KeepCup's co-founder, Abigail Forsyth, talks to us about global success, sustainability, and the future of cafes.
About Abigail Forsyth
Co-founder of KeepCup
Known worldwide for its bright, bold and instantly recognisable reusable cups, KeepCup is a global campaign for reuse. Since launching the world’s first barista standard reusable cup 10 years ago, KeepCup is now embraced by reusers the world over, diverting millions of single-use cups daily.
Following a successful career as a solicitor at a boutique Melbourne law firm, Abigail and her brother Jamie set up their own chain of cafes across the city. Alarmed by the amount of disposable packaging being wasted, Abigail started her search for a more sustainable and environmentally conscious way to serve food, and the concept of KeepCup soon became a reality.
Abigail has opened offices and warehouses in London and Los Angeles to service growing consumer demand in over 76 countries around the world, but the business has stayed loyal to its roots. KeepCup’s HQ is located in the Melbourne suburb of Clifton Hill, where Abigail lives with her family.
The Rise of KeepCup...
What have been the key factors in KeepCup's success?
I have a favourite saying of Glaswegian, Thomas Carlyle – “the merit of originality is not novelty; it is sincerity.” It’s not just the design consideration, attention to detail and quality of KeepCup, it is the hundreds of ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ that support the usefulness and usability of our products.
Ours is a really well-considered and designed product, from user experience right through our supply chain. This consideration underscores the integrity of our mission and helps us engage with individuals, cafes and roasters all around the world.
This, along with an unbridled enthusiasm of the individuals who make up our business and our culture. Our independence, creativity and sound commercial thinking have always held us in good stead.
Wat are KeepCups USPs?
I never call myself a barista, I wasn’t that good, but I did work behind the coffee machine in our Bluebag cafes. KeepCup was designed to work behind the coffee machine as well as for the customer.
The two guiding principles have been 'barista standard' and 'drinking pleasure on the go'.
'Barista standard' is a drafted vessel that ensures the perfect pour, and fits under coffee machine group heads, keeping extraction and crema intact. KeepCup sizes replicate industry standard single-use cup volumes for the right coffee-to-milk ratio, ease of cafe workflow and speed of service.
'Designed for drinking pleasure on the go' to us means ease of use, cleaning, lightweight and replaceable parts, but most importantly that you appreciate the beverage you are drinking – thinking about aroma and optimal liquid flow.
What are the hardest challenges you have faced along the way?
While there have been many challenges along the way, the three hardest would have to be managing self, managing people and the growth of the business.
Whilst experts can contribute skills that can unlock the potential of the business, no one can match your passion, and over time, if you are lucky, you are surrounded by amazing people and become the keeper of stories. It is this passion for responsible business and sustainability that has led KeepCup to where we are today. Finding individuals that align with our culture and values whilst bringing in new talent and experience to a growing business in new markets and with new projects and goals continues to be a challenge every day.
What are you most proud of?
To this day I still get a kick out of seeing a customer in a café or on the street, going about their day, while carrying a KeepCup. To think that a simple idea, all those years ago, has helped kick-start the reuse revolution is something I am proud of - that and the fact that KeepCup users divert more than 8 billion disposable cups from landfill each year!
The impact of COVID-19
How has the pandemic affected progress on sustainability issues?
It's difficult to say. There is an ever-growing number of people in the world now for whom subsistence is their central occupation. For those of us fortunate to have more than we need, its more an existential crisis – who am I without my hobbies, travel - we can become more guided by values, or yield to fear and fall down the rabbit hole of conspiracy and consumption.
A surge in plastic waste has been reported as an outcome of the pandemic, worsened by concern about the acceptance of reusables and the exploitation of these concerns by the plastic industry. In line with these setbacks, ‘convenience culture’ has crept back into everyday life, but the fight against the climate and plastic pollution crises is more important than ever.
Dealing with Covid-19 is the central pre-occupation of most governments as the health and safety of its citizens ought to be. Many people grok the connection between dwindling wild places and factory farming that have a causal relationship to coronaviruses. The #metoo movement, Black Lives Matter, the devastating impact of the casualisation of the workforce make us vulnerable, but surely show us that our fates are intertwined. There is an opportunity to solve all problems at once, but it means some very brave and honest decisions need to be made by the world’s largest corporations and governments. There is a lot of noise, but delay is denial.
