Such a fun conversation with Safia Qureshi, CEO and founder of CupClub, a maker of reusable packaging being used by major NextGen consortium brands like Starbucks. We discussed the future of materials, the circular economy, how Safia’s background in architecture and design influenced her approach, the importance of research and user testing, why transparency is so important when it comes to sustainability, the importance of London towards the development of cutting edge design and more!’

Here is the audio. The excerpts below are lightly edited:

MCWALTER: Can you tell us a little bit about CupClub?

QURESHI: CupClub I founded in 2015. It started with me wanting to consume food and beverages on the go without having to use any form of single use packaging. So I was very passionate about building a more sustainable way to distribute food and beverages and I thought there needs to be a better way than what we’re currently doing. And so I started with the drinks industry because it’s by far one of the highest volume in consumption of single use packaging.

MCWALTER: During the early days what research did you engage in?

QURESHI: We put together research across the whole user experience, starting from the consumer and understanding the landscape of the issue. So how big is this market? Why do people currently use what they use and would they prefer something better? I’ve always been a big believer in empathy when it comes to designing and thinking through all the various stakeholders that are going to be a part of this user journey. There is the end user but then also the retailer. For example observing, why do baristas love single use cups? What are the things that are so fantastic about it operationally? It is really important not to ignore those points. And if you want to try and swap out for new cups, the level of optimization required simply because of the speed with which things move really has to be thought through. So empathetically looking at baristas, people who are serving in fast food, retail, understanding order times and fraction of seconds, things like that and then moving through the whole landscape map. 

Also we observed, waste companies, if something like CupClub was to come around, what would be their reaction? So there’s a lot of consideration to be made and of course if I’m an architect by training so I’m very well versed with working with people who don’t want to be in the same room quite usually, planners, engineers etc. Everyone’s trying to make sure that their form of the vision is accepted and implemented and so everyone’s coming at this with their own vested interests and usually the architect is trying to balance all the voices in the room. Because our ultimate aim is to design for well being. 

MCWALTER: In terms of getting that understanding, were you sitting in the likes of Starbucks and taking notes with a stopwatch?

QURESHI:  Yeah, absolutely. And I actually put a really interesting team together in the early stages to just do research very thoroughly for the first six to eight weeks and we synthesized all of these observations. This is across all of the stakeholders. Then we produced some samples and test products that we then put into the London design festival and invited the public to come and see it and give us their feedback. We wanted to engage people with this idea in real time to see what are their reactions? Not giving them a lot of time or information just confronting them with something  It’s harder to get that sort of data if you’ve put people in a room and paid them. Or if you’ve prepared them with some material, they’ll come at it with certain biases. Or they’ll say things like, of course, I’ll be willing to pay five pounds extra for the subscription, and then the ultimate answer is no. So yeah, there’s a lot of those aspects to understand. And so we boiled all that down, we did a series of pop ups, and then that led us to small pilots, which then led us to bigger implementation, and then we got some funding and then we scaled.

MCWALTER: What’s the main changes in people’s approach to sustainability in the last five years? Is it mostly driven by the consumer or large enterprises?

QURESHI: It’s a very good question. It takes a village. If you think of it from the highest level with the MacArthur Foundation setting of really interesting vision for the circular economy, and then you come down to so that’s kind of the more specific NGOs have been talking about this for many, many decades, but we had one that was dedicated specifically around optimization of products reusability. Then you also had figures like David Attenborough, who, with their work on nature focused documentaries and but a fantastic platform to create awareness in people. There are now generations born with his voice in their mind when watching nature documentaries. So when you hear a voice like that tell you things that you’re not really expecting in 2017, and we saw this awakening of consumer conscience and awareness. And that led to a lot of corporates starting to realize that they had to make a change. The problem’s around sustainability was actually always very evident when it came to the corporate side. Every business operating in this space was very fully aware of recycling rates and the pollution crisis; they just didn’t do anything. And their argument would be to hide behind the consumer not caring. And so in 2017, the moment that happened, we saw this immense backlash. And that culminated in a lot of things moving a lot faster for us when it came to consumer packaging.

MCWALTER:  Are large brands typically creating their packaging in house and so are you, in essence, competing with internal processes or more with old school competitors that are out there in the world?

QURESHI:  That’s a good question. The brands themselves don’t make the packaging per se. But they will order it specific to their needs. So that that’s kind of how it works. The brands will then be working with some form of waste company that might be collecting that product and sending it for recycling. And their interest might be or might not be to try and obtain the recycled materials so that they can come back into their supply chain. And then they sometimes mix in the middle distributors who might be moving the product from the manufacturers to retailers depending on their size. So that’s the current linear economy model.  Versus the likes of us come along with the circular economy approach and we say to a brand we’re going to produce a product designed for durability and reuse and we’re going to optimize it and track each item as opposed to on a SKU basis. And then we will integrate this into your existing technology systems.

