Ellen Macarthur Foundation


Schools of Thought and Innovation

Regenerative Design.
In the 1970s, an American professor named John T. Lyle launched a challenge for graduate students. Lyle asked students to forge ideas for a society in which ‘daily activities were based on the value of living within the limits of available renewable resources without environmental degradation,’ according to a California research centre that is now named after Lyle.1 The term regenerative design came to be associated with this idea—that all systems, from agriculture onwards, could be orchestrated in a regenerative manner
(in other words, that processes themselves renew or regenerate the sources of energy and materials that they consume).

Performance Economy.
Walter Stahel, architect and industrial analyst, sketched in his 1976 research report to the European Commission The Potential for Substituting Manpower for Energy, co-authored with Genevieve Reday, the vision of an economy in loops (or circular economy) and its impact on job creation, economic competitiveness, resource savings, and waste prevention.2 3 Stahel’s Product-Life Institute, considered one of the first pragmatic and credible sustainability think tanks, pursues four main goals: product-life extension, long-life goods, reconditioning activities, and waste prevention. It also insists on the importance of selling services rather than products, an idea referred to as the ‘functional service economy’, now more widely subsumed into the notion of ‘performance economy’. Stahel argues that the circular economy should be considered a framework, and its supporters see it as a coherent model that forms a valuable part of a response to the end of the era of low cost oil and materials.

Cradle to Cradle.
German chemist and visionary Michael Braungart went on to develop, together with American architect Bill McDonough, the Cradle to CradleTM concept and certification process. This design philosophy considers all material involved in industrial and commercial processes to be nutrients, of which there are two main categories: technical and biological. The Cradle to Cradle framework focuses on design for effectiveness in terms of products with positive impact, which fundamentally differentiates it from the traditional design focus on reducing negative impacts.

Cradle to Cradle design perceives the safe and productive processes of nature’s ‘biological metabolism’ as a model for developing a ‘technical metabolism’ flow of industrial materials. The model puts a particular emphasis on precisely defining the molecular composition of materials—‘knowing what you have, which is the basis of every quality-based materials recycling system’. In some cases, notably for technological products that are subject to frequent upgrades, durability is not the optimum strategy—in that instance, it is preferable to design the products in a way that makes their disassembly and the recovery of their components easy, either to upgrade some elements or to use individual parts for the next generation. It is thus important to be able to, for various families of products, define the use period, as it influences their conception: will the object remain in use for ten years or more (washing machine) or rather two (mobile phone)? Product components can be designed for continuous recovery and reutilisation as biological and technical nutrients within these metabolisms. The Cradle to Cradle framework addresses not only materials but also energy and water inputs and builds on three key principles: ‘Waste equals food’—‘Use current solar income’—‘Celebrate diversity’.

Industrial Ecology.
Industrial ecology is the study of material and energy flows through industrial systems. Its international society is headed by Professor Roland Clift at the Centre for Environmental Strategy at the University of Surrey. Focusing on connections between operators within the ‘industrial ecosystem’, this approach aims at creating closed-loop processes in which waste serves as an input, thus eliminating the notion of an undesirable by-product. Industrial ecology adopts a systemic point of view, designing production processes in accordance with local ecological constraints whilst looking at their global impact from the outset, and attempting to shape them so they perform as close to living systems as possible. This framework is sometimes referred to as the ‘science of sustainability’, given its interdisciplinary nature, and its principles can also be applied in the services sector. With an emphasis on natural capital restoration, industrial ecology also focuses on social wellbeing.

Janine Benyus, author of Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, defines her approach as ‘a new discipline that studies nature’s best ideas and then imitates these designs and processes to solve human problems’. Studying a leaf to invent a better solar cell is an example. She thinks of it as ‘innovation inspired by nature’.4 Biomimicry relies on three key principles:

  • Nature as model: Study nature’s models and emulate these forms, processes, systems, and strategies to solve human problems.
  • Nature as measure: Use an ecological standard to judge the sustainability of our innovations.
  • Nature as mentor: View and value nature not based on what we can extract from the natural world, but what we can learn from it.


1 “History of the Lyle Center”, Lyle Center for Regenerative Studies, Cal Poly Pomona (http://www.csupomona.edu/~crs/history.html)

2 The report was published in 1982 as
the book Jobs for Tomorrow: The Potential for Substituting Manpower for Energy

3 www.performance-economy.org

4 http://www.biomimicryinstitute.org/about-us/what-is- biomimicry.html

Lead image by flickr user aoyan


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