On the face of it, £40 is quite a lot to pay for a reusable drinks bottle—even one that sports an arresting design while also being fully recyclable.
Of course, increasing numbers of people are prepared to pay a premium for bottles that can be used again and again—not least because we all know the environmental cost of buying drinks in containers that are used once and then thrown away. But the earth and design-conscious consumer can buy something that is attractive and practical for around £10 upwards in the U.K. So why go for a more expansive option? One answer might be that buying into the product also supports a program to reduce plastic pollution.
But how does that work exactly? That was something I was keen to find out from Will Pearson and Nick Doman, cofounders of Ocean Bottle. Based in the U.K. the company, has come to market with a product that promises not only to provide an environment-friendly alternative to the plastic bottle but also to divert some of its profits to directly tackling the growing problem of river and ocean pollution. In short, what they’re setting out to do is build a purpose-driven business on the back of a class of product that isn’t usually considered earth-shattering, life-changing or disruptive.
So, when I spoke to Pearson and Doman, I was keen to find how they strike a balance between remaining competitive in a crowded marketplace while also delivering on their goal of making a genuine (and that probably means measurable) impact on the environmental degradation problem.
As Pearson explains, research into the damage caused by plastic was the catalyst for setting up the Ocean Bottle business. “I wanted to found out more about the problem and what I learned was horrifying,” he says. “Around 22 million kilograms of plastic enter the oceans every day.”
Having met at business school, Pearson and Doman considered ways to address the issue through the medium of a purpose/profit venture. But why did they opt the increasingly ubiquitous reusable bottle? “Anyone can buy a bottle—so anyone can help address the problem,” says Pearson.
It’s a simple enough concept. When a consumer buys one of the company’s bottles, 20 percent of the sales price goes to a scheme that enables local communities in Asia and South and Central America to make money by clearing up plastic waste in their own areas and delivering it for recycling.
In one sense, it’s a model that could be applied to almost every consumer product by simply shaving off a percentage of the margin to support a good cause of choice. But Pearson and Doman felt that selling something already available wouldn’t really deliver on the goal. They felt it was necessary to take a root and branch approach. “We knew it wouldn’t work with an existing product. So we had to build something from the ground up. That would give us the ability to be uncompromising,” says Doman.
The Ocean Bottle was created by an Oslo design agency with the aim of something combined utility with aesthetic. But there’s a bit of tech involved as well. In addition to being suitable for hot and cold drinks, the bottle contains a chip that can be scanned when retailers fill it up. At that point, more money is allocated to plastic waste collection.
But here’s the question. Can a retail play like this one contribute in any real sense to the creation of a greener and less polluted planet? Or is this simply a piece of green-tinged marketing—a means to sell more product?
The co-founders stress the importance of providing real numbers. According to the company’s own figures, each sale results in the equivalent of around 1,000 plastic bottles being collected and recycled in the target communities.
The key to this is a partnership with Plastic Bank—a company that enables people from local communities to profit from plastic collection, using our new friend, blockchain technology to measure the collected waste and allocate funding.
In addition, Ocean Bottle has made a point of publishing data relating its purpose. “We agreed from the beginning to hold ourselves accountable,” says Doman. The headline metric is that to date the company has funded the recovery of around 1.4 million kilograms of bottles on the back of about 124,000 units sold. The blockchain ledger provides full visibility.
The company began selling through an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign. Since then it has established a number of promotional partnerships, notably with Ed Sheeran—who used the product on his last tour.
So will this make a significant difference? Well, the company itself acknowledges that with around 22 million kilograms of plastic entering the ocean every day, this is a big problem. Consequently, no one initiative is going to turn the problem around. It requires a lot of people and organizations to be putting time, energy and imagination into the task. To be honest, it probably also requires governments around the world to be improving recycling and incentivizing people to stop throwing their plastic junk away.
That said, every little bit helps. But us this about the environment or profit. Pearson and Doman do not see the two things as mutually exclusive. “With purpose comes profit,” says Doman.