Rieta Aliredjo is Founder and Chair of the Stars Are Circular Foundation, a Dutch foundation born with the mission to empower kids to be circular stars. She believes that to accelerate the transition to the circular economy and create real momentum, involving children is key.
Hi Rieta, great to have you here for a conversation. Let me start from the pre-foundation, before the Stars are Circular Foundation became reality. How did we get here?
I’ve worked as a management consultant and project manager in both the private and the public sector and more recently on a freelance basis. In doing so I missed the purpose and the personal satisfaction. My wish was to become a social entrepreneur, not even necessarily knowing what that meant, but I wanted to direct my energy towards a new economy and turn ideas that I had into reality. I started with “Warenhuisje” (“Little warehouse”), a marketplace for kids. The idea is a peer-to-peer kids’ marketplace where kids would trade used stuff with each other. It is not so much a seller-driven market where money is involved from the start, but an interactive marketplace where kids actually have to engage with each other, both online as well as offline.
Trying to set that up, the first thing I did was talk to parents and people in the education sector about it, and they all confirmed my intuition and reinforced my belief in the need to pursue this project. This was in mid 2016, and at that time I started hearing about the circular economy, a concept that instantly resonated with me. It fit the idea of Warenhuisje well, especially when I read documentation that said that the re-use economy is the way into the circular economy. Everybody has stuff, especially in our affluent societies, and the interesting thing with kids is that they can’t actually help the fact that they leave lots of stuff behind. They develop so quickly, both physically and mentally, and therefore all the stuff they have is kind of short-lived. Without any bad intention, this creates a waste stream, or at least a stream of stuff that is not used anymore. I felt this was a relevant and important market niche from that perspective, but also from the educational perspective. To tell kids about and involve them with the circular economy.
Because of this educational perspective, a frequent point made during my conversations was to start working together with schools. This led to the idea of having a project week at schools, called “7 Days Circular” (7 dagen Circulair in Dutch). At the end of 2016, I got a small grant from NMU, which I used to make a prototype for Warenhuisje and for the first pilot of “7 Days Circular” in Utrecht. They were both a success and got the ball rolling. It became apparent that there was a gap in the market, not a lot of people were working with primary schools or targeting kids. But the logic was all there, especially in relation to the ambition of The Netherlands to be fully circular in 2050. Why are we not targeting kids? As a society we tend to procrastinate, and they are actually the future adults that will have to do it. I feel there is a big case to involve kids in the transition to the circular economy.
Because I follow a stakeholder approach the next idea emerged. I was so inspired by the circular entrepreneurs I involved in the 7DaysCircular programme as guest lecturers, that I wanted to celebrate their existence and support their efforts with Hashtag Circular. These social entrepreneurs are not just rolemodels for kids but for all of us. Supporting them is also key to the transition. Together we can make social businesess viable. At a certain point, it felt natural to have a foundation as an umbrella across all these initiatives. An organisation that would be able to develop into a professional partner for bigger corporates and institutions. So, what started as a project, become a vision and mission much bigger than me. Luckily along the way I found contributors that help build and fulfill this big ambition.
I am intrigued by the idea of Warenhuisje. Sometimes in lay discussions you hear people expressing a negative attitude towards the market, while your approach is clearly different. You are saying: let’s make kids active actors in exchange markets from a young age. What do you think kids can learn from trading with each other so early on?
The first learning that I would want kids to experience is that something that you don’t use anymore can make someone else happy. You are prolonging the life of a product, you are giving value to it again, instead of having it lying around in your closet and collecting dust. This clearly relates to the idea of re-using as a first step towards all the different strategies that you can apply in a circular economy. I think it is really powerful, because kids can start right away: get your unused stuff at home and come to one of our off-line trading fairs, or you can learn how to trade with each other online as well.
