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#LeadingLadies: Abigail Forsyth

Most of us enjoy a cup (or two!) of takeaway coffee each day, and are becoming more aware of the landfill we’re contributing to with our daily lattes and chais. It didn’t sit right with Founder and Managing Director of KeepCup, Abigail Forsyth, who witnessed firsthand the volume of waste created by disposable cups when she partnered with her brother to open a Melbourne cafe in 1998.

Abigail saw a real problem and was driven to create a real solution: KeepCup, which she has built into an international success story.

How did you go from recognising a problem of waste to launching KeepCup?

With a bit of blind enthusiasm and cluelessness about the market! Our immediate idea was to buy an alternative, but all we found was thermoses which didn’t meet our needs. We wanted to design our own and make them easy to use behind the machine and for the customer, with a design that reduced any barriers to reuse. We engaged industrial and graphic designers to develop a product design that we manufactured here in Australia.

Did you want KeepCup to appeal to “everyday change makers” or the masses?

When we started we had a lot of discussion about whether we were going to be about sustainability or ‘sexy’. My brother always said “make it sexy!”. We noticed ‘feel good, do good’ purchasing behaviour, that the decision to buy something is usually based on emotional reasons, and the rationale comes in afterwards. We wanted people to love the look, design, colour and taste, then the behaviour change would come from enjoying using the product.

Even though sustainability underpins everything we do how we design, the materials we use, the suppliers we choose, how we ship things – we know that at the front end we have to have design appeal.

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There’s a great deal of complexity in measuring the success of a reusable product. What does success look like at KeepCup?

It’s a tough one and something I think about a lot! When we started KeepCup, we only had one cup in one material. Everything we did was about the mission to reduce and reuse. Over time, the business and product range has grown. We’ve had to ask ourselves are we now a product company? But we are still firmly rooted in our mission, we want to build it and drive it right through the business.

It’s difficult to put your finger on what creates cultural shift and change. What drives me is: how do we continue to be part of that conversation to inspire people to reuse? 10 years ago when we started, you had to really identify as a greenie to be sustainable but now we all have a part to play. Waitrose banned disposable cups – we are moving towards a post-disposable world. I’m always asking, what is our place in that, how can we be part of it?

After 10 years, KeepCup has developed and competitors are emerging. Are you having very different conversations in the business now than you did at the outset?

We are, but we need to get back to those original conversations. When KeepCup started, we first had to prove there was an issue, then prove that we were the solution. Now we’ve moved from ‘why would I use a disposable cup?’, to ‘which disposable cup would I choose?’.

We have to reassess where we sit in the changing landscape. I believe shared products are going to enter the space, so you could grab a reusable cup, then return it when you’re done for someone else to use. I think KeepCup will always be a premium product in the owned space, associated with specialty coffee, but who knows?!

Knowing what you do now about your consumers and what drives purchasing decisions, would you have approached anything differently in the early days?

Probably not, we got the right message out at the right time, and that’s one of the reasons we succeeded. I didn’t realise it at the time, but I think my drive and active involvement drove the business from the outset. You have to learn and get feedback from your customers.

The thing I would’ve done differently is take a more careful approach to launching in new markets. We opened office in the UK in 2010, thinking the same thing would happen as in Australia, but it was a completely different. The way people drink coffee, their approach to sustainability, reception of Australian start-ups – were all different and we didn’t really consider those nuances very well.

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What’s your advice to brands that are interested in sustainability, but also want to create real behavioural change?

Start by providing a genuine solution to a problem you care about. Businesses are built by people talking to people. KeepCup’s success has been due to the story that’s been told and retold by people carrying a KeepCup. It’s about making those stories stick and the brand desirable, that gets people talking and behaviour change evolves from there. Understanding who the enablers / blockers are and really understanding the landscape is really important because people can open doors for you, if you talk to the right people.

How has your experience running a cafe differed to to running a global company?

The challenges are still the same, the main one for me as a leader is helping people connect what they’re doing everyday with the big picture. I love Oscar Wilde’s quote, “We’re all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars”.

In terms of business, when we started we’d often get people thinking we were a social enterprise or a charitable cause, but if you want to succeed you need sound commercial thinking to achieve cut through. You need people around you that share your values and ethics of running the business.

Celebrating 10 years of KeepCup is a huge milestone. What’s kept you motivated for the last decade?

There’s a part of me that’s quite competitive! My drive to succeed has run through whatever I’ve done; I’ve chosen something that suits my skills.

The business has been commercially successful, our cafe margins were razor thin so if you made a mistake you suffered dire consequences. As KeepCup is a good commercial business, we’ve had the luxury to be able to make some mistakes and start again.

Finally, working with really great people is really important. There are some people in the business who I’ve worked with for 10-15 years. Coming to work and seeing people who you enjoy working with every day makes it worthwhile.


Connect with Abigail Forsyth.

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Photography by Courtney King.