Good is the New Cool
Good business is about more than good profits. Of course, money matters, big time, but at the core of businesses like Good Citizens, is a purpose. Good Citizens’ purpose? To untrash our planet, one single-use plastic bottle at a time. We meet Nik Robinson who, along with wife Jocelyne and sons Harry and Archie, has successfully turned a single-use plastic bottle into a 100% recycled, 100% recyclable, 100% cool pair of sunglasses. These sunglasses are as much a statement about sustainability and ethics as they are a reminder to listen to our children. Meet the original Good Citizens, aka the Robinsons.
On March 4, 2020 history was made. An Australian company, Good Citizens, manufactured and packaged #1 of 1000 pairs of sunglasses destined for its 360 KickStarter backers who have waited almost one year to receive the product they purchased. What’s made the wait worthwhile for those patient eyewear enthusiasts, is that Good Citizens have successfully developed a way to recycle one single-use 600ml plastic bottle into one statement pair of sunglasses that are stylish, practical and affordable. The sunnies are also 100% recycled, and 100% recyclable (including the hinges). It’s an accomplishment almost three years in the making, and a total game changer when you think about the sheer volume of plastic we throw away and the potential for it to be 100% recycled into new products. In an ideal future, that could mean no more virgin PET plastic required – ever.
Good Citizens is a feel-good business story of taking a small idea, a simple idea, and turning it into an ethical, sustainable business. The protagonists are the Robinsons; dad Nik, mum Jocelyne, 9-year-old Harry and 7-year-old Archie. And while the Good Citizens story is really only at its beginning, the early chapters are inspiring.
From little things, big things grow.
The idea for Good Citizens came about in 2018 when eldest son Harry was just seven years old. Passionate about the environment and recycling, as many of our younger generations are, Harry applied for his school’s Green Team and was denied, three times. (He got it in 2020 though!) The discussions at the kitchen table around waste and recycling came thick and fast, fuelling Harry’s genuine concern for the environment. ‘What happens to rubbish after we put it in the bin? Where does the recycling go? Where next? What about after that?’
“Initially the kids’ discussions about the environment would kind of bug me,” confesses Nik Robinson, “because they don’t have what we have as adults which is perspective. I could tell they were quite anxious, so I sought to understand what I didn’t know before answering.”
In isolation, these questions may have just ended with quick answers (thanks Google), but it’s funny how sometimes a topic shows itself at different times in many ways, forcing you to pay attention.
Soon after, a former boss of Nik’s travelled to Thailand. “I told him to visit Krabi Beach, which I’d visited 25 years ago when I was 18 and backpacking. I remember sitting on that beach thinking how beautiful it was’. Anyway, he texted me later explaining he couldn’t get anywhere near the beach because it was full of plastic rubbish! I was mortified.”
Nik uses the analogy of being a Formula One racing car driver, sitting on the grid, and the lights come on, one, two, three, four, then his foot hits the accelerator. “My little lights came on during different conversations with different people. I just felt like we had to do something, we had to explore this.”
After four days spent on a solo brainstorming session, Nik returned home and presented four business ideas to his family. The Robinsons voted.
“We started with one bottle. ‘What can we do with a bottle?’ We weighed it, we looked at it, we drew different ideas,” says Nik. “The kids wanted to create a spaceship, but I explained it might melt re-entering the atmosphere. We settled on sunglasses, a product everyone has.”
Nik spent every spare moment of the next four months researching the sunglasses industry, and the recycling technology available. He came to realise that many brands green-washed their products, marketing them as ‘recycled’ or ‘eco-friendly’ without much accountability.
The recycling and plastic waste problem is no small issue. In fact, it’s a big problem that’s only getting bigger. Globally, we use around 500 billion plastic bottles each year. We’ll hit 580 billion by 2021. Most plastic bottles for water and soft drinks are made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which is highly recyclable. However, only around half of PET plastic bottles are collected for recycling, and just 7% are made into new bottles. The world produces around 20,000 new bottles every second, with sales of water bottles increasing. For many, disposability, disguised as convenience, rules.
While Nik and Harry’s solution – create sunglasses made from 100% recycled plastic, which can be 100% recycled, and with every purchase 1kg of rubbish (approximately 45 plastic bottles) is removed from our oceans – isn’t going to fix the issue, it does inspire other businesses to think about their products, processes and purpose. How can businesses be more ethical? Be more sustainable? Be part of a bigger solution, instead of just producing more and more waste?
“There’s enough plastic on the planet already that we could just stop producing virgin plastic altogether.”
“People really, really hate plastic at the moment, but plastic is actually not a bad material, it’s a wonderful material if used correctly, because it can be reused,” says Nik. “Our sunglasses were a bottle. Today they’re my glasses and in six years’ time they might become a Dyson hoover. They can be recycled. I don’t know where they’ll go from here, but what I do know is if you leave them in the ground they’ll be there for 700 years.”
