Business & Sustainability Secrets From The Co-Founder Of KeepCup



If you entered any suburban café last year, chances are, your latte order would have sat in a line of disposable paper cups. Fast forward to today, and those paper cups have been replaced by a line-up of colourful reusable cups that are ready to play host to the morning caffeine hit...

While many may attribute this shift to the ABC’s War on Waste (which is must-viewing for anyone interested in how their purchasing habits are impacting our environment), we really have Abigail Forsyth to thank for allowing us to take a sustainable step forward in the realm of environmentally friendly coffee drinking.

As the co-founder of KeepCup, Abigail has spearheaded the movement toward reusable coffee cups, with her much-loved range of stylish and functional mugs. Designed in Australia and manufactured in Melbourne, the UK and Los Angeles, KeepCups are now sold in over 65 countries. Even more impressively, since June 2009, over eight million KeepCups have been sold, with coffee drinkers diverting billions of disposable cups from landfill. For context, in this time, approximately 5 trillion disposable cups have been made and discarded to landfill.

As well as running this impressive empire, Abigail is raising a family and has officially become an inspiration for mothers looking to change the world, right after we drink that coffee.

Go to www.keepcup.com


Tell us about yourself – in particular, your business and your children…

My name is Abigail Forsyth and I’m the co-founder and managing director of KeepCup. My husband David Cairns and I are raising a blended family; we’ve got an eight-year-old boy, Clarence, my daughter Bess is 13, and David’s son Jetson is 15.


What does a typical day look like for you?

I’m just not a morning person, I think I’m an afternoon person these days. Make the school lunches, take one or two of the children to school and then off to work. I walk to work when I can. A day at work will involve some meetings, working on plans and projects, meeting customers or suppliers – it’s a very varied work schedule which I enjoy. I travel 2-3 times a year to our offices in London and Los Angeles, and to tradeshows or to visit suppliers. It sounds glamorous, but I invariably freak out the week before I go, worried about missing the kids. Then I get there and get totally absorbed in what I’m doing, and by day five I’m ready to move there. The day before I leave, whenever that is, I’m desperate to be home.


You have managed to build one of the Australia’s most well-known and beloved brands, while raising a family. How have you managed that juggle? (Or perhaps – what is your secret!?)

It is a juggle and if I’m lucky I’m doing a good job of one – being a good mum, or a good a managing director. But it’s pretty hard to do both well at the same time. So it’s about striking a balance; the thing that’s difficult for the kids is how your work/life focus ebbs and flows. So sometimes you’re intensely involved and distracted, and other times you’re not, but of course, it’s not necessarily at convenient times in their lives that these things happen. I have found it easier to compartmentalise as the kids have gotten older, and they’re pretty good at holding me to account.

There’s no secret. Everyone who wants to do a decent job of anything needs support – and the more support you have, the better you do. My husband has worked at times three days a week (currently four) just to keep the wheels turning at home. And we get heaps of help; my parents, aunts and uncles, friends. I have an executive assistant, a professional support group, a fantastic team at work. We have a cleaner, a gardener, help with the kids two nights after school. If there is a secret, that’s it – help and support.


How do you currently split your time between work and family? Has this changed as your children have grown?

The split of work/life balance changes significantly as your children grow. And I think the hardest of the years is when they’re between 0 to 5 years old, when there’s no punctuation of the weekend, it’s constant. Whereas when they get a bit older and go to school, it’s easier to manage your schedule around their needs. I recently had a holiday and it was the first time in 10 years that I’ve completely switched off. I removed all the apps on my phone. It was quite illuminating – after 10 years, I now know how the rest of the world feels with a bit of Mondayitis!


Tell us a bit about the inspiration behind KeepCup...