MCWALTER: If you can go into the supply chain, what is the life of a cup from CupClub?

QURESHI:  Products are manufactured and distributed depending on region. The UK and the US are the two areas of operations with beverage containers of varying sizes from eight ounce up to 20 ounce. Essentially once it’s in circulation, it will make its way to a retail outlet. The retailer will set it up internally and a customer will come in and order, they get the option for reuse. And it’s at that moment depending on the varying degree of technology requirements in store. Instead of taking away a single use, they take this reusable and when they’re finished, they drop it back to any of the drop points network that we are servicing across the city. Those are usually in stores or at the entrance to major public banks or airports, for example. You drop it back into one of those drop points and that customer journey is finished. We then collect the cup, bring it back to our washing depot where it’s sanitized, washed, dried, and then sent back to the retailer. And so typically each product has a lifecycle. It’s designed for 1000 uses, but we typically use it for 250 and then it goes into end of life recycling. So we then bulk collect them, bail them, and then when they’ve reached a certain capacity, we send them for recycling. And both our products that we use for materials are the most highly valuable and recyclable plastics within the ecosystem. So we had to design materials that also had a reusability.

MCWALTER: Looking at your website, you put up your sustainability report from a couple of years ago, and I absolutely loved the transparency. You mentioned that it’s 250 reuses. How many reuses does it need to meet the same carbon impact of disposable cups?

QURESHI:  66. We were happy to publish the sustainability report and lead by example. So the methodology is very much following the journey of the product from the material selection, through to manufacturing and shipment to whichever geography it is in. We are more conservative with some of our methodology and so the number we target to have 50% lower carbon footprint is a cup reused 132 times. 

MCWALTER: It sounds like you have been very UK focused, but I think there were some big moves into the US in the last six months?

QURESHI:  Yeah, it’s been super hectic and very exciting. We were selected as one out of like four to 500 businesses globally, by the NextGen Cup Challenge consortium of brands which includes Starbucks, McDonald’s, Coke, Yum brands, Nestle and Wendy’s. They were excited about the opportunity to work and reuse and come up with alternatives that would enable them to improve their supply chains, reduce their consumption, etc. We were selected and invited to launch in the US market. So that was a good growth opportunity for us. And that’s what brought us to launch in March 2020 across the bay area. And to test this, we collaborated with local cafes on the ground. For example, the technology functionality, the full in-store experience and we worked with IDEO’s research team on the ground to help us synthesize and record all the data as well. So super fun and really exciting. And all just before COVID. So luckily, we managed to get all of that done before things got a bit hairy.

MCWALTER:  Do you think that there will be a mass banning of disposable items at some point in the future?

QURESHI:  It has started already. The European legislation produced quite an extensive documentation around this. They started with the research, which then led them to identify key items that they wanted to phase out. And then a timeline against it. So exactly when and how and what the grace periods would be for different brands and businesses to adopt this. And so it’s not a matter of if, it’s it’s more a case of exactly when is this going to happen.  And this is something that we are acutely aware of and quite we discussed this quite a lot in the team is how do we avoid the same mistakes that we have seen in the recycling industry. 

MCWALTER: You mentioned a little bit earlier the concept of the circular economy. What are other areas of sustainability that you think are the next to really benefit from this circular economy concept?

QURESHI:  I would say textiles are going to go through significant developments. It already is, but I’m looking for it to go into something a little bit more mainstream. So I think when it comes to the production of textiles, the way that it’s made, how it’s made, that there are so many different implications around the world supply chain.

MCWALTER:  How does your growing up in London and living in London affect your approach?

QURESHI: I guess maybe the thing about being an architect specifically in London is that we’ve had some of the best people coming through our institutions, schooling and then into practice. So if you think of the likes of the late Zaha Hadid, and you have all the amazing European architects who have contributed to thinking about cities and development. What does the future look like? So I would say the fact that you’re geographically in a space where there’s a lot of discourses, a lot of discussion and collaboration, that’s been really rewarding. So for me, the city itself offers so much but the fact that we’re, you know, at a stone’s throw away from cities like Barcelona and you can understand the heritage and the history behind how cities have been developing across diverse cultures and you gain a sort of building block to how design works. I’ve been pretty lucky with having that context.

MCWALTER: Are you considering different types of disposable packaging besides cups? 

QURESHI:  Yes. We wanted to understand and build a methodology for one vertical first, so we could get to a point where we tested the whole system and understood the commercial and scalability requirements, consumer requirements, retail etc and be able to get very comfortable with one vertical before moving that methodology into others. So stay tuned. There’s more to come on expanding into new product categories. It’s going to be very exciting. And there’s a little bit of a rebrand that’s going to happen as an effect of that!

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