As well as being 100% recycled and 100% recyclable, Nik has designed Good Citizens sunglasses to be fixable. The arms, hinges and frames all clip together, so if a piece breaks, you can mail it back to Good Citizens and purchase a new piece. Your old broken piece will be recycled. No waste.
Even the felt cases that hold the sunglasses are made of 60% recycled PET, with the goal of eventually getting this to 100%. The delivery service is 100% carbon neutral, the delivery satchel is made from 100% biodegradable and compostable materials, the box packaging is 100% recycled cardboard printed with plant-based ink, and all manufacturing takes place in Sydney, Australia. For every pair purchased, 1kg of waste (approximately 45 plastic bottles) is pulled out of the ocean.
“I think purpose is a really key thing, and I think purpose has kept us on track,” says Nik, who developed the company’s purpose and four key values during that initial pitching session with his family. “Our purpose is to untrash our planet. Those three words – untrash our planet – drive every decision, even me doing this interview with you now,” explains Nik.
“Our innovative approach to recycling has led to mentions in media like National Geographic Magazine, The Design Files, Sydney Morning Herald and more. That’s been amazing, but what makes this particular interview [with Success North Queensland] all the more special is that you are based along the Great Barrier Reef, and many of your readers will feel an obligation and passion to protect that stretch of coastline.”
Good Citizens’ four values are to 1) only make things out of recycled materials, 2) make a product that lasts, is fixable, and won’t fall to bits, 3) no one or the planet gets harmed, and 4) everybody that ever works with us gets time with their children. (That final value was a specific addition from Harry who was seven at the time.)
People don’t buy charity, they buy cool products.
In developing the Good Citizens brand, Nik had an advantage beyond a super cool business idea, a work ethic and an enthusiastic team. Nik’s professional background is as a Creative Director. Before designing Good Citizens from the ground up, he worked in branding and marketing, worked in radio and created TV shows. He and Jocelyne owned a high-end advertising agency, which he left to establish a boutique PR firm to service those who couldn’t afford his previous firm’s rates. “Our agency was 75% social enterprises, not for profits and charities, and the other 25% brought in the money.”
Using his expertise, Nik shaped Good Citizens’ brand. The next step was to make the product cool. “I hate the word ‘cool’,” confesses Nik. “But people don’t buy charity, they buy cool products. We wanted to make a great product, that wasn’t tacky because that wouldn’t work. We wanted to make a product that made you go, ‘oh wow, that’s just one bottle?!’ It becomes a conversation starter – ‘Yeh, just one bottle, manufactured with a completely transparent process, made in Sydney, Australia. 100% recycled. 100% recyclable. No metal, just one plastic bottle.’”
Good things come to those who persist.
After the research and early design phase, Nik found an industrial design company and used the family’s savings to further develop designs and manufacture prototypes. At $75k spent, Nik launched a KickStarter campaign to determine whether consumers saw the potential for their product. “If no one had backed us, I would have said to my family: ‘We’ve spent six months and $75k, let’s just quit while we’re ahead’.”
The KickStarter campaign launched April 2019 with a target of $20,000. It reached that goal in six minutes, and continued to $61,700 with 360 backers from all over the world, all pre-purchasing a product that didn’t exist yet.
“There were challenges in our production, and if I had reduced to 80% recycled every problem we had would have gone away. I wrote to our backers and said, ‘I’m really sorry your glasses are four months late, but I don’t want to stop at 80% recycled’. I got all these wonderful messages back going, ‘that’s why we backed you’.”
In March 2020, the first backers received their Good Citizens sunglasses and the wider public is now able to purchase eyewear as well. To date Good Citizens has begun its commitment to untrashing our planet: 462 people have purchased sunglasses, 1250 single-use bottles have been turned into sunglasses and felt cases, 1352kg of plastic has been removed from our oceans, and more than 10 million people have heard about Good Citizens. Not bad for the first few chapters.
Looking to the years ahead, Nik sees the potential for Good Citizens to set up workshops in other countries to produce product locally. He also sees endless potential for other products the Robinsons could manufacture from PET plastic bottles. (He has one in mind, but is staying hush.)
While Nik has been contacted by overseas governments and businesses inviting him to set up shop in their country, with many incentives, Nik says he’s staying put in Australia. “A lovely big tax incentive and mentoring sounds wonderful, but I’ve got kids here, and we’ve got a lovely life here,” tells Nik. “It’s not just about money, it’s about building something that’s going to provide for the family and also make a real change. And Australia is a really great place to do that.”
Anyone wanting to learn more about Good Citizens’ impact or become a Good Citizen by purchasing a pair of sunglasses can head to goodcitizens.com.au