The second learning, which I guess is a bit tougher, is to have kids realize that if they want something, they can first look for second-hand options. We need to move away from this whole obsession in society with having something that has not been used before. If you are introduced early on to the concept that you can actually gain full benefits from a product not being new, it’s easier to make that a habit when you grow up. That’s one of the main strategies we have in a circular economy, to reduce the use of virgin materials and be at ease with the concept of materials being reused, products being refurbished and being used by someone else again. We have to teach kids this is a normal thing. With clothing for instance, if they are not used to it yet, they tend to be grossed out by it! But why should you wearing your clothes several times be any different than if another person wore it before? If it is bought from someone else, once washed, it’s clean too. To make this small concept more normal is a powerful way to help kids bring this into adulthood. The things they learn early on, especially if they learn them in a funny and engaging way—which is also something that we try to do—will remain with them forever.
And thirdly, we are currently in the process of organizing a trading fair, a very local and small-scale learning journey where we teach kids more than just trading, but also that you can refurbish, repair, upcycle, recycle. Moving forward with Warenhuisje I hope we will be able to build in more of these circular economy principles and strategies into the online experience as well.
I am a very big fan of the concept of “learning by doing”. You can see things, you can hear things, but that’s only secondary knowledge. Learning by doing is something present in all our projects.
Might you tell us a bit more about the activities and goals of the Stars are Circular Foundation?
Our mission is Empowering kids to be circular stars. The Stars Are Circular Foundation provides kids with the information and tools needed to develop into conscious, innovative and collaborative participants in a circular economy through the enhancement of social, creative and entrepreneurial skills. Our vision is a world in which the circular economy is a reality and people can live in prosperity, within cohesive local communities and without harming the planet. Any project that fits that vision and mission fits with the foundation.
We want to walk the talk and take on an entrepreneurial approach. For the biggest part our funding is project based: we want to deliver value adding activities to our stakeholders that serve a clear purpose at the same time. Everybody feels education and mindset are key succes factors in the transition to a circular economy. For most stakeholders it’s a point of interest, but not a part of the core business. We want to occupy that space and be of service to all these stakeholders. Connecting them and developing win-win activities to move forward together on this front.
Together with Warenhuisje, 7 Days Circular, and Hashtag Circular our current portfolio of projects also includes Circular Council, a platform where enthusiastic parents can join and get involved and Circular Stars, which I would love to become a kids-for-kids media platform, where kids just write their blogs or post their own drawings and pictures. We could also have an editorial team of kids that curates the content. That would be the showcase of these kids growing up into conscious consumers. So, there is already a portfolio of many ideas, our agenda is full. Now we are also starting to get other people that have initiatives on board. Whoever has a project that fits our mission and vision, can become part of the foundation’s family and we can grow our team.
Why is it important that kids understand the principles of the circular economy from a young age to make this socio-economic transition happen?
The first one is a kind of mathematical reason. If you look at the Dutch ambition to be fully circular in 2050, or if you look at the Sustainable Development Goals that are even more ambitious in 2030. Look at the timeline. We are in 2018 now, we target kids 12-13 years old, in 2050 they will be around 45 years old. They are already consumers now so it helps to make them conscious now because they can have impact immediately. Warenhuisje’s taglines are To exchange to make change happen and To work for a brighter now. But these kids will grow on to many other stages full of lifestyle decisions. They finish their education, become young professionals, some will be decision-making professionals, they will be parents themselves. And when are you the biggest consumer? Probably around that age too. This, as I said, is a kind of mathematical reasoning. If that is our deadline, these are the people that we need to engage. You can’t just engage the adults of today. Most will end up just greenwashing or putting any real action off. Change is not easy when you have a lifestyle that is hard to say goodbye to. In The Netherlands on average we need around 3,5 Earths to maintain this lifestyle, this obviously is not sustainable. I believe the kids of today are the people that can truly have a big impact and positive contribution to our environmental targets, because they will hopefully operate from a ‘new normal’. The other reason is more direct. Kids are influential in the family dynamics. With their preferences and choices they also influence their parents and their immediate circle around them in the present.
