Sustainability in practice #2: experimenting in ABN AMRO’s circular pavilion

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Circl is celebrating its third anniversary this month. To ABN AMRO, the circular pavilion is still the most tangible illustration of its sustainable banking strategy. By building it, and operating it as a business, we have proved that it is possible to change the system, and that circularity offers exciting opportunities. However, what makes it possible is working in close cooperation with our many partners. So what do Circl’s own specialists believe the impact has been over the past three years?

We joined Cartoni Design founder Marijn Muller (responsible for conserving Circl’s interior design), Marjan Oosting (Circl’s General Manager Restaurant & Bar) and Marjolein Goense (ABN AMRO’s Director of Procurement & Facility Management) for a look back on how Circl started, and to talk about a circular future. We asked for their candid opinions on three statements.

Statement #1: Circl’s start completely changed how I think about sustainability

Sustainability has not always been innovative, Marijn tells. “Five years ago, when I launched Cartoni Design, I wanted to prove that you can produce high-quality design from recycled materials. There weren’t many of us doing that at the time.” Marjan shares this view. “When I first started in Circl’s kitchen, circular cooking was still unexplored territory. Now, reducing food waste is an intrinsic part of my job. We use as little energy as possible in our cooking, and we recycle what we can. Every day, we want to serve meals that are not only delicious, but good for the planet too. Circl has definitely opened my eyes to the possibilities of sustainability.”

Circl has also given Marjolein a greater awareness of sustainability. She was already a conscientious consumer, and in her job she followed the principle of ‘reduce and refuse’: in other words, eliminate any materials and products that serve no real function. “I was never fully aware of all the various aspects of circularity, though – take Circl’s Mitsubishi lift, for example. For strategic reasons, it goes beyond the possibilities of simply saving energy and reducing waste. Instead of buying a lift from Mitsubishi, the customer pays for its use: a lift as a service, in other words. This example is a perfectly illustration of a whole new way of looking at business models.”

Marijn agrees with Marjolein and Marjan. “Circl has added scope and depth to my understanding of sustainability. Most importantly, I’ve learned not to focus too much on reusing materials, but to design products from recycled materials without compromising on quality.”

Statement #2: I see Circl as a living lab, where circular innovations are launched

“Definitely!” Marjolein agrees. “Circl has evolved into a place where circular initiatives are created, and where different parties can find each other. It makes me proud to see how many customers and external stakeholders become inspired here and share their ideas. Circl puts us in touch with sustainable entrepreneurs – to the huge benefit of our Greene accommodation concept for the branch offices, for example.”

“Circl is a living lab,” Marijn confirms. “The building is situated right at the heart of the most important financial centre in the Netherlands. ABN AMRO has proved that it’s possible to take a circular plan and turn it into a viable business model. Now Circl is a place for continual experimentation with sustainable solutions, such as a large-scale direct current installation and a high-quality designer floor made from waste wood. Things might not always go exactly as planned, but we always find a way. Take the carpets in the meeting rooms, for example. The plan was to use old ABN AMRO uniforms, but we discovered that the material wasn’t durable. So we used the old uniforms for plastering the platforms in the conference rooms.”

However, these lessons need to be shared before they can have a real impact, Marjan warns. “We take the bank’s people and our customers on a journey through the story of our circular restaurant, including the bumps in the road to sustainability. A few years ago this was an entirely new concept, but now, I’m very proud to say, Circl is a source of information and inspiration.”

Statement #3: I firmly believe that we can change the market by considering products in terms of more than their financial value

Marjan is quick to agree. “As long as we keep telling our customers and vendors about the circular concept. By understanding where products actually come from, and what we can do with our surpluses, we become more and more aware, and we’ll start to act accordingly. I love sharing this story with people and planting a seed that will change consumer behaviour.”

Marjolein believes that it is important not only to tell Circl’s story, but also to ask the right questions. “By consistently asking our vendors about their views on sustainability, we can decide who we should work with. This helps ABN AMRO to lead the way in terms of circular procurement. Asking about sustainability might add to the sense of urgency for transformation, but the bottom line is that the business model also has to work.”

“Of course,” puts in Marijn. “Money is one of the most important factors in people’s decisions. I see it all the time in my business. You have to use it to your advantage, and show people a different way of looking at the financial value. One of our tables, for example, we can dismantle after it’s been used to recycle the parts in our other furniture. That means that I can buy the materials back from the user. This way, people understand that a table that might seem expensive initially will still retain some of its value at the end of its life. This offers a new factor to consider when you buy a product.”

Changing how people see residual values also requires the organisation as a whole to change, Marjolein adds. “During the design phase, when we were building Circl, we were already considering how to make sure that the materials used would retain their value for as long as possible. But in our business processes we also take our impact into account as much as possible. We map out the entire supply chain, to help us make the right choices and improve our ambitions for circularity.” And we will definitely keep looking ahead: here’s to a circular future!


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