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Sipping on success: KeepCup’s co-founder talks spreading her ‘Reuse Revolution’ worldwide

Seven years ago, siblings Abigail and Jamie Forsyth founded KeepCup. They envisioned it as a business and a line of eco-friendly coffee cups in service of a campaign for behavioural change: ‘from discard to reuse’. Today, more than five million consumers worldwide have joined their ‘Reuse Revolution’.  Abigail, the company’s managing director, spoke to Dynamic Business about the origin of the brand, its success and future plans. 

In 1998, Abigail left the legal world, where she’d worked as a solicitor for a boutique law firm, to launch Melbourne-based café chain Bluebag with her younger brother Jamie. As time went on, they witnessed first-hand the rise and rise of the disposable coffee cups. Alarmed by the environmental and financial toll of this growing culture of convenience, the siblings embarked on a fruitless quest for a more sustainable way to serve takeaway coffee.

Creating a solution

In their view, what the reusable cups on the market lacked was thoughtful design, meaning users were inconvenienced and the quality of the coffee – as well as the speed at which baristas could operate – was severely compromised. Consequently, Abigail and Jamie resolved to design and manufacture their own reusable cup. The siblings launched KeepCup in June 2009, kick-starting what Abigail dubs their ‘Reuse Revolution’.

“Over one million disposable cups are discarded every minute; they’re not recyclable,” she said.

“To address this problem, we’ve appealed to customers with functional, easy-to-clean and customisable products that help in the formation of a positive reuse habit that helps reduce the number of disposable cups going to landfill.

“Available for purchase from our website, great cafes and retailers, KeepCups are BPA and BPS free, non-toxic, dishwasher safe and lightweight. They’re also very stylish and our hero product is the world’s first barista standard reusable cups. In other words, it fits under the group heads of the coffee machine, replicates disposable cup volumes, and has a hard lid that presses on firmly like a disposable cup. This addresses the problem of how to make a great coffee in a reusable cup without compromising service and quality.”

Normalising reuse

While KeepCup began in Melbourne, it is now a global operation with satellite offices and warehouses in London and Los Angeles. With the support of 45 distribution partners worldwide and a team of nearly 50 employees spread across three continents, Abigail has launched KeepCup into 65 countries. Today, more than 5 million people have adopted the company’s reusable cups. The continued growth of KeepCup’s eco-conscious user base is a great outcome for the environment, Abigail explained.

“In 2015, we launched Reuse HQ to incentivise reuse and help customers measure their ecological footprint,” she said.

“Reuse HQ collates user-submitted data on reuse and aggregates the results across organisations and countries to provide a snapshot of collective action. Assuming 80% of our users drink 8 takeaway coffees each week, then over a year, they will have diverted 3.5 billion disposable cups – or 4000 tons of waste –from landfill. Further, they will have saved enough energy to power 5000 homes for a year and helped keep 50,000 trees standing in a forest somewhere. Revolutionising consumer behaviour is an ongoing challenge, which is why I’m thrilled whenever I see someone using a KeepCup out in the wild – that’s when I know we’re succeeding. Our customers are our most important marketing tool; they help normalise reuse. As we say at KeepCup, ‘the best reusable is the one you use’.”

Seizing opportunities 

Abigail is grateful for the endorsement of baristas and premium roasters such as Seven Seeds, Five Senses, Merlo, Campos and Toby’s Estate: “by supporting the KeepCup, and the people who choose to use our reusable cups, the coffee industry is, in effect, creating permission to reuse”.

Aside from industry support, Abigail said three factors have fuelled KeepCup’s success. Firstly, a core focus on consumer and user advocacy. Secondly, great design that addresses a pressing environmental issue – in fact, KeepCup has been nominated for several environmental and design awards including the City of London’s Sustainable City Awards (2010) and the Victorian Premier’s Design Awards (2010).

Thirdly, Abigail attributes KeepCup’s success to a track record of identifying – and seizing – opportunities. Regarding this final factor, she recounted a defining moment in the KeepCup story: “When Jamie and I were first shopping around for manufacturers, one guy said: ‘You’re insane, this is a plastic cup. How many plastic cups are there in the world? If you can’t sell this off the prototype, don’t even bother.’ While this could have been hurtful, it was sound advice and it spurred me to start selling the concept and, in doing so, refine the pitch, put myself out there and share our story. It was a massive confidence boost when NAB bought 5000 before we even had a product. We now have a number of other high-profile clients in Australia including ANZ, Westpac and QANTAS.”

Awakening the Force 

The KeepCup team recently landed a product licensing deal with Disney, which enabled them to launch a range of reusable Star Wars themed cups last month. By tapping into the popularity of the franchise – and appealing to the collector mentality of ardent fans – Abigail is hoping to encourage more people to join her Reuse Revolution.

“One of the things I realised early on is that our most committed users generally own more than one KeepCup,” she said.

“They have one at home, one in the car, one at work, etc. Our approach to sustainability has always been to celebrate and encourage reuse by designing products customers are happy to carry.  Star Wars was a passion project for the whole team. We didn’t just want to simply produce run-of-the-mill licensed products, we wanted to offer liked-minded fans beautiful yet functional collectables that capture the essence of the iconic characters including Darth Vader, R2D2, BB8, Rey, Chewbacca and the Stormtrooper. ‘The best reusable is the one you use’ – Star Wars is a riff on this mantra. Our license only covers Australia and New Zealand but we’re hoping to extend it to other countries where KeepCups are sold.”

Learning to lead

Abigail said the key challenges in the business have been: identifying the job that needs to be done, finding the right people to get it done, and – when it comes to realising projects like the Star Wars range – fostering a sense of shared ownership among staff while ensuring each person is accountable for their part in achieving a common goal. On a more personal level, Abigail admits becoming a leader involved a learning curve.

“I started the business to solve a problem and suddenly found myself having to lead dozens of staff,” she said. “On top of that, I’d given birth to the second of my two children six months into the business – it was a challenging time. At one point, I was looking for someone outside the business to run it, I questioned whether I had the necessary skills. I soon realised there was no one more passionate about the business than me or who thought about it as deeply as I did – and still do. At that point, I decided to own the leadership role and commit to taking people on a journey with me. There are thousands of people who will take your money to tell you how to lead, but it’s the doing of it that presents the real challenge plus the real reward.”

Going it alone

After 17 years in business together, Abigail and Jamie went their separate ways, last year. While Abigail stayed on as managing director, Jamie – KeepCup’s COO – has stepped away from KeepCup to pursue a new venture.

“I’m happy that our relationship is now all about our families and fun – not business,” Abigail said.

“When you’re in business with a sibling, you have someone who you completely trust; who has your back.  Overlaid with that is the fact that because you’ve grown up together, you can also get stuck in some patterns that perhaps aren’t productive. We’re carving our own paths now and I’m excited for us both.”

Looking ahead, Abigail wants to further develop the company’s growth and engagement strategies and increase its advocacy of reuse to government.

“France has banned disposable cups from 2020 and Taiwan has legislated compulsory discounts for reuse,” she said.

“We encourage the federal and state governments to follow suits and pursue sustainable measures that lead to a reduction of waste throughout the world.”

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James Harkness

James Harkness

James Harnkess previous editor at Dynamic Business

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