Finally we can also make a broader kind of reasoning. When it comes to the circular economy and sustainability, and you hear that businesses, institutions and government need to work together, where are the regular folks? That’s why there’s talk about the so called eco-elite, having discussions within their respective bubbles. It’s not on the streets. If you go out on the street now and ask people what the circular economy is, probably 9 out of 10 will say that they’ve never heard of it. We are working with schools, not only from an educational perspective, but also because schools are community hubs, especially in the Netherlands, they are a big equalizer. Every kid has the oppportunity to go to school. Schools is where the community comes together, kids come together, parents are involved, there is a lot happening around them. I think it is a positive trend that schools themselves start to think about their sustainability agenda and how to make their school greener, and that will have a big impact in the neighbourhood too. We can involve parents so that what they do with their kids makes them more aware citizens and active citizens. Sustainability has been around for a century in terms of thinking and it never gained momentum. If we want this not to be a hype, but rather the new normal, we have to start early telling kids about circularity and about the economy. I believe kids are born with this innate drive to do good, to create and to participate, which then gets knocked down once we grow up. They are a very receptive demography.
You mentioned the role of schools as an equalizer in society. However, the neighbourhood in which you are is likely to affect the quality of your school and, in turn, become a determinant of social inequality reproduction. In this respect, is the Foundation paying attention to reaching schools that are in disadvantaged neighbourhoods, not only the middle-upper class neighbourhoods?
Yes, absolutely. We have different funding models. There are schools that have funds and are able to pay us for the cost of the project, and there are schools that won’t be able to do it. That’s why I feel it’s important to set up a foundation, because we can get funds from big companies and institutions supporting us, and have funds available to focus on the schools that cannot pay themselves. If we get donations, the priority is to use this budget for schools that cannot afford it. We want to do more of this, it is something that is in our DNA. Myself I am not from a rich background, I was not born here but I had many opportunities here, so it’s a way of giving something back.
Let’s come to your activities with kids in schools, 7 Days Circular. How old are the kids you have come in contact with and which different activities do you organize to involve them in the circular economy?
They are primary and secondary school kids, so far we have done projects with kids in the range 6 years old until 14 years old. Starting already when they are six is quite challenging, I was happy to do a pilot and see that it works. I think for now our main focus is on kids between 9 and 14. Regarding our activities, we co-create with schools and other stakeholders and don’t focus on developing “off-the-shelf products”, which I feel there’s a lot of these days on various topics. Each competing for precious time from the teaching staff and also leaving it up to the staff to make it their own. That’s why I feel it is important to actually be present and help with time and attention. Teachers have plenty of ideas and are willing to work with parties outside of the school. But they usually don’t have the time to execute. We give our time and attention to look specifically to what the schools wants, what it needs and how we can be most effective at that school, with their students and the regional companies and institutions around them. We do have lesson plans that are a result from our activities that we make available for free on our website to spread the message further, but our main programmes are each unique.
Of course, there are recurring themes. The journey usually starts with introducing kids to circularity and the easiest way to do so is to look at nature, because nature always works in a circular way. In one of our pilots, on day one we just went outside for a walk and we observed things, trying to point out the circularity behind them. For instance a tree has lots of leaves falling on the ground, and we would ask: what happens to these leaves? How does nature work into its circular motion so that new leaves are on the tree? How does the water cycle work? In this way kids just learn from nature. Other topics we usually cover are collaboration, design thinking, social entrepreneurship and being the example and sharing the message.
How the programme is executed, really depends on the school.My second pilot was with a small school and we had 3 mixed classes covering all the range of primary school pupils. Having such a wide range, it was crucial that the teachers that were heading the classes were involved, because they were the actual lecturers, interpreting the lessons that we wanted to give and adapting them to their class. Because this was also a so called vrije school, following the Rudolf Steiner method they didn’t want to use lesson plans and digital presentations. So to kick-off everyday, I created this character to do a little play for 10-15 minutes. I had a spider costume and I was Spindy, the Circular Spider! Spindy would say she was living in the woods, at the edge of the forests, and that the city nearby was polluting her environment. Everyday I made up a story to engage the kids, and I also wrote several songs about Mother Earth for instance, about how we should look at how she does things and learn from her. It was a very creative way to reach the kids. Something I am always looking for together with the teachers is how we can make it simple, how can we make this engaging and fun.
One of the teaching tools we have is an exercise we call “the present”. We ask: think about the last present you got. We ask where was it before? Ok, it was in a shop, and before? In a factory? But what is your present actually made of? This teaches kids critical thinking, it teaches them to ask the second and third question. Analytically it is quite challenging, but if you do it step by step it is actually fun. They are capable of doing that and learn something in the process.
