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Green.i.am: How will.i.am is on a mission to make sustainable brand Ekocycle profitable

As the brand collaboration between will.i.am and Coca-Cola, Ekocycle, launches in the UK The Drum’s Natalie Mortimer catches up with the singer about making waste cool.

Will.i.am likes solving problems. By his own admission his mind “works by pattern matching”. And it was via this diagnostic method of thinking that he dreamt up Ekocycle, an eco-friendly brand that creates products from recycled plastic bottles, after gazing at the aftermath of a Black Eyed Peas concert six years ago.

Originally launched last year in the US, the mission at Ekocycle is to use recycled materials to create desirable consumer products through a collaboration with various brands including Adidas, Globe-Trotter, H Brothers and MCM.

The Ekocycle idea came from a "couple of things,” he tells The Drum, as he sits in Harrods, the exclusive stockist of Ekocycle. “Going to Ted talks and Google Zeitgeist and learning about new technologies, and then going to an after party after our concert and seeing the aftermath with all the plastic bottles on the ground – those things inspired Ekocycle.”

Embedded in that is the ethos "Waste is only waste if we waste it", and so he pitched the idea to Coca-Cola on his birthday in March 2009 and began the long journey of wrangling partnerships, setting out manufacturing guidelines and figuring out how to make waste “cool”.

The original idea for Ekocycle - which uses the word coke spelled backwards - that was presented to Coca-Cola hasn’t changed much over the process, which the drinks maker's chief sustainability officer Bea Perez explains.

“Part of [will.i.am’s] story was ‘I think we can get people to take the bottle [off the ground] and put it into the bin if they simply knew what it turned into and it was cool and something they wanted’”.

“Will has a goal and ambition around consumer waste. [He told us] ‘I want to partner high-end luxury items to get people excited and then go into the masses’”.

The range spans from womenswear and menswear clothing to accessories, home interiors, a 3D printer and a portable bike. Each item comes labelled with the amount of plastic bottles used to create it; for example a tie contains two whereas a jacket contains 28.

For the brand - or “movement” as will.i.am refers to it - to succeed in being construed as cool, a three-pronged approach of partners, design and retail is in position.

“It’s the partners and the design and the retail – you have to have all three. Because for some reason, unfortunately, the configuration of society is that you can see there are awesome products that are out in the world but if it’s in the wrong store you probably wouldn’t buy it.

“Our partnerships are important for how we sustain Ekocycle, So MCM is important because they make aspirational goods and [provide] the community that has already adopted MCM. Same with Globe-Trotter, same with H Brothers and more importantly the same with Harrods. So if we have great design, great products, great partners, a vision and a mission and the people that shop at Harrods are the first to help us execute that mission, I think we have all the right ingredients for success.”

As the seed of Ekocycle begins to flower, will.i.am now sees his role as a partnership negotiator as well as a champion of standalone brand products, something Ekocycle has yet to produce due to budgetary constraints.

The end goal then, says will.i.am, is to recondition consumers in to accepting eco-products as the norm.

“What’s happening is folks that live a green life have a title, while business as usual that’s hurting the planet has no title but it makes so much money. So the goal is to make green profitable so that becomes business as usual… The mission is to make that profitable so we all benefit from it.”

Having built himself into a brand in his own right with the launch of various projects including eyewear range ill.i.Optics and Puls smartband (he’s also a founding shareholder in Beats Electronics) does will.i.am view Ekocycle as an extension of that?

“I see it as our brand,” he says after a pause. “Before this jacket was on my back it was in a bin, or in a landfill and before it was in a bin or a landfill it was in someone’s hand… and after it’s been in my jacket it will be something else as well.”

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