This cup could change the way we do capitalism


By David Mattin, Trendwatching.

It’s time for every big brand to tackle a shared challenge and open source the solution.

In 2017, we citizens of planet Earth made and used an estimated 600 billion disposable takeaway cups. I’m talking about the kind of cup that you get your takeaway coffee in. We get through 600 billion of those every year.

Now consider this: it’s estimated that fewer than 1 percent of those cups are recycled. Thing is, while these cups are technically recyclable – a fact often bandied around by the brands that use them – it turns out that doing so is tricky. That’s because they’re lined on the inside with a special kind of plastic. The plastic lining makes the cups waterproof, but also means they can’t be dealt with at typical recycling plants. So most go into landfill.

Which is truly, mindbendingly awful.

A Guilt-Free Cup

In the epic battle for takeaway food customers, Starbucks and McDonalds are fierce rivals.

So recent news that the two brands are joining forces to reimagine the takeaway cup took industry observers by surprise.

The two brands are contributing $5 million each to launch a new competition to design a fully recyclable and compostable takeaway cup. And crucially, they’re inviting other competitors to join them. They don’t want to make this cup proprietary; they want to give it away. The idea is that 10 years from now, every major fast food brand out there is using this new, sustainable cup. You’re welcome everyone.

You can read the coverage to learn more about how Starbucks and McDonalds ended up cooperating like this. What I’m interested in is what this project signals about where consumerism can – and should – head.

Big Brand Redemption

Last year I wrote about how big, legacy brands should find the global challenge they are best placed to solve and get to work. We called the trend Big Brand Redemption.

That idea started with one counterintuitive thought: what if big business stopped being the sustainability, ethics, health and fairness problem, and started being the answer to some of the world’s greatest shared challenges?

When we think of the search for a new, ethical, sustainable consumerism, we tend to think of startups. But what if we flipped that picture on its head? After all, it is big brands, not startups, that have the scale, reach, resources and human capital to effect massive change. They can do things that no one – in some cases not even national governments – can do.

This new Starbucks–McDonalds initiative to reimagine the takeaway cup is a powerful example of one tactic a brand can use to seek redemption: find a solution to a global challenge, and open source that solution.

If this project succeeds in creating a new, properly recyclable cup, it will be the single most significant move the fast food industry has ever made to mitigate its impact on the planet. Who else has the clout to pull that off?

Together, McDonalds and Starbucks make around 4 percent of the 600 billion takeaway cups used each year worldwide. They have vast resources, global reach, and deep industry experience. And they know there is rising consumer awareness of the damage that single use plastics are doing to our planet.

The initiative echoes work being done by other huge legacy brands to address global challenges. Think Unilever’s amazing work to spread life-saving hand washing advice across developing countries: so far they’ve reached more than 300 million people. Or Volvo’s VISION2020 mission to make serious car accidents a relic of history: let’s hope they plan to open source the technology they develop as part of that project.

They already have form when it comes to this: in 1959 a Volvo engineer, Nils Bohlin, invented the three-point seat belt. Volvo didn’t patent the design; instead they shared it. It’s estimated that Bohlin’s invention has saved at least one million lives since then.

Unfortunately creating Open Source Solutions didn’t become a trend in the wake of that move. But in 2018, we can change that.

So what does all this mean for you and your business?

Start a Movement

We all know that we can’t continue down the path we’re on. That is, pursuing an extractive capitalism that pays no attention to the damage done to the planet, society and individual health and wellbeing.

Big brands need to change. And the McDonalds-Starbucks mission to reinvent cups and then open source the solution provides a great model of how they can do just that. Every big brand should zero in on the global, shared challenge that they are uniquely positioned to solve, and then set about solving it. And that entire process – the work, and the solution itself – should