In 2009, with her brother and business partner Jamie, Abigail Forsyth kick-started a behavioural change in Melbourne, Australia, that has spread across the globe like wildfire.
Creating the world’s first barista standard reusable cup, designed to eradicate the need and use for disposable cups, her product creation KeepCup has enabled consumers to form a positive habit that’s helping to change the world.
In tandem, the brand’s journey to reduce the consequences of convenience behaviour has seen it grow from a much-loved local business to an international phenomenon, stocked in over 100 countries including the US, UK and China. In under 10 years, the business has sold over eight million KeepCups, while diverting billions of disposable cups from landfill.
By persevering with design issues, health and safety concerns and consumer preferences, Forsyth has built KeepCup into the multi-million dollar business it is today. Going from 300 online orders per week to over 1000 has thrown up its challenges, but with ‘brand in hand being the most effective way to drive reuse behaviour,’ Forsyth and her team aren’t planning on backing down until they’ve conquered the entire market.
Here, Forsyth explains how she turned her passion into a purpose, the importance of thinking big, and why entrepreneurs should always keep on pushing…
What first inspired you to launch KeepCup?
KeepCup was an idea I conceived while working in the café industry in Melbourne. We saw the rise and rise of the disposable cup and created a product that replicated the functionality of disposable cups, in reusable form.
Have you always had an entrepreneurial streak?
Yes, I have always been a bit of a hustler and loved work. I was very creative at school, got the marks and became a lawyer, but threw it away to open cafes with my brother and from there got the idea for KeepCup.
How did you go about putting the wheels in motion, in order to turn your concept into a reality?
With a lot of hard work, and quite a bit of naivety. The best advice I got was from the manufacturers and designers who said, you’ve got to sell it! I am passionate about the product, the problem, and I sense what the solution feels like.
Looking back was there a particular tipping point when you felt like everything was coming together?
In the Australian market, we were right product, right time. We got a great deal of help from the independent café scene. In the UK, we started in 2010 right at the beginning of the independent scene and the UK’s love of coffee. It was hard going there for a while, but we persisted and now the UK is alive to the waste issue. It always feels like it’s just about to come together, it’s the life of the optimist.
What has been your funding strategy and how has that impacted the way you run the business?
We have taken out small loans from lending institutions at various times, but always grown within our means — this continues to give us independence and autonomy in the decisions we make.
A lot of entrepreneurs in the wellness space get lost in the space between doing good for people and changing lives, and building a commercial business that makes money –– how have you managed to align the two?
Well, the ‘do good’ part of KeepCup is the entire purpose of the business. But, we need to compete commercially so we are a fully commercial operation. I believe it’s important to demonstrate that holding true to environmentally positive outcomes can be commercially successful. We need everyone.
How important do you think it is for brands to have a purpose beyond the product?
KeepCup was started with a sole purpose of reducing disposable cup waste. You certainly can’t bolt it on with an act of charity at the end of the supply chain. If a company is making an extraordinary profit, it needs to look at its supply chain and ensure there is equity from source right through to disposal.
The proposed disposable cup tax in the UK has been painted as a consumer tax, but it is intended to give the large chains fiscal responsibility for a business model predicated on the creation of rubbish.
Has your idea of success changed since starting KeepCup, and if so how?
Not really, it’s always been about reducing disposable cup waste. I guess I have always seen the disposable cup as a lightning rod for the wider problems of disposable lifestyles and consumption. My thoughts now are around how we can further push this conversation.
What has been your biggest challenge since launching KeepCup?
The biggest challenge is to keep pushing. The irony of success is that you have to run smarter and harder, not less, as you grow.
I read something on my Insta feed this morning, ‘I didn’t come this far, to only come this far’, which sums things up right now. We’re on the cusp of momentous change as we wake up to the consequences of a “recycling” industry, that was in large part, China burning the world’s rubbish for energy.
As a Founder of a wellness brand that is working towards encouraging people to live healthier and happier lives, how important has it been for you to invest in yourself and your staff throughout your journey?
Yes the push for better sustainable outcomes for individual consumers, with the exception of only something like nuclear power, always push for better standards of living for all.
For KeepCup it starts with fair compensation for our suppliers and our employees and then looking more broadly to other parts of our industry. It is small things, how we eat and get to work, the hours people work and the sense of community in each office, and then across the global business. Communication is key, and it’s something I find difficult to be consistent about, though I recognize its importance.
From social media influencers to retailers and corporates, why do you think so many people have connected with KeepCup?
I think people love the simplicity and earnestness of the product and the brand. We are always positive, we want to be inspiring not shaming.
What does the future hold for KeepCup?
When we started, we said we wanted to lift reuse rates to 30%, then we changed it because it seemed so unlikely, now its happening. In five years disposable packaging will have gone the way of the plastic bag.
What imprint would you like to leave on the wellness industry?
The brand that kick-started the demise of the disposable cup!