A big question for me until quite recently has always been: why do I insist in introducing two very difficult concepts, circularity and economy to kids? Even if they will probably not grasp it fully, I feel it is good to talk about it, to slowly familiarize themselves with it. It is a space they can further explore and discover. The main thing is that they become aware that they are part of something bigger and with each choice they make they can have an impact. Making it too simple and just talk about the smaller pieces, I feel will be less effective in keeping them challenged, engaged and curious. Too many people are or become indifferent and disconnected. It’s ‘far from my bed’ as we say in Dutch. That’s why I feel it is important to introduce the bigger picture and systems thinking at an early age to keep and nurture the sense of connection.
Are there any particular anecdotes in which the kids surprised you?
In every pilot I was amazed with the creativity and willingness of kids to think about this topic and to think about solutions. And of course these are not ground-breaking solutions, something nobody could have thought of before, but in their world this is something super new and innovative. In the pilot with primary school I just mentioned, at the end of the week I was so surprised with the youngest group of children, 6-7 years old, because they went out in nature, made drawings, made tiny houses out of shoe boxes, and used recycled materials from home. For instance we asked everybody to bring an old t-shirt to make a bag out of it. But let me tell you a couple of my favourite anecdotes.
One day we were sitting in a circle in this youngest class, the teacher had put in the centre a bin, a box with old papers, old books, and then she asked the kids: “what do you see?” And we thought they would say they see waste, used paper, but the first answer of a kid was: “I see stuff I can make new things with!” I was looking at the teacher, she was looking at me, and I think we both had in our minds: we are done! They already get it! It was very exciting and confirmed once again that kids love creating and love contributing. And that they are more than capable to tackle real life issues and love to work in projects. I feel this is also a big trend in education to work more on a project basis and combine both the core skills like language and math with the 21st century skills of critical thinking and creativity. With our project, we get very close to the kids’ understanding and world. For instance I love that we never really bring new materials in, rather we ask them to source materials from home, their school, neighbourhood and nature. There has never been a shortage of materials to work with!
The second anecdote I want to mention was during a pitch session we organized at Circl of ABN AMRO, this activity coincided with the end of a 7 Days Circular project, so it was a perfect opportunity for kids to showcase the results of the challenges they had been participating in. Some kids came up with a project of greening their school yard, and they told me that they contacted the municipality to talk about it! I was super impressed with that.They had clear in mind the project they wanted to accomplish and were aware of the fact that they needed help from some parties. And then they actually had the courage to reach out to these parties and talk about it. That is really amazing.
I am sorry, just to make sure I got it right...it was the kids pitching at ABN AMRO?
Yes, during the Circular Stars Award show facilitated by Circl. Kids were invited for a pitch session and those who wanted to join, could see both Circl, which is an amazing circular location and do the pitch. And they came up with all sorts of things like “I am going to eat less meat and more fruit, and convince my parents to do it too”.
Were they pitching in front of the bankers too?
No, it was just our own activity, there was one bank employee, but it was mostly about the location.
Oh, that’s a pity. I guess they would have been a good influence on the bankers…
Yes, that’s true! If we approached them again, we would definitely look at how to intensify the collaboration more. For now it was more of a facilitating opportunity, so that we could use the location and, of course, we got someone from the bank that gave us the tour, but we did discuss how can we involve the bankers more. I think for Circl it is also the start of a journey, and they are professionalizing their approach now, and also the transformation inside such a big bank like ABN AMRO is quite a challenge.
What about the potential of kids to inspire adults? Have you seen any effect on parents and teachers?
Definitely! Especially with our last project at a highschool, which involved a bigger cohort of teachers, and these are subject teachers, so very familiar and comfortable with their own subjects and not necessarily with something that is outside of their subject. It was nice to have discussions with the teachers. I remember they asked me the toughest questions about the circular economy, and I immediately responded that I am not an expert, I don’t know all the answers, but what I want to do and is more important is to have the conversation going. I referenced to many institutions and universities that are also still in the middle of this discovery process. Nobody has the answer yet, there is still a lot to be explored.
