Ellen MacArthur Foundation boss: Natural Restoration 'hardest' part of circular economy shift

EXCLUSIVE: Against a backdrop of wildfires and growing climate activism, the chief executive of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation has called on businesses to develop holistic action plans to combat the complex challenge of restoring natural systems.

Morlet has led the Foundation's work for more than eight years, giving him a birds-eye view of the circular economy conversation 

Morlet has led the Foundation's work for more than eight years, giving him a birds-eye view of the circular economy conversation 

Since its inception, the Foundation has served to promote three circular economy principles: designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use and regenerating natural systems.

Its work to help businesses, governments and NGOs transform these principles from visions to practical actions with impactful results is world-renowned; you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone in the environmental movement who has not heard of the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, Make Fashion Circular or the Circular Economy 100 (CE100).

Despite this, The Foundation’s chief executive Andrew Morlet believes that the process of translating the circular economy from vision to business reality is in its “very early days”.

Speaking exclusively to edie, Morlet said: “There are a small number of companies that are purpose-built for the circular economy and, therefore, performing well across all three principles.

“For most of the others – particularly the big incumbents – the circular economy is a small part of business today.”

Morlet attributes the slow pace of progress to a multitude of factors, including a lack of policy supports which would make the business case for a circular economy stronger than for incumbent linear (“take, make, dispose”) models, and difficulties measuring “circularity” – which seems far more qualitative than things like emissions or waste.

To address the latter of these challenges, the Foundation has developed Circulytics - a digital tool which enables businesses of all sizes and sectors to measure their contribution to the circular economy and identify ways in which to close the loop further.

The tool was made open-source on Tuesday (14 January) and assesses data across 18 metrics which cover not only a business’s current material inputs and outputs, but how future-ready it is for circularity, across factors such as strategy, people and skills and infrastructure and investment.

Morlet said that the tool took more than a year to develop, in a process assisted by trials at more than 30 businesses, including the likes of Unilever, Ikea’s Ingka Group and DS Smith.

Beyond waste  

At the Circulytics launch event, representatives from some of the businesses which partook in the trials – namely, Enel, CHEP and DS Smith - were asked to detail how the tool had changed their approach to circular economy issues.

All three said that it had helped to not only pinpoint “hotspots” for improvement but to broaden considerations to encompass strategy, with Enel’s head of circular economy and environmental strategy Luca Meini claiming it had highlighted the fact that “the circular economy is along the whole chain, not solely about waste”.

Similarly, DS Smith Packaging’s chief executive Stefano Rossi said the tool had “improved the quality of the conversation”, helping sustainability teams to engage management with the need for systems-scale preparation for a circular future.

This feedback will have been welcomed by Morlet, who told edie that, while the Foundation’s business partners have made “big efforts” to design out waste (largely through efficiencies and material substitutions) and are scaling “a lot of innovations” to keep materials in use (such as rental, refill and repair models), less investment has been made on its final circular economy principle – regenerating natural systems.

Morlet acknowledged that large swathes of the public want businesses to move further and faster on the first two principles – particularly in regards to plastics – but maintained that investment in these areas has “been heavy” and that more rapid progress is, therefore, likely to be seen through to 2025.

On the final principle, however, Morlet believes investment at scale began more recently. Indeed, 2019 saw the conversation around what scientists are describing as the Earth’s sixth mass extinction boom, with events such as wildfires in Amazonia and Australia; the publication of the IPCC’s landmark report on land use; and demonstrations around the ‘climate and ecological emergencies’ spurring progress.

Morlet noted that in the short-term, business efforts to address the issue has broadly taken the form of one-off charity donations or pilot projects that are limited in either time or scope. However, he is optimistic that more holistic action is on the near horizon.  

“The piece on regenerating natural systems is the hardest of the three,” he said.

“But I think the events of the last year have really raised the sense of urgency. I sense that there is a lot of willingness to do more, faster.

“We’re hoping that [the World Economic Forum in Davos] next week will involve as many policymakers and CEOs standing up as possible and raising those ambition levels further.”

Systems approach

Beginning on 21 January, the Forum will take place hot on the heels of the UN’s draft agreement on nature. The landmark plan has been dubbed a ‘Paris Agreement for ecosystems’ and sets a 2030 deadline for adverting a mass extinction.  

For Morlet, the plan is the latest addition to “ever-building” calls for a systems-scale approach to environmental issues by governments and businesses alike: “I think there is now a broader appreciation of the role of business in driving solutions for global challenges. The challenge of global governance and government regulatory changes that dictate the pace at which global action moves is recognised. Large multinationals, and business in general, have a crucial role to play here. The time is coming.”

Last year, the circular economy was the key talking point in Davos. But conversations largely centred around design and lifecycle extension aspects. The stage is, therefore, in Morlet’s opinion, open for discussions, commitments and actions which encompass the entire system – including the crucial nature piece.

“The systems narrative is becoming more popular and more prevalent; people are talking about the need for collaboration and systems change,” he concluded.

“The one-offs and the end-of-pipe solutions and the waste agenda are important but ultimately won’t deliver the magnitude of change that’s needed. We have to go upstream and we have to collaborate." 

Sarah George



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