Ellen MacArthur: The woman that made the world listen

  • October 09, 2017
  • ReMaTec
  • Circular Economy

Former record-breaking sailor Ellen MacArthur has put reman on the radar of the world’s policy makers: Adam Hill asks her how she’s done it

Dame Ellen MacArthur* (‘Dame’ in the UK is the female equivalent of a knighthood) became the fastest solo sailor to circumnavigate the globe in 2005, making yachting history in the process. But her mission now is of another kind: to switch the world onto a sustainable way of doing things, rather than continuing with the linear ‘make, use, dispose’ model. In 2009 she launched the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which works towards getting everyone to embrace the circular economy – and she is therefore a big champion of reman. “Remanufacturing is always really important and there is no question that it will become more so,” she tells ReMaTecNews from her base on the Isle of Wight, off the south coast of England. “From our perspective, reman is at the core of the circular economy. The number one box to tick is reman, it sits right at the top. Understanding how reman works is important.” MacArthur has sat on the European Commission’s Resource Effciency Platform, and the Foundation has published three economic reports which were given plaudits at the high-powered World Economic Forum in Davos. MacArthur also regularly talks to European governments and institutions such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

On the agenda
Remanufacturing is on the political agenda like never before: and if you ask senior figures in reman who has done the most to put it onto the radar of the world’s politicians, one name comes up, again and again: hers. “When we first established our UK centre for Remanufacture and Reuse in 2005, every meeting with business began with ‘What is remanufacturing? Do you mean recycling?’” recalls David Fitzsimons, director of the European Remanufacturing Council (CER). “Even when meeting senior managers at businesses with their own remanufacturing operations, it was evident that the remanufacturing staff were rarely visible. All this has changed. The framework of the circular economy and its associated agenda for business model change and product/servic innovation means that remanufacturing is now almost always understood as the start of the conversation. Ellen MacArthur drew attention to those invisible engineers and academics and said: ‘This work is important for the future’. Many more OEMs want to be seen as promoting product remanufacturing and refurbishment and that will mean global-scale investments. Without Ellen MacArthur would we ever have broken out of commercial obscurity? I doubt it.” Fernand Weiland, founder of APRA Europe, has been part of global reman for years, and comments that the industry is “very grateful for the efforts the Foundation has made to promote and elevate the reputation of remanufacturing as a sustainable industry”.

Massive opportunity
MacArthur is too modest to ‘blow her own trumpet’, as the English say. Instead she points to a different reason for such growing interest in circular economy at the moment. “It is always about opportunity,” she says. “There is a massive economic opportunity to switch from linear models of production to circular ones.” This applies across the board, she believes, since even a productsuch as cotton can be remanufactured. “We are seeing more than ever changes in the way that we access products,” she says. “Suddenly we see not just a shift from manufacture to selling but a shift in the ownership model.” The realisation that many cars sit parked and unused for 90% of the time means that the shape of car ownership is changing: concepts such as car sharing, Car-as-a-Service (CaaS) and the rise of Uber bear this out. “There’s not a car manufacturer out there who isn’t thinking about this. You can sell a car, you can make a product – but it’s really not in your interest to build one that lasts for five years.” This is also where reman comes in, of course – even if it is diffiult to say how big a role reman plays at present in the circular economy as a whole. “It’s hard to put a number on it because nobody has the answer to that,” MacArthur says. “But don’t underplay reman. It is a significant part of the circular economy. When I talk about systemic change it is something I come back to.” She cites Caterpillar’s reman operation (see ‘Inside the Big Yellow Machine’, ReMaTecNews February/March) and has been impressed on a couple of visits to Renault’s facility outside Paris at which gearboxes, fuel pumps and engines are remanufactured. “The energy and material savings are over 80%,” she enthuses. She also points to aviation, automotive and medical as sectors which are really setting an example in implementing circular principles. In particular, MacArthur believes Philips Healthcare’s workremanufacturing scanners and related hospital equipment points the way for others to follow (see ‘Material recovery starts with design’, ReMaTecNews April/ May). In terms of the territories in which reman is happening, North America and Europe are well known but she suggests there is a lot on the go elsewhere. “The hotspots are where economies are emerging, so Brazil, China, India,” she suggests. Remanufacturers can access a lot of interesting data about these via the Foundation. MacArthur goes: “Remanufacturers should found our economic reports fascinating.” She also cites the CE100 network, which seeks to promote the circular economy (see ‘Q&A’, ReMaTecNews December 2016/January 2017), the Cities Programme and its New Plastics Economy report, in which she believes reman also has a role.

All or nothing
MacArthur took a significant step in starting up the Foundation – but surely there must be a shelf life to her involvement in an undertaking which is so consuming. Does she foresee a time when she might step away? “I’d love to think that might be the case,” she laughs. “I’ve always been an ‘all or nothing’ person: when you’re racing round the world, you give it your best shot.” But she knows that what she has taken on with the Foundation dwarfs this in some ways: shifting from a linear to a circular economy takes in every territory and every industry. “We launched in 2010 and have come a long way, but there is a long way to go to change the global economy,” MacArthur says. “The mindset of the people who work on this is that there is an opportunity to build a better system. I do sometimes stop and think ‘how did I go from sailing around the world to talking about global economics?’ It comes from suddenly seeing a system that was broken.” MacArthur saw that the issue was the use of resources and the finite availability of resources – but realised that simply using less is not the answer. “It came from looking around for the solution and realising there wasn’t one,” she recalls. So the system doesn’t work - what came next was the same sort of curiosity that had served her well while sailing: if that is the case then what would success look like? For example, to take a question she has already answered, if the goal is to break the solo transatlantic sailing record then how would you achieve that?

High stakes
All this begs the question, what does she find most scary now: being alone on a yacht in the South Atlantic - or speaking in front of the world’s leaders at Davos? “I can’t say it wasn’t hard sailing round the world because it was,” she says thoughtfully. “Your life is on the line most days: one slip and you’re over the side and you’re gone. And while you can’t control the weather you have an element of control over the world you’re living in. Also, if I fell off the boat it doesn’t really matter. It’s not a bad way to go, doing something that I’ve always wanted to do. But with the circular economy I just feel that the stakes are so much higher. It’s nothing to do with me. Sailing was selfish – my goal, my dream. But for the first time in my life, this is something that really matters and that puts a different element of pressure on what I’m doing. But it’s a great story to go out and tell and I  nd it hugely energising.” She pauses and says, almost apologetically: “That’s not a black and white answer to your question.” No, but it is a good answer.

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