A cup worth keeping strikes a sustainable chord with coffee-istas worldwide

The KeepCup story.

Disturbed by the mountains of disposable cups her cafe was dumping each week, one canny cafe owner designed a cup to keep – and has struck a sustainable chord with coffee-istas the world over.

From little things, big green ideas can grow. When cafe owner Abigail Forsyth declared war on throwaway coffee cups in 2009 and invented her eco-friendly alternative, she had no clue how fast her KeepCups would make her a green entrepreneur.

Abigail Forsyth declared war on throwaway coffee cups in 2009

Abigail Forsyth declared war on throwaway coffee cups in 2009

She’s now exporting Melbourne coffee culture to the world, selling in 32 countries. KeepCup turns over A$6 million a year, employs 20 staff, and has offices in Australia, the US and the UK.

Waste from Western disposable culture is “revolting”, she says, and the numbers certainly are scary. Five hundred billion disposable coffee cups go into landfill worldwide every year and do not decompose.

“Back then I thought I’d be able to run the business from my study at home,” she laughs.

There’s enough plastic in 28 disposable cups and lids to make one KeepCup. Forsyth’s KeepCups can be re-used up to 1500 times, and then recycled, despite being made from four single-component plastics.

Even multinationals are starting to get the idea. This year, Forsyth has nabbed her biggest corporate coup yet – getting McDonald’s to start selling KeepCups in Australia through its McCafé outlets. Most waste is happening at the mass market level where McDonald’s operates, says Forsyth.

"Back then I thought I’d be able to run the business from my study at home." – Abigail Forsyth

“It’s part of our mission to sell into these bigger chains.”

KeepCup has already converted Australian cafe chains Wild Bean and Campos – and Forsyth is still trying to get Starbucks on board.

With sales predicted to rise 30 per cent in the next year, KeepCup generates most business from corporates, cafe chains and coffee roasters. It also sells at David Jones in Australia and Oliver

Bonas and Wholefoods in London, as well as online.

Abigail Forsyth

 KeepCup launched an office in the US last year which services 26 distribution partners around the world.

“The timing for the business has been really good,” says Forsyth, who co-founded KeepCup with her brother, Jamie.

“Coffee culture is growing round the world, particularly the Australian style of drinking coffee,” she says.

With the message of sustainability at its core, KeepCup has sold 3.5 million cups in five years and Forsyth says this has diverted about four billion disposable coffee cups from landfill.

The idea for the business came when she despaired at the 3000 disposable coffee cups a week her Bluebag cafe chain was using in Melbourne and saw that a version of her toddler’s “sippy cup” could be the answer.

The cafe chain was sold in 2010 after KeepCup “went viral” on social media and really struck a chord with Australians.

“Even now we don’t do very much top-line advertising,” says Forsyth. “We’re driven by the advocacy of consumers.”

Targeting the specialty coffee industry, Forsyth designed cups to fit the coffee machines that baristas use and convinced cafe chains, which can spend up to 20 cents on each disposable cup, that KeepCups can save money.

This year the new KeepCup Brew product, made of glass, won the award for the most innovative product at the London Coffee Festival. KeepCup sponsored last year’s World Barista championships at the Melbourne International Coffee Expo.

“We’ve made sustainability accessible and easy and fun. I hope that doing something like using a KeepCup starts people on a bit of a journey to ask what else they can do to reduce their environmental impact,” says Forsyth.

One piece of advice

Sales are important. Being really clear about what you stand for is the guidepost you need to grow the business and get customers involved. The more people who say it’s a good idea and have a good experience with the brand and product, the easier it is to sell.

This article is from the September 2014 issue of INTHEBLACK magazine. 

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