The Ellen MacArthur Foundation Answers: Can a Circular Economy Save the Planet?

Emma Chow of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation proves that profitability does not have to come at the expense of the environment.

Emma Chow
Kate Morsink

Business as usual today cannot be our end goal. The circular economy framework is a tool that businesses can use to design holistic solutions that enable them to achieve long term success and resilience.

– Emma Chow, Ellen MacArthur Foundation

For the first time in over a decade, economic growth has stopped around the world (1). As we recede into the confines of our built environment, in response, nature thrives and recalibrates (2). We are seeing waters run clear and air pollution decreasing due to the halt in activity from Venice to Shanghai (3). This unusual time provides a unique opportunity to challenge the conventional norm that environmental health and economic growth cannot go hand in hand (4). 

According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, there is a way to achieve environmental and economic goals at the same time. And despite the economic upheaval that we are experiencing, there is no better time than now to reflect on how we can collaboratively adopt a new perspective that harmonizes economic imperatives with vital environmental change (5). Many people do not realize that by adopting the circular economy framework, organizations can achieve growth and profitability in both the short and long term while meeting the sustainable development goals and creating a sustainable economy (6). According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation we could save “700 million dollars annually in the consumer goods industry, 550 billion dollars in healthcare, due to changes in the food sector, and reduce 48% of carbon dioxide emissions by 2030” by using this framework.” (7)

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation is a global charity that works to support businesses and organizations in their transition toward a circular economy. In ten years, they have cemented themselves as leaders of the circular economy framework and have worked with diverse partners and stakeholders from Google to the United Nations Environment Program to accelerate the transition to a circular economy.

We had the pleasure of sitting down with Emma Chow, the Food Initiative Lead from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, to learn the practices that businesses can take to incorporate this framework. 

If businesses are going to thrive long term, what they do today really counts. Working within the confines of business as usual [is] not going to get us to this ultimate positive vision and goal.

– Emma Chow

Chow predicts that the businesses that will succeed in the long run are ones that “think about future scenarios and redesign their operations, product lines and offerings to benefit that future system”. What is this optimal future system? According to Chow, this must be a regenerative system, meaning that it does not cause harm to the environment, but rather safeguards it for future generations. This is possible through the circular economy framework.

The Circular Economy

Circular Economy Infographic, Ellen MacArthur Foundation

The circular economy is a way of thinking. Businesses can utilize this thinking to design holistic solutions that enable them to achieve long term success and resilience.

The circular economy consists of three principles (7):

1. Designing out Pollution and Waste

Waste…we have come to accept it as being an inevitable part of life. However, waste can be avoided through smart design. If we shift our mindset to looking at waste as a design flaw instead of an inevitable output, we can drastically reduce the amount of waste produced (8).

2. Keeping Materials in Use

We do not live in a world with infinite resources. Products do not need to be designed for one time use but, if designed right, can be reused, repaired and remanufactured (8).

3. Regenerating Natural Systems

Nature is the perfect example of a circular system that has perfected itself over millions of years. In nature there is no waste; everything discarded by one entity provides a benefit to another. We should begin to follow that principle, and design not only to maintain but also to benefit and regenerate systems (8).

According to Chow, these principles need to be applied in the context of individual companies in a way that allows organizations to meet their existing commitments, have a positive impact on profitability, and to thrive long term. In order to achieve this, there needs to be a total shift in the mindset within the entire organization.

Commitments are needed and they’re great, but we need to make sure that commitments at the highest level translate that all the way down to the operational levels. This takes new ways of working, to enable that mindset shift across all of the thousands of people. We all need to come to the table under a common vision.

– Emma Chow

The Foundation brings their global partners together to develop “scalable circular business initiatives and to address challenges to implementing them”. Their Circular Economy 100 Network intends to bring corporations, innovators, governments, and cities together in order to “build circular capacity, address common barriers to progress, understand the necessary enabling conditions and pilot circular practices.” (9)

If we’re going to see core business changing and not just CSR and sustainability departments, then we need to have a clear business case. And that’s what the circular economy can bring.

– Emma Chow

To learn more about the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, please visit their website.

Emma Chow spoke with us as part of our upcoming project on the future of Taste. To learn more about our food future, read here.


Works Cited

  1. Jaaskelainen, Liisa. “Topic: COVID-19: Impact on the Global Economy.”, 24 Mar. 2020,
  2. Wray, Meaghan. “Coronavirus Lockdown Eases Pollution, Venice Canal Runs Clear.” Global News, Global News, 17 Mar. 2020,
  3.  “Airborne Nitrogen Dioxide Plummets Over China.” NASA, NASA,
  4. Demaria, Federico. “Why Economic Growth Is Not Compatible with Environmental Sustainability.” The Ecologist, 27 Feb. 2018,
  5. Gardiner, Beth. “Coronavirus Holds Key Lessons on How to Fight Climate Change.” Yale E360, 23 Mar. 2020,
  6.  “Mapping the Benefits of a Circular Economy.” McKinsey & Company, June 2017,
  7. “What Is the Circular Economy?” Ellen MacArthur Foundation,
  8.  “What Is the Circular Economy?” Ellen MacArthur Foundation,
  9. Circular Economy 100: CE100.” Ellen MacArthur Foundation,