Lessons from Ellen MacArthur and the Circular Economy on How Leaders can Build and Sustain Transformation?

By Peter Hopkinson and William S. Harvey

The growth of interest in the circular economy has been meteoric with new initiatives emerging weekly. A key figure in this movement has been Dame Ellen MacArthur, a renowned and iconic round the world yachtswoman. In this article, the authors explore how MacArthur and her foundation have created a framework for a new economy, leading to a major movement concerning global resource challenges and how the economy operates, and what business leaders can learn from her successes in building and sustaining transformation within the circular economy.  

 

In 2012 a report was launched at the World Economic Forum (WEF) demonstrating the economic and business case for a circular economy. Five years later, a report focussing on the application of the circular economy to address a New Plastics Economy was the highest downloaded report in the history of the WEF. In October of this year over 2,000 delegates gathered in Yokohama for the second World Circular Economy Forum. The European Union second circular economy package, impacting on industrial supply chains within and beyond the region is under consideration. (see Atasu et al., 2018 in HBR).1 Over 100 universities worldwide now feature the circular economy in one or more programmes and 17 academic journals have recently issued themed calls on the circular economy. 

By any measure, the growth of interest in the circular economy has been meteoric with new initiatives emerging weekly. Business leaders are starting to embrace the term and are moving beyond symbolic support statements to exploring how to implement the circular economy, as examples from Danone, Philips, Renault  (See exhibit below) and  Ricoh testify. This presents significant short-term challenges but also long-term opportunities and rewards. (see Tse et al. 20162 and Esposito et al., 20183 in HBR). 

A key figure in this movement has been Dame Ellen MacArthur, a renowned and iconic round the world yachtswoman, who at the age of 24 completed the Vendee Globe, the world’s toughest race. As the fastest person to circumnavigate the globe single-handedly, breaking the record in 2005 (age 28) her elite sporting status was assured. However, soon afterwards and finding herself in the Antarctic on a sabbatical after one especially gruelling race, she reflected on the abandoned industrial remnants of the whale oil industry.

“There were ships filling the harbours, some of which still line the shores today, and spare propellers and patterns for producing engine parts (…) This was a massive industry with thousands of tons of steelworks employing thousands of people and now it’s a dead, empty space.” This eventually led to her setting up the Ellen MacArthur Foundation with a mission to accelerate a transition to a circular economy. 

Why is this different from many other charismatic and high achieving leaders who have established charities, foundations and done good deeds as part of an epiphany or career change? What can business leaders learn from the successes of building and sustaining transformation within the circular economy? MacArthur and her foundation have transcended a single issue focus and created a framework for a new economy, leading to a major movement concerning global resource challenges and how the economy operates.

It is one thing to identify what needs to transform, but another thing to overcome resistance to inertia. In order to fulfil its potential, both purposeful and inspirational leadership is required across every facet of business and society to persuade everyone on this planet that everything that we extract, produce and consume cannot be disposed of over time (linear economy), but must reintegrate back into our system (circular economy). How can this seismic shift in thinking and behaviour be achieved? To answer this question, we need to look at what has been achieved and how, and whether the transition can indeed be accelerated and sustained.

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About the Authors

Peter Hopkinson is Director of the University Exeter Centre for Circular Economy that brings together academic researchers, business, policy makers and civic society to support the transition to a circular economy. He set up and ran the world’s first MBA in circular economy and a global on-line executive education programme for leading global businesses, innovation companies and educators. He is most concerned with developing the scientific evidence base for circular economy theory and practice at varying scales and within different industrial contexts.  

William S. Harvey is Professor of Management and Associate Dean of Research at the University of Exeter Business School. Will researches on reputation and leadership within organisations. His work has appeared in world leading journals such as Harvard Business Review, Journal of Management Studies and Human Relations.

References

1. https://hbr.org/2018/07/rethinking – sustainability – in – light – of – the – eus – new – circular – economy – policy

2. https://hbr.org/2016/02/how-businesses-can-support-a-circular-economy

3. https://hbr.org/product/introducing – a – circular – economy – new – thinking – with – new – managerial – and – policy – implications/CMR677 – PDF – ENG

4. http://www.oxfordhandbooks.com/view/10.1093/oxfordhb / 9780199596706 . 001 .0001 / oxfordhb-9780199596706-e-19

5. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/06/business/burberry-burning-unsold-stock.html

6. https://www.ft.com/content/360e2524-d71a-11e8-a854-33d6f82e62f8

7. https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/circular-economy/infographic

8. https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/publications/towards-the-circular-economy – vol – 1 – an – economic-and-business-rationale-for-an-accelerated-transition

9. http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_The_New_Plastics_Economy.pdf

10. https://www.theguardian.com/business/2016/jan/19/more – plastic – than – fish – in – the – sea – by – 2050 – warns – ellen – macarthur

11. https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org / our – work / activities / universities /network – universities

12. https://www.recirclerecycling.com/mellashaw/

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