KeepCup is about inspiring people to reduce and reuse. The inspiration, or call to action, came from my daughter Bess. My brother and I were running cafés in the Melbourne CBD and saw the rise and rise of the disposable cup. We thought, this is incredibly wasteful – but the between leap from running a café business to becoming a manufacturer of a reusable alternative was huge. Bess was a toddler at the time. I would go to work and have a coffee in a disposable cup, and Bess would be having her milk in a sippy cup. I thought, would I give her milk in a disposable cup? That just seemed so wrong. It was the moment that made me realise that the business needed to be about behaviour change – changing what was normal and acceptable was going to be the key to unlocking the transformation.


How have you seen KeepCup evolve – particularly over the past year – with such a focus on the War on Waste?

KeepCup has grown as a campaign supported by a product, designed to reduce disposable cup waste. The ABC’s War on Waste, which aired in 2017, was a watershed moment. We thought we were doing really well, but it literally doubled the business overnight. It was a real turning point, just so wonderful and amazing. It was proof that when people understand an issue – particularly when it’s presented in the kind of respectful and inclusive way Craig Reucassel did on the show – that people will step up to do something about it.

From a business point of view, every system and operating process we had, broke. We had to move front to back through the business to increase our capacity to respond to demand, which was pretty gruelling. We’re at a point now where we’ve hiring another four to six senior people to consolidate KeepCup’s future.

And we’re also thinking about what that means – how do we stay part of the solution and not become part of the problem? Reusable cups, as a product category, has expanded; we need to get in front of that conversation again, take only what you will use, reduce and reuse. Sustainability is a journey; I’ve been careful never to present myself as a personal authority on sustainability because I’m a businesswoman. I know about running a sustainable business. I do this because it’s the truth, but also to be inclusive – we all come at the problem from different perspectives and no one has all the answers. Someone asked me the other day, “is your office paperless?” and I said, “oh no, it’s not – add that to the list of jobs!”. There’s always more you can do to improve what you’re doing personally and professionally. So keep going, think about the consequences and be mindful.


Do you have any tips for parents who are looking to make more sustainable choices? Be it in their own lifestyles, or their children’s lunchboxes?

Well, what is certain is that we can’t buy our way out of this. Sustainability issues are complex, but the hierarchy of principles is incontrovertible. Reduce, reuse, recycle – recycling is a last resort. It’s about reducing the number of things we have, and the things we consume. It’s such an exciting time in your life when you have particularly young children to create a family. I don’t want to be prescriptive, but do what’s right for you and your family, think about the home you are creating and what suits you.


What are your tips for women trying to juggle work and family?

My tips for women trying to juggle work and family; I mean, goodness, I’m in such a privileged position that my advice might seem a little glib, in that I can afford to get help to do what I need to do. I guess my tip would be to understand we’re all in it together – it’s not a women’s issue, it’s a family issue. It takes a village to raise a child. Work/life balance is required for both parents.


Do you think women can have it all?

For business owners, the onus is on us to create workplace metrics and structures that support flexibility equitably in the workplace. Making choices is a sustainability issue. You can’t have it all. Be conscious of what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and the impact and consequences of the choices you are making.


What has been the most surprising thing about motherhood for you?

The most surprising thing about motherhood has probably been that tension between the familiar and the strange. Thinking I can see consequences or the outcomes of personality or behaviour, but replayed in a different person at a different time. To paraphrase Heraclitus, ‘No woman ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and she’s not the same woman’.

The path ahead is unknown. So it’s about letting go; finding that balance between having your children be empowered to make their own choices, and protecting them. The surprise for me has been the subtlety of that dance, knowing when to let go and knowing when to hang on.


What are the top lessons you hope to impart on your children?

I guess the main lesson I want to impart upon my children would be about family, love and friendship. They’re the most important things and if you look after them – if that’s your baseline – that will give you enormous strength, courage and empathy. Also, that we’re so privileged, and privilege comes with a responsibility to do right and stick to their values. Question everything, and keep a sense of wonder alive.


Finish this sentence. Motherhood is…

Motherhood is a great privilege and wonderful adventure.


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