Q&A with Andrew Morlet, CEO of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation is perhaps the most well-known organization dedicated to advocating for the adoption of a circular economy at the global scale. Launched in 2010 by Dame Ellen MacArthur, the Foundation works across industry and government, as well as with universities like Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), to find pathways for shifting today’s linear economic model to a circular one.

The nonprofit describes a circular economy as one that is “designed to eliminate waste and pollution, circulate products and materials (at their highest value), and regenerate nature.” In a linear economy, resources are extracted from the Earth to make products that are then used and disposed of in a landfill or incinerated. While some materials we use today are recycled, such recovery is limited by the fact that most products are not designed to be brought back into the economy.

The Foundation’s mission is to accelerate the transition from a linear (take, make, waste) economy to a circular (eliminate, circulate, regenerate) economy.

To catalyze the transition to a circular economy, the Foundation leads evidence-based research that explores opportunities for addressing challenges like climate change and biodiversity loss through circularity. It has published an extensive library of educational resources, policy analysis reports, technical materials, case studies, and more to foster better understanding of the circular economy and the opportunities it offers.

One of the organization’s endeavors has been Circulytics, a free measurement tool that companies can use to measure their circular economy performance and inform strategic decision-making to help companies achieve their economic and environmental goals. Over 1,250 businesses have signed up to complete a Circulytics assessment, according to the Foundation.

To learn more about the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and its work, we spoke with Andrew Morlet, who has served as CEO since 2014. Prior, Morlet was the global managing director for information and technology strategy at Accenture and a partner with McKinsey & Company, where he worked with leading international companies across multiple sectors to develop corporate and business strategies. He worked in the nonprofit sector as a clinical epidemiology and healthcare research scientist before entering consulting.

Q: How close are we to a real, working circular economy? 

A: When we established the Foundation in 2010, if you did a Google search for the term “circular economy,” you would have found a few hundred references. In 2017, you would have found about 9 million. One year later, it was about 52 million. In 2020, it was more than 120 million.

So the idea of a circular economy has seen a tremendous pick up, which is great. But I think many people don't yet appreciate the full possibilities of the circular economy and the way it can actually have an impact on many of the great societal challenges that we have.  

Q: What does a circular economy look like from a manufacturing perspective? What needs to happen? 

A: It’s the design. It’s the business models. It’s the material usage. It’s ways in which the sector can collaborate across value chains, across supply chains, with other industries to help develop the idea of circular economy and to collaborate within the boundaries of competition law to enable new markets to emerge that benefit everybody.

“It’s the design. It’s the business models. It’s the material usage.”

If you think of manufacturing, or if you think of consumer goods, or plastics packaging or fashion, the design of these products tends to be around functional, technical, and cost considerations mainly for the end-use period and the sale of products. But I think the opportunity is to help designers and engineers understand how products fit within broader systems, how they can be designed for remanufacturing, how they can be designed for repair, and for longevity, and for upgrading, and, for example, ultimately for recycling back into material streams. That’s a tremendous opportunity and we’re seeing a huge growth in that as well.

Q: How is the Foundation helping companies make this shift?  

A: One way we are trying to support this growth is by facilitating the exchange of leading practices across companies. We look to create collaboration initiatives between companies in the same sector and across sectors. And the level of interest we’ve seen from companies on this topic has been really quite astounding.

At the Foundation, we think education is a key part of the transition. We’ve put a lot of effort into this space and we work with around 55 universities globally.

It’s a tremendous opportunity and we’re looking to provide assets and tools for people to understand the basics of a circular economy and be able to apply it in their companies. So this might be design guides, material guides, business-case modeling guides, etc. The universities that we work with, like RIT for example, play a really important role in the formal settings but also for online learning and I think there’s a tremendous interest, a tremendous pool for more learning and education assets, and it’s a real opportunity for universities to step into this space.

Something that gives us confidence or that makes us feel that this change is possible is the network we’ve assembled. And we’ve done this with purpose and intent. Our network includes a really vast variety of organizations from across many industries, across governments and cities, with schools and colleges, organizations like the World Economic Forum and the United Nations International Resource Panel, with whom we created the Global Commitment for Plastics. This network represents a collective reach that is really quite astounding. Today our network is nearly 4,000 organizations strong, representing $2.2 trillion in annual revenue, 38 million employees, and value chains that span the entire globe.  

Q: How can a circular economy help mitigate climate change, if at all? 

A: If you think of climate change as one dimension, what we've done through our research is try to connect the topic of climate change and the circular economy by looking at the materiality of plastics, fashion, and food, for example, and the climate impact this has. If you look at the 1.5-degrees-Celsius goal [set through the Paris Agreement] and the budget set to meet that, plastics will consume 15 percent of that budget by 2050. If you look at fashion, it will consume 27 percent of that, and if you look at food, it will consume a whopping 66 percent of that. That's nearly 100 percent of the climate budget gone by 2050 on the current trend.

So the magnitude of the change that is needed is extensive.

“It's not just about the transition to renewable energy, that's about 55 percent of the story.”

