. And Stella's very open minded when it comes to different business models as well. Some brands are very much against the growing market of secondhand sales or used goods. But actually that market's growing very, very quickly with new companies like The RealReal or Rent the Runway, they're now valued at a billion dollars. In the next three years, we reckon that whole industry will be valued at $41 billion.

So it's a very fast growing industry. And Stella's quite open to that different model.

I think what we're beginning to see in some of the very rapidly developing countries like China are small companies starting up from scratch, creating clothing opportunities for people that aren't about buying clothing, but having the provision of clothing.

And some of those statistics are huge. [Clothes-rental platform] YCloset in China has got millions of users, there's 125,000 clothing options, and they've come from nowhere to create that value. And that really works for people because they don't have time to shop, they don't have anywhere to store the stuff. They don't want to have loads of things. I mean, how many things do you need? You need what you're wearing every day and a few spares, and that's it.

Marcus Fairs: What is your message to architects and designers?

Ellen MacArthur: The top line, I would say, is does what you design fit within a system? When you design your product, what happens to those materials when it comes to the end of its use period? Or what it's next use period? Or can you recover the components from that item? Whether it's a phone, or a building, or a vehicle, is it designed for disassembly? Is it designed for recovering the materials, can you get them back out again? That would be one element, absolutely. Because if you can't, you're designing part of that linear system.

And the design fraternity is absolutely a target for us, because designers build the world. They build items, and buildings, and this is the future. They create what we see around us. So they're an absolutely vital fraternity in designing something that fits within the system.

If you're a designer of furniture, is the cotton covering of that furniture going to get used for something else? Could it be chopped up and turned into stuffing? Are the inks non toxic? Could you compost it? If the product is non toxic, but toxins are used to produce the materials, have you really designed for that system? It's going right back and looking. When you think of a chair, you think of designing a chair, that's a certain skill set it. But how do the materials that sit within that chair fit within the broader system?

Marcus Fairs: Where can designers go to find out about materials?

Ellen MacArthur: There's an organisation called Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute based in the US, and they have a huge database of products, chemicals, which are okay, so they're vetting thousands and thousands of products.

I would encourage designers to think about how that creative process can build something much broader than their product, and how their product can fit in that much broader restorative system. And what happens when your product comes to the end of its use period? Can your product have many use periods, to design for the future? To design for recovery, to deliver even more value in the future. If you can get what's in it out, all the components out, or keep it's highest value for longer. So think about not just the design of now, but the design of the future.

Marcus Fairs: You seem optimistic about the future.

Ellen MacArthur: Massively. It's an opportunity. And if you think about young people going through education today, if they want to be the designers of the future, what an amazing opportunity to be part of building a restorative regenerative future. A future where we can recover materials and feed them back into the economy.