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Sustainability Sustainable Transformation News

How Ocean Bottle uses corporate partnerships to grow without greenwashing

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By Ellen Ormesher | Senior Reporter

December 5, 2023 | 7 min read

Founded as a waste management campaign rather than a product, the reusables brand created a ‘tangible souvenir’ of its efforts to reduce ocean plastic that helps commercial partners and consumers connect to its mission.

A range of Ocean Bottle products

Ocean Bottle collects 11.4kg of ocean plastic for every bottle sold / Ocean Bottle

Ocean Bottle may well be a category leader in the over-saturated resuables market. Unlike its competitors, its hero product is dishwasher safe (a bugbear for many reusable water bottle fans), is vacuum-sealed for hot and cold drinks and has a built-in mug, as well as its sleek design. But its standout feature is more than just a solid product. For every bottle sold, the brand funds the collection of 11.4kg of plastic (equivalent to 1,000 plastic bottles) by investing in people-powered waste management.

Buying one to rescue 1,000 was an idea that came to founders William Pearson and Nick Doman early on, head of brand Iona Ratcliffe tells The Drum. “That was the message we worked on in the early days: how we could ensure that the purchase of one Ocean Bottle funds the collection of 1,000 plastic bottles and that the collectors could exchange that plastic to access social resources like healthcare, tuition and financial security.”

The brand currently works with partners in seven countries: Brazil, Ghana, Egypt, Kenya, India, Indonesia and the Philippines. “Five of them are in the top 10 plastic polluters worldwide,” says impact manager Emilien Henrotte. “The Philippines on its own is responsible for about a third of all global ocean plastic waste.”

Henrotte goes on to explain that Ocean Bottle and its partners targeted these locations specifically because they also did not have formal waste management. 90% of the world doesn’t, he says, reminding us that much of the world's waste ends up in the global south, but without the resources to dispose of it properly.

A recent piece of research by the ASA found that even in the UK, people are confused by waste disposal terms and do not understand how they translate in reality.

“We’re lousy at recycling here in the UK,” Ratcliffe affirms. “As consumers, we’re good at it; we put it in the right boxes and send it off to the council, but only about 16% is ever actually recycled. The rest is shipped off and ends up in landfills or it just gets dumped before seeping into the waterways and coastal communities.”

Any success Ocean Bottle has had so far can be attributed to its single proposition and message, Ratcliffe says, but it is partnerships that have allowed it to grow. “We initially thought we would be very direct-to-consumer and that would be our main channel, but it’s partnerships and through partnering with brands and businesses who want to be involved in communities, doing something tangible and having a tangible souvenir.”

As Ratcliffe explains, the price of the Ocean Bottle product has always been higher than that of competitors “because we have to pay for our impact.”

“At least 15% of revenue is always going towards doing good. Then the bottles are made from a high percentage of recycled materials, with a 10-year warranty, so all these things make the product itself more expensive. While that was a challenge in the beginning, we found that a lot of businesses had an appetite and a capacity to pay for that and use it as a way to rally their employees, clients and their teams.”

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Ocean Bottle has worked with premium clients such as Netflix and Aman Hotels. “But we’ve had some contentious ones as well,” says Ratcliffe.

Henrotte adds: “The range is diverse, from major banks like JP Morgan to Mercedes to little eco shops. It goes to show the job is difficult because we don’t have just one target.”

But the core proposition remains the waste management aspect of the brand, not just the product, he emphasizes. “Corporate partners come to us for their environmental impact and we can help them visualize the impact they’ve had on the ground through the traceability that we provide – pinpoint accurate data on how much plastic waste has been collected, who has collected it and what happens to it.”

But Ratcliffe admits she has concerns over inadvertently helping brands to greenwash if they are not selective. “As we grow, we will have to navigate and balance who we work with as we can’t become a tool for businesses to just continue doing what they’re doing.

“Offsetting is not a word we want to be associated with. We have to work hard to protect that.”

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