So, the key thing to understand as a teacher is that you have to hold space, you need to be comfortable with not knowing, and take the learning journey together with your pupils and facilitate the questions that arise and help the kids to try to find the answers themselves and sometimes even conclude that there might not be an answer. But maybe in the future there will be an answer and they will contribute to it. This is a more open idea of teaching, of involving kids with not just “I know the answer, and you have to repeat it back to me”, but rather “this is a complex world, a complex society, you are part of it and you have the potential to contribute to the conversation going forward”. There are many anecdotes with teachers, I had some telling me “participating in this week just got me thinking so much more, also about the things that I do and that I can do more”. There has definitely been evidence of this approach working on teachers and adults as well. A project week is quite intensive. During 7 Days Circular I’m pretty sure this is a topic discussed at the dinner table as well. We also always invite parents to join us during the presentations on the final day.
From the perspective of schools, how does the overall educational offer change when circular economy principles are included in the curriculum? If you had to pitch to them, what’s the added value of having these activities alongside the traditional subjects as mathematics, literature, etc.?
I am not from the education field, so I might be saying something that people from the education field itself would find ignorant, because I am not aware of the structural challenges facing the sector. But I have read about this whole idea of innovation in schools and the wish to engage more in 21st century skills. I feel this is part of 21st century economics and educating the 21st century citizens. There was also a formal governmental report published two years ago that talked about renewing the education system, having the basic skills but also opening up schools to prepare students to be citizens. So if you want to prepare them, you can’t close them off too much by not telling them about real life situations. If you design your program really well, it’s a win-win-win situation. You can do your core, you can have real life context, and you can engage kids with something that they actually recognize in their own life . What puts kids off is that they are taught things that they can’t themselves place in real life situations, and that’s why they get bored. They think: why am I learning this? Why do I need it? I feel that these projects can help and benefit the system, learning the core skills, learning 21st century skills and having actual knowledge and skills that they can apply directly. Also it gives them much more of a sense of future career opportunities.
Let’s come to the parents. What can they do in their daily life?
During our activities, especially the ones at Circl.,we have noticed that parents are participating as well. There were no age boundaries, from a mother with a 2 years old to parents with older kids. They love seeing their kids learn something and they also love engaging in the activities. I guess we also reached the type of parents which are extra-motivated to do something for sustainability. They help us contact schools, and that’s very important for us because reaching schools is sometimes much easier through a parent that is directly connected to them.
So to parents I would say get active, get involved in the approach and help us organize it and set it up. Help us by being an ambassador. A bit too often, we fall in the all-or-nothing kind of thought, which is interesting because nobody has the answer so what is all and what is nothing? I am very much for the baby steps that you do and I believe that if we could inspire each other in the little things that we do in the households, it could have a big impact collectively. It is about our individual choices that, through communities, have this collective impact. We need to learn much more with respect to what we can do at home, it is not just recycling, but also being more conscious about electricity consumption, thinking how you can be more circular with your food consumption. We are consumers on a daily basis; it has huge impact if you can make that shift to more sustainable, circular choices in everyday life.
To close the circle, from pre-foundation to what the foundation will be able to create: which kind of society do you wish for these kids in 2050?
Surely, a society that is circular. And I would like to go further to the Doughnut Economy, because I think it is more just. What I love about it is that it does not only say regenerative but also distributive, and this is the ideal for me. We are a sophisticated society that will always depend on collaboration and a sense of specialization, even if specialization is just doing the things you love, because we don’t always love the same things. My ideal economy is quite local and small-scale, it’s based on the talents and the strenghts of all individuals, and very collaborative. People will understand that they can’t do everything by themselves and they need to collaborate to make progress and serve the well-being of the whole of society. Against the economic view that we should have perpetual growth, I think we should rather have initiatives, change, progress, growth to make something sustainable and then we should thrive. We should have this ceiling of having enough, and anything more than enough you distribute to someone who doesn’t have enough. This is my view and I believe that if we teach kids about circularity early on, we can achieve that.
Thank you Rieta, it has been an inspirational conversation! Good luck with your admirable mission, I look forward to see what these kids will contribute to in this fundamental transition!