It's not just about the transition to renewable energy, that's about 55 percent of the story. The other 45 percent of the story is about the transformation of the production and consumption systems; it’s actually the space of the circular economy.

Q: Plastics is a major focus of your organization’s work. Why? 

A: Plastics is an important topic and very challenging to address. We work extensively in this space to demonstrate how the application of circular economy principles and a systems change approach can drive transformation at scale.

For example, over the past few years, real progress has been made. With over 500 signatories of the Global Commitment and 26 countries participating in our plastic pacts, we have mobilized and are on track to eliminate 9 million tons of new virgin plastics from the market by 2025. This is a lot—if we piled this into the Wembley Stadium, it would fill it a hundred times.

But clearly much much more needs to be done.  

Over recent years, we’ve extensively promoted elimination, upstream innovation, and reuse.

And more recently we’ve been focused on flexible packaging, such as crisp packets, pouches, and sachets, which are hugely problematic and highly polluting. Much more so than rigid plastics, things like plastic bottles. Every year, tens of trillions of individual pieces of flexible packaging are placed on the market. Much of this is in developing markets, which have no waste infrastructure to collect it.

And this type of packaging is the fastest growing fraction [of all packaging]; it’s currently growing at 5 percent per year, which means it’s set to double in the next fifteen years, which is astounding. Much can and needs to be done by the companies and brands who are placing these on the market. But it is absolutely clear that no single company can solve this issue alone.

“It is absolutely clear that no single company can solve this issue alone.”

We remain very focused on plastics and are pushing for the establishment of a legally binding global treaty to end plastic pollution, the text of which should be adopted by 2024. Together with the World Wildlife Fund, we’ve launched the Business Coalition to bring the voice of the private sector to the discussions. One-hundred and seventy-five countries voted to open international negotiations, and the second round will happen in Paris in May. To be very clear, this is a crucial moment in time, and humanity’s very best shot at having a meaningful impact on this catastrophic problem.  

Q: You opened the Foundation’s annual Summit in 2022 with a session titled “Shifting mindsets - a regenerative future.” What is regenerative design and how does it fit into the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s mission? 

A: We want to explore the world of designing an economy so that it actively contributes to nature and regenerates it rather than destroying it. We’re not going to dwell on the scale of the problem or the urgency. What we are going to focus on is solutions. Innovation that can scale. We want to showcase leaders and innovators who are mobilizing action.

During my talk, I asked the audience a question: “What have you done today that has had a regenerative impact on nature?” The answer for me most days is absolutely nothing. It’s a hard thing to do. And, for most people and businesses, the answer is typically nothing.

But today we have an opportunity to change that. It’s just not part of business values and cultures and the way we think; it’s not in our mindset. And this is the opportunity: Everyone can change their mind and reorient to a different direction.

The opportunity is to design nature-positive outcomes into the economy, so the regeneration of nature becomes an outcome of economic activity. Regenerating nature is one of the core principles of a circular economy.

In our first report in 2012, we included a butterfly graphic that showed two material cycles: one biological and the other technical.  

Butterfly diagram depicting renewable and finite material flows in the circular economy (Ellen MacArthur Foundation)

Butterfly diagram depicting renewable and finite material flows in the circular economy (Ellen MacArthur Foundation)

“The principles of circular economy are circulate, eliminate, and regenerate—all by design.”

For technical materials, which are mostly finite, we need to think about stocks and flows. In simple terms, we need to design products and systems that eliminate waste and pollution and keep materials in the economy for longer. Doing this maximizes the return on invested energy that has gone into making them and reduces the demand for virgin materials—it makes space for nature.

At the same time, it creates new forms of economic value from the materials and products that would otherwise be underutilized and wasted.

For biological materials, the things that grow and decompose and grow again, we need to think in terms of regeneration. We need to rethink biological feedstocks and how they are grown and farmed so that, by design, the economic activity inherently promotes biodiversity and regeneration of soil and nature. Much can be achieved through better farming and land practices but we also need to radically rethink and increase the demand for more biodiverse and regeneratively grown produce by redesigning food, by redesigning fashion, and by redesigning other products that use biological materials.

Regenerative circular design for buildings and infrastructure can also have a huge impact.

Regenerating by design is exciting because it has multiple positive impacts on carbon sequestration, on biodiversity, on water, and on the health and wellness of our communities. And because it can be scaled globally and it can happen really quickly.

So, again, the principles of circular economy are circulate, eliminate, and regenerate—all by design.


Circular Economy Sustainability Insights


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About the authors

Senior Writer and Content Strategist

Golisano Institute for Sustainability 
Rochester Institute of Technology 

Golisano Institute for Sustainability (GIS) is a global leader in sustainability education and research. Drawing upon the skills of more than 100 full-time engineers, technicians, research faculty, and sponsored students, it operates six dynamic research centers and over 84,000 square feet of industrial infrastructure for sustainability modeling, testing, and prototyping. Graduate-level degree programs are also offered that convey the institute's knowledge to the next generation of industry professionals.

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