The effort coming from companies of all sizes to help their customers lessen their impact on the environment comes in many forms, with product ranges that are either already available or which are nearly there. Some of the examples we’ve featured clearly illustrate this, including a list as varied as plant-based baby toys and biodegradable trainers, to wood-based cars and barley-derived beer can holders.
There is one product in particular that has become incredibly popular among those looking to cut their dependency on single-use plastic, the reusable container. This week for 5 Minutes With… we put the questions to the director of a company in Australia that has made something of a success of them, Simon Karlik of Cheeki. Simon explains to Bio-Based World News’ Dave Songer about the journey the company has made to get to this point, the challenges he’s encountered along the way and where he would like to see Cheeki in the future.
Dave Songer (DS): Hi Simon, can you first tell me about Cheeki – how did it all start?
Simon Karlik (SK): My background is as an outdoor guide and educator, which I did before I built a brand of outdoor clothing that I owned for 10 years. After selling that I set up Cheeki in 2009 because I wanted to create something more meaningful that could make real positive change. Starting out with the slogan “No excuse for single use” that I put on stainless steel bottles along with the company logo, it’s fair to say that in those days most people had no idea what I was talking about. Now I’m happy to see that the issue of plastic pollution is at the front of many peoples’ minds around the world, so people understand what Cheeki’s mission is.
Since then we expanded the range into coffee cups and mugs, stainless steel lunch boxes, food jars and we will very soon also be launching drinking straws. It’s basically about providing a quality, innovative and colourful alternative to single-use plastics. At least here in Australia, I’d like to think that Cheeki contributed to the issue becoming better known; we have done numerous expo days, educational talks and other things of that nature.
DS: What does your role at Cheeki involve, and what do you most enjoy most about it?
SK: We have a team of about nine staff and growing and I am here to steer the ship, provide motivation and guidance. I have a hand in most parts of the business, from product design and marketing, to sales and hiring. The most enjoyable aspect is seeing the reaction from the retailers that love our brand – it sells well in places pretty far from Australia, like Lebanon, Singapore, New Caledonia, London and, just today, a big truck stop store in Oregon, USA. I know with every stage of growth that more people are adopting the refill, reuse message and enjoying our products, after all it’s clearly written on all our products, website and marketing materials!
DS: What is the biggest professional challenge you’ve faced?
SK: I would have to say designing our new bottle lids, a two-year project that was quite complicated. We were attempting two different versions: the first was to create a silicon shield on the base of the lids so that no plastics come into contact with any drinking water in the bottles. The second was an adjustable flow lid – slow flow for kids, a medium one for general use and then a fast flow for sports. It took many redesigns of each to get the products right.
DS: What advice would you give someone looking to get started in the sustainable/bio-based industry?
SK: I certainly would advise them to go for it but also to expect a lot of challenges. We have grown the business organically, which is a slightly slower route compared to those that have funding; our approach requires constant care and balancing growth versus cash flow requirements. I think this stems from my desire to not report to anybody and a bit of a fear of the unknown in the investor world. Having said that, I think we will want to seek investment in the next year as the business grows beyond my own comfort level.
DS: You recently attended the OutDoor Show in Germany. What did you talk about there and did you learn anything at the show?
(SK): I gave a brief history of Cheeki and our reason for being. I don’t know that I learned a lot at the show, just met a lot of good people, but I did learn that Germans are fabulous users of bicycles for everyday transport which is something I liked very much. From an environmental standpoint there weren’t any companies that really grabbed me. There were some lovely displays, great products and branding, but I am a little sceptical of the wave of ‘sustainable’ fabrics now marketed in the outdoor industry, for example, which are still made from synthetic materials – seems a bit like greenwash to me.
Also, carbon-neutral factories; planting trees somewhere doesn’t always negate others’ actions. It’s great that the sustainability issue is at the top of the agenda, but it’s important to see the outcomes through a reality filter.
DS: Where would you like to see Cheeki in ten years’ time?
SK: Ideally as a household brand in many parts of the world and to be continuing to drive the message of reusing containers and shunning convenient but nasty single-use plastics for a healthier world.
DS: What's your sustainable/bio-based vision of the future?
SK: It covers the issue of plastic. I would basically like to see far less packaging on grocery products, with a return to bulk food distribution. We have major supermarkets that are now banning plastic shopping bags, yet all their products are overly wrapped in plastic, which seems quite tokenistic to me. I would also like to see a good alternative marketed to plastic bags that can serve as bin liners.
Unfortunately Australia’s attitude to sustainable living doesn’t really compare to Europe and it lags some way behind, especially in northern Europe. Having said that I do think we’re ahead of the UK in many respects, but there is still a long, long way to go. Our waste output per capita is huge, and a lot of actions and talk are just tinkering at the edges.
DS: Thanks very much, Simon, it’s great to be able to get a perspective from Australia. All the best.