19 August 2021
KeepCup are the global leader in reusable coffee cups. They have leveraged their position to revolutionise the way we think about waste. KeepCup founder, Abigail Forsyth and UK GM, Chris Baker, talk to us about how KeepCup has developed over the years. They reveal some of the odd and complex realities of international supply chains; their experience of becoming B Corp certified; and why their success is tied to a bottom-up movement led by consumers.
Thanks so much for talking with us today. First off, could you tell us a bit about the KeepCup story and what inspired you to start it?
Abigail: My brother and I went to London in the early 90s and we saw Pret a Manager and we thought great- that’d be good to do! Looks easy, good food, good people. So, we started a business called Bluebag in Melbourne. It was just right when coffee was becoming a really aspirational product. We saw first-hand the rise and rise of the disposable cup and it struck us that there had to be a better way. And also- why hasn’t someone else thought about this! So, we designed the KeepCup, we got it locally manufactured and right away in Melbourne it was a hit. In Australia, people were already thinking about the problem of disposable waste back then in 2009. We generally shop for our fruit and veg in a bag. The coffee scene is 20% chains and 80% independents. It was in this environment KeepCup was born. My other brother was travelling at the time and we were like, it’s going amazing! You should start it in London! Thinking it would be the same. And it was really NOT the same. Because it was the reverse there- 80% chains, 20% independents. At that time the UK was a tea drinking culture. We’d do a lot of selling into corporates and it was all “Well how am I going to drink my tea out of this thing?” I don’t think disposable cups really stood out as a packaging eye sore in the same way that it did in the Australian landscape, so it just took a little longer to take hold. But take hold it did! We’ve been in the UK since 2010.
And I remember seeing them the first time so clearly, I think it was at the London Coffee Festival, though I’m not sure which year. There’s something so recognisable about the design and KeepCups have become quite emblematic of the ethical consumer and circular economy movements. How would you say these have shaped KeepCup and how has KeepCup been shaped by these movements?
Abigail: Two stories spring to mind. When we first started selling KeepCups, we would call up the sustainability part of an organisation and it would be a single person department without access to budget. At that time, we knew we had to get to the marketing department to get to the money! The function and influence of the sustainability function has grown moving from the operations side of the business or just a sales and marketing initiative; it has been integrated into the heart of the business.
Second, one of the things people used to say was “I feel a bit embarrassed going into the café to use it” so our focus has been around making sure people feel like they have permission to change. That was really consumer led. The big chains purchase KeepCup not because they want to, but because their customers have demanded it! It really has been bottom-up; that’s the way it’s worked.
Chris: And thinking about the design of the cup, the original design was deliberately inconspicuous. If you look at the original KeepCups from 11 years ago, some of those colourways look just like a disposable takeaway cup. So, it made that shift, and that embarrassment about going into a café, a little bit easier. But then we’ve kept that design consistency and even our current cups have a nod to that original design. That consistent imagery has now been picked up by others – we often see simplified graphics of the KeepCup design being used to represent sustainability or the circular economy, which is always a proud moment.
You’ve not only introduced a new category, but you’ve had to influence behaviour change amongst your consumers to encourage them to switch to reusable cups, can you identify a tipping point and what have been the key moments for KeepCup?
Abigail: I think right from the get-go there was always an audience of people who loved KeepCup. It was a success from the start because it appealed to a certain group of people. So, when we were thinking about who we were marketing to as a business, it was never the ‘deep greens’. Because people who are that green and really committed to conservation; they were never drinking out of a disposable cup in the first place. So, it was a case of pitching to people who were thinking “You know, I could do better…This is not quite right!” That sinking feeling in their stomach. “There must be a better way to do this”. It was to those people we pitched. And I think it was that timing which coincided with changing attitudes across the world; the green movement went from just peak greenies to being everyone. And you could say we’ve followed this trajectory of appealing to this wider base of people.
And there were other events that changed things for us: David Attenborough’s Blue Planet. That was huge. Hugh Fearneley-Whittingstall did the War on Waste, which was pretty big. But in Australia they created an installation where they filled a tram in Melbourne full of coffee cups and that was like gangbusters for the Australian business- it doubled our business overnight. And then at the beginning of 2018, the UK Parliamentary Review Committee posited that if disposable cups weren’t properly being recycled (not just collected as recycling) within four years, they should be banned. That really gave us a boost too. Not even legislating but just hinting at it that gave people a sense of the direction of travel and people just started changing behaviour.
Building on that, I was reading on your site that you were one of the first Australian companies to become a B Corp- why did you make the decision to get on board and what sorts of changes has it led to for KeepCup and the way you operate?
Abigail: That’s a good question. People would always ask us, “what are you? Are you Fairtrade… are you organic…?” And we’d reply “No, we’re a reusable cup”. Customers wanted to validate that we were who we said we were, B Corp provided that validation. It’s become less of a consumer signal but as an employer it’s certainly really powerful. It was a tough process but it’s actually a really useful tool to make business improvements.
