Hugely popular knowledge session on the circular economy

William McDonough

ABN AMRO recently managed to get William McDonough, a visionary in the area of sustainability, to speak at a recent Sustainable Banking knowledge session for staff. He gave the jam-packed room inspiring insights on the benefits of the circular economy. ‘Sustainable choices do not contradict financial arguments in any way whatsoever.’

The sustainable knowledge sessions that ABN AMRO regularly organises for employees, called 50 Shades of Green, always draw large crowds – but the circular economy session was exceptionally popular. The meeting was fully subscribed only sixty minutes after it was announced that William McDonough would be the guest speaker. An architect and author of the bestseller Cradle to Cradle, Mr McDonough was one of the first experts to embrace the circular economy. His vision is highly pertinent to the bank’s employees – a good reason to share the session also by broadcasting it via livestream. ABN AMRO sees the circular economy as a model for the future and is taking the lead in financing clients’ circular projects.

A different perspective

The circular economy is an economic system in which products and services are exchanged between customers and suppliers in a closed-loop commodity cycle. ‘To participate, you need to take a different perspective,’ Mr McDonough explained at the session. The architect says sustainable initiatives too often focus on ‘eradicating evil’ rather than on ‘promoting good’. Take environmental targets, for example: ‘We want to reduce carbon emissions, but that’s like hailing a taxi and saying “Don’t take me to the airport”.’ The circular economy begins with design. ‘That means using sustainable, reusable materials and thinking about recycling in the future when you start production.’

Fully committed

This event was the fourth in a series of knowledge sessions on human rights, social entrepreneurship and sustainable investment. Mr McDonough’s vision links up with that of the bank, stressed Daphne de Kluis, CEO of Commercial Banking, during the session. ‘The circular economy requires a different way of thinking and producing. Our clients realise they need to change the way they see the value that a company creates. That is by no means solely economic value. Today’s consumers are making different choices, and our clients’ new business models require different kinds of financing models. We are fully committed to this change.’

For birds and bucks

Mr McDonough sees an array of possibilities for the bank. ‘The number of circular initiatives is growing rapidly; after all, it’s a financially attractive option. You’re bankers – do the maths. Sustainable choices do not contradict financial arguments in any way,’ says Mr McDonough. He convinced the American car company Ford Motors to build a green roof when it renovated a large assembly hall. The roof purifies rainwater, is a breeding ground for birds, and provides insulation for the factory. All materials used are recyclable and the life span is longer than that of an ordinary roof. ‘Ford did it to help the birds and to generate savings of more than a million dollars.’

Guts

How can we make the world a better place? Mr McDonough says this is the $64,000 question that ABN AMRO employees need to ask themselves. ‘Ask your clients, too.’ He knows that takes guts. ‘Twenty-five years ago, when I proposed renting out washing machines instead of selling them, people said I was a nut and a communist. Now it’s done all the time.’ Circular initiatives are sustainable and financially attractive, Mr McDonough emphasises, but more than anything, they’re inspiring. ‘How cool is it to tell your kids that you’re financing buildings made of materials that will be reused for generations to come?’