When asked her dream for her future, Melbourne entrepreneur Abigail Forsyth gracefully admits she is living it. As co-founder of KeepCup, an Australian design and eco-sustainability company that has gone global in just three years, she is helping drive positive behavioural change on an international scale and gets to indulge her creative spirit daily. Importantly, she also does the daily school drop-off and pick-up for her son and daughter, aged two and seven respectively. “That’s where my priority lies,” she says simply. With her brother, Jamie Forsyth, Abigail is encouraging a new way of living, one caffeine hit at a time.
KeepCup co-founder Abigail Forsyth suspects entrepreneurialism is in her bones. Her father owned a computer consumables business, and her grandfather a plumbing business. “I actually found a notebook I wrote when I was 12 of a sandwich business I’d run at dad’s work,” Abigail shares with her warm and infectious laugh. “I think I always had the entrepreneurial spirit. I wanted to be an artist or a publisher. I’m sort of doing a similar thing now – it’s all about influencing people and having a creative voice.”
After high school, with her parents’ encouragement, Abigail enrolled in a law degree at the University of Melbourne. “My parents said: ‘You can always go back to the art.’ And my art teacher said: ‘If you give up now it’ll take you 10 years to get back to the standard you are now at 16’. But I gave it up and I tried to go back but I haven’t managed to.”
After graduating, Abigail worked for five years in a small Melbourne law firm, but when her brother, Jamie Forsyth, suggested she sideline her law career and join him in running a cafe business, her innate off-the-cuff character convinced her to jump in. “I just thought: ‘That sounds like fun’,” Abigail explains of the seemingly big decision to quit law and work in a cafe kitchen. “I didn’t really pause to think about it too deeply. I thought: ‘I’m a good cook – how hard can it be?’” she laughs at her naivety.
In 1998, Abigail and Jamie launched Bluebag cafes in Melbourne, where they sold fresh sandwiches, salads and coffee in a takeaway format. In Bluebag, they invested 12 years of blood, sweat and tears. During that time the ethical conundrum of sending paper and plastic out the doors all day, everyday convinced them they needed to be part of the environmental solution rather than the problem.
The idea for KeepCup – the first barista-standard reusable takeaway cup – came one morning in 2007 when she questioned why she would give her toddler daughter warm milk in a reusable cup yet, at work, Abigail would sip coffee from a disposable cup. Abigail and Jamie began researching the market and found that available reusable coffee cups were ugly, bulky to carry, and didn’t fit under barista machines. So in October 2007, the siblings engaged CobaltNiche industrial designers to realise their vision for KeepCup.
After close to two years of research, design and much nail-biting, KeepCup launched in June 2009 at the Melbourne Design Market. It ticked all the boxes: KeepCup was of barista standard, lightweight, BPA-free, non-toxic, dishwasher safe, microwaveable, of low embodied energy in manufacture, and beautiful to look at with pretty colours and a simple design. Abigail recalls the take-up from the get-go was “just wild”. “We were mobbed,” she recalls of their first public pitch at the Design Market. “We sold 1000 cups in six hours. People were saying, ‘I don’t even know what this is but I want one’.”
KeepCup’s website provides some compelling facts and figures for finding an alternative to disposable cups. Most takeaway coffee cups aren’t made from recycled paper but from bleached virgin paperboard, sprayed with a polyethylene coating and often lined with plastic and impregnated with toxic dyes. This makes them difficult to recycle and a single cup can take 50 years or more to biodegrade. It’s also alarming to learn from KeepCup that 71% of the world’s paper supply comes from diminishing forests, not tree farms or the recycle bin.
The heartening news is that, in just three years, more than 800,000 KeepCups have sold worldwide – in Australia, New Zealand, the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Japan and Scandinavia, to name a few willing players. And KeepCup notes that Australian customers alone can be proud they have stopped more than 70,000 trees being felled for paper pulp. Based on research, KeepCup anticipates the break-even with disposable cups to be as low as 15 uses.
But Abigail says facts and figures aren’t likely to inspire people to act sustainably. “We’ve got some great statistics now but I think people have trouble understanding numbers and facts – they don’t resonate as much as a great story and something positive that’s inspiring,” she says. “Also, I think sustainability can get quite one-upmanship as well. That sort of attitudecan go hand-in-hand with sustainability and it’s dangerous; it disenfranchises a lot of people.”
Instead, Abigail’s goal is to use KeepCup as a platform to keep the sustainability conversation open and positive. “What we’re trying to say is we all have a part to play in the conversation. Everyone has got something they can think about or a new way to do things, and they shouldn’t feel intimidated to identify as a greenie in order to do things better or more efficiently or with more fun.”
Abigail admits there have been many challenges along the way. Like when the first run of cups leaked. “We had already sold some to EnergyAustralia and we’d delivered them and they weren’t right. That was really stressful and we’d already sunk a lot of money into the process and here we’d sold cups and this cup was leaking! But in the scheme of things it was a blip – it was six weeks of stress.”
Abigail says KeepCup’s journey has been overwhelmingly smooth. “KeepCup rolls along fairly fluidly and I think there’s something in that. If it works in a fluid way, you’re probably on the right track and if it’s really hard, try a different tack.” In comparison, Abigail recalls how, after many years working on Bluebag, she wasn’t enjoying her role. “But you get so stuck in the groove of doing it and pushing forward and wanting to succeed.” It took becoming a mum and taking time out on maternity leave to force Abigail to rethink her career. “And I thought: ‘Is this really what I want to be doing for the next five to ten years?’ So it was that compulsory pause that gave me the courage to do KeepCup.”
Abigail says she is inspired by many people, foremost her friends and family. When Abigail needs wisdom to guide her she remembers two simple words a uni friend would always say: “Be grateful”. “And I always think of that. Just be grateful for the things you’ve got. We’re very lucky.”