Was it a tough accreditation to go through?
Abigail: It was a tough process, but it was actually a really useful roadmap for all the things we needed to do to be a better business.
Chris: I think B Corp also helps you realise some of the socioeconomic elements. KeepCup was a mission-led product, that clear focus on the circular economy, but we’ve moved towards looking at the social elements, the community elements.
Abigail: I did a talk, and someone said, “what are you doing to leverage your supply chains and make them more sustainable?” I was like “Uh, I hadn’t even thought of that- good idea!”
And leverage them you have! Looking at your company origins, we read research from Bain & Company which shows that those organisations most successful at maintaining profitable growth over the long term were disproportionately founder-led. In other words, how founders built their companies on the inside, from the start, influenced their companies’ success on the outside, for a long time. Do you think KeepCup’s success is down to your sharp sense of purpose?
Abigail: Yeah! It’s just a cup after all. I held that pretty close for a long time. I’ve had every job in the business. Beginning with selling the product. Yes, I think that passion and that commitment is really important. Defining what the brand is. It’s changing and it’s changed more in the past couple of years. We’ve got some really good people in the team. Doing all of those jobs myself was painful at times, but probably really important to experience that. It’s keeping the strategy really clear and not muddy and staying true to that mission. Every time I did a talk people would say, “well how can you have a business that’s just about cups?”. The single mindedness is probably what the founder brings, holding stuff to a higher purpose. It is just a cup. But it’s more than that. And that’s what drives me, that’s what drives the people that enjoy working here. What’s that Oscar Wilde quote, we’re all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars?
On that, I’d love to know, what’s your proudest achievement so far?
Abigail: I don’t know, probably just hanging on. Hanging on for the ride. Versus carving the journey. Still the best thing is walking down the street and seeing someone using one. And also, when we first started, I’d be walking down the street holding a KeepCup and see someone coming towards me with one, and you know, you’d just do the nod like “yeah!”’.
Chris: I could just add something there too: Holding the line. In the interview with Abi, I must have been one of the millions of people that over the years have said to Abi, “Are you thinking about doing a lunch box or a water bottle?”. So, I think resisting that need to diversify. I’ve worked for other businesses that diversified a lot; it’s very hard to stay focused. And when you look at the supply chain and you want to work with your suppliers to improve things, whether that’s a net zero target or something else, the more you diversify, naturally, the more difficult it becomes so it‘s really refreshing to come to a company that sticks to its clear vision.
What practical steps would you advise businesses and brands to take if they’re keen to approach things in a more circular way?
Abigail: They’ve just got to approach every single thing they do through that lens, and it begins with design. The first question is, do we need to do it all? It starts very much from a strategic user need and product lifecycle level. I think that’s often what’s missing; it’s often bolted on the back.
Chris: That’s exactly what I would say: most businesses start by considering end of life solutions, right at the end of the supply chain, which doesn’t make sense- you need to consider the impact at all stages.
They think about the disposal?
Abigail: Yes-we go to ‘recycling’ and recycled content. To put the materials question in context – there would be more single-use cups used in a single day than we have ever produced in our twelve years of existence. Recycling validates waste and the status quo.
Chris: It’s too late if you’re talking about recycling!
And could you share any examples of how KeepCup approaches things in a circular way?
Abigail: I probably wouldn’t have been able to answer this question early on, because it’s so baked in. But I do remember we had a marketeer come in who said, “we should make the box bigger, so we’ve got more shelf presence”. Like, huh? We’re trying to lightweight the box, make it as small as possible; do we even need a box?
Another example would be what we’re doing with stainless steel cups. All stainless steel in the world comes out of one city in China and the company we work with probably makes one million bottles a month. Each one of them came in its own individual plastic bag. We did a lot of back and forth to get them to agree to deliver our cups without the plastic bags! It didn’t save us any money- we just did that because it’s the right thing to do. We hope that they push that through their supply chain, there’s an opportunity to save a lot of plastic bags. See things from your principles rather than the outcome you’re seeking; it’s letting the chips fall.
Chris: It was really eye opening to see with stainless steel how reliant the supply chain is on this one city. When you’re talking about a circular economy, well how can you possibly design a circular economy system for stainless steel when all of it is made in China? It brings back that importance of local manufacturing. When we’re looking at local systems for transport, or manufacturing locally, that can open up a circular economy option that otherwise doesn’t exist. With the stainless steel, where does all that go when it’s being recycled in the UK? Is it being shipped out to other markets? A circular economy works much more easily in a local economy.
Abigail: We’ve always been really big on local manufacturing in Australia and the manufacturing moved to the UK for the European market when we could. The packaging is made in the UK for that reason. For our glass products- there’s only three factories in the world that can make that glass- it’s unbelievable.
There’s so much to consider when you’re looking at the way materials and goods move around. Logistics and home deliveries have been in the spotlight a little more than usual this past year, and I was really interested to see that you explicitly refer to your approach on your website, you say:
There is no such thing as free freight. We apply shipping costs to every order – this is a decision we made as a business to highlight that freight always has a cost, particularly for the environment.
We ask customers to be conscious of the environmental costs of shipping goods and consider this impact as we do, in our purchasing decisions. We encourage you to shop locally and support your local cafés.
We’ve really noticed that it’s become commonplace for retailers and brands to feel like they must make delivery almost an invisible part of the brand experience. What’s been the reaction to your approach and why is it important to you to set that out so clearly?
Abigail: (laughs) You know how I said we let the chips fall? Well sometimes they don’t fall our way! Yeah, people don’t care. There’s an age thing here. My kids are like “why should I pay for shipping?” I’m like, “well who should pay? Who is making that delivery?”. We are running up against customer expectations there. We say it because we think it needs to be said. It probably costs us. We’re looking at putting a free freight threshold on our site, to respond to customer expectation. The buy local movement is all about that. How far is the thing you’re purchasing travelling before it gets to you, and who’s paying for it? It’s all part of that larger conversation: think about where things are coming from, how they’re made, who’s making them, how much they’re being paid to do it: participate in the economy.
Chris: This discussion around transport feels like history repeating itself. You know, here we’re talking about single-use cups. Which you assume is a free addition to the coffee that you’re purchasing, in the same way that packaging in the supermarket is all part of the product. So now we all talk about single-use plastic as if it’s the devil. If you call out the cost of that? Packaging has a cost, in the same way that transport has a cost. We’ve been embedding that cost for so long. What Amazon are doing it’s no different to what the packaging companies have been doing, forever. If you started pulling that out and saying ‘[did] you know disposable cups actually cost 5p and your coffee is actually £2.50’, do you shift the value of what you’re purchasing? If you can do that across the whole supply chain. But we’ve oversimplified it for consumers.
That’s interesting, thinking about it in a systemic way. Whether we’re talking about the packaging or the transport that’s attached to a product; how can we change thinking. It’s a great ambition that you have there on charging for freight.
Our cities are changing rapidly as a result of many of these factors we’re talking about, and deliveries and logistics are an important part of the shift. Can you tell us a bit about your approach to sustainability and logistics, how, for example, do you work with partners to achieve better outcomes?
Abigail: Freight is the biggest cost to our business. Something we think about when we’re choosing suppliers but probably not something we think about enough day to day. We try and ship by sea-freight, we ship in containers, we design products to be stacked. Our manufacturers make parts in the boxes that we then actually ship things out in.
Chris: We’ve always done what’s in our control, considering how much you can ship within a package, making everything as efficient as possible. Once you start using a big-name international logistics network, there comes a point when you just lose control, because to them we’re just another number and a small number in that sense.
It’s been such a tricky year for so many industries. During the pandemic we’ve seen a necessary shift in human behaviour. Less people are going to coffee shops, there is an emphasis on cleanliness and no physical contact and that has led to an increase in the throwaway culture – masks, coffee cups. How has the pandemic affected KeepCup? And how is the business adapting?
Abigail: It’s been pretty devastating for KeepCup as a business We initially went out with some pretty strong comms about clean hands, clean KeepCups. There’s a time to go out strong with the comms and it’s not now. People are fearful. All you say is “go with your principles around single-use”; if you don’t want to use disposables find a café that does contactless pour. beyond that, you know, we’re a reusable cup company we don’t really have a place to be telling people what’s safe and what’s not safe.
And thinking about this next stage and things start to improve after the pandemic, how do you see KeepCup’s role unfolding as a circular economy pioneer and advocate as we look towards the future?
Abigail: We have been busy sharpening our axe. We’ve launched a B2B website, which is a way for cafes to order online; it makes it more convenient, but also, we keep them engaging with us in our own little ecosystem by giving them some great resources on the circular economy and some hints and tips about what they can do.
I guess beyond that it’s about how we advocate through the type of business that we are. So, we’re doing a carbon neutral project
It’s been a huge change hasn’t it. I feel quite hopeful about those changes, but it’s interesting how that’s going to impact on cities.
Chris: I read something recently from a company called EveryDay Plastic doing research on people’s individual plastic consumption during the pandemic. Perhaps it’s possible that the pandemic might bring people closer to their own waste, which in turn might make people think more about takeaway packaging. Because the thing about takeaway consumption is that it’s on-the-go. You’ve discarded it and so you’re not really worried; it’s somebody else’s problem. And that’s so ingrained in the takeaway cup, that’s even the case with the compostable cup. How can you say it’s compostable when you dispose of it on-the-go? But now many of us have had that experience of being stuck in our homes, we’re more aware than ever of the waste we’re producing. And I’m hoping- now, I’ve seen nothing to prove this yet! – I’m hoping that people will go back out of their homes and take that knowledge with them and try and consider things differently.
Thank you Abigail and Chris for such a heartfelt, honest perspective on KeepCup and your place in the circular economy movement and the future of cities and sustainable business.
Read the full Better Cities report here.