What impact has COVID-19 had at KeepCup?
Like many businesses, 2020 has presented us with a vast array of challenges. Most importantly, we have learnt that the climate crisis is far more urgent and catastrophic than we imagined, that we can’t separate the health of people and planet and that we don’t have the luxury of focusing on one crisis at a time.
We have doubled down on our efforts and mission for a world that no longer needs, wants or uses single-use cups. We have highlighted the innovative ways our café customers have adapted the contactless pour and shared evidence – including a signed statement published by over 110 scientists to reassure the public that reusables are safe, provided basic hygiene is adhered to – clean hands, clean KeepCup.
Who, in your opinion, will be the winners and losers coming out of COVID-19?
The impacts of COVID-19 have been particularly tough on the café and hospitality industry, having said that we have seen innovation in the flip to grocery, takeaway setups and contactless pour.
It seems obvious that the businesses that are super nimble or have deep pockets will survive, but longer-term it will be those that consider the role and relevance of the cafe in society that will be the real winners. Historically the role of the cafe as a place where people came to share ideas and build community, this has been commoditised in the last 40 years. It seems certain that working life has changed forever, what is the role and function of the café, how do people want to augment the meals and beverages they consume at home?
Innovation and the future of cafes...
What upcoming trends should cafes be prepared for?
I find it challenging to separate wishes from predictions!
As sustainability rises on the agenda, we are seeing some cafes emerge single-use free. What will aid this is the spreading of the workforce away from city centres and into more flexible working habits – where the morning rush has a larger spread over time and geography.
Combined with moves to more vegan-friendly diets and work from home, filter coffee is changing our coffee habit. In addition to the rising costs of beans, the richness of an espresso-based milk drink may be reserved for an inhouse experience.
Locally sourced and grown will continue to grow as an imperative for economics and climate.
What do you look for in a good cafe ?
To my mind, the best cafes are local, independent, and part of your neighbourhood. It’s super demanding work running a hospitality business, creating an experience in food, coffee and atmosphere that is both unique and consistent. Authenticity to place and vision are the things that set great establishments apart.
My own favourite cafes are my locals – to have a great ice coffee with oatmilk with my daughter at Velvet Morning in Clifton Hill, on my local shopping strip. For a bit of baked heaven I love Beatrix Bakes – single-use free.
What are your top tips for making change happen?
I recently heard psychologist Daniel Kahneman speaking about change. He said that we generally apply pressure, rather than removing the restraint. The success of KeepCup speaks to this very well – it's much less about saying single-use cups are untenable and unrecyclable, than saying look, this is easy! Reuse is fun, it's a better way to enjoy your coffee and cafes love to fill them. It’s more effective to engage people emotionally first, then give them the why.
My auntie was also fond of saying ‘there’s luck in leisure’. Wait and see, change is happening all the time all around us, and often it is just getting the timing right that can make all the difference. It's how we move with, or against the change and the life cycle of things.
What new products and innovations are on the way from keepCup in 2021?
We have several campaigns and products planned for 2021, you will soon find out more! But you can be sure they will be about reducing single-use, bringing people with us on the journey, amplifying the work of others and reducing our own impact.
We see our role is not only about driving single-use cup bans but in lifting the bar on what good corporate citizenship and a post-growth economy looks and feels like.
For KeepCup, reducing impact is baked into every decision we make – our office is single-use free, we compost on-site, we just introduced reusables pallet straps as an alternate to shrink wrap.
Most significantly we recently worked with our stainless steel manufacturer to ship our products without individual plastic bags for each product – this is standard industry practice and requires urgent change - but it is not customer facing, requires a change in process, so it does not attract attention, but its impacts are significant. This is where employees within organisations are so powerful in working to change processes.
We are also working on carbon-neutral project by 2025. In the meantime, it seems futile to be plant trees at the same time as we are destroying native forests all over Australia. We recently committed to supporting the Bob Brown Foundation ‘The Great Forest Case’ with $100,000 AUD, to challenge the regulation of native forest logging to protect biodiversity and end native forest logging before it's too late. Of course, this has implications all over the world.
To find out more about KeepCup and to stay updated on their sustainability developments, visit uk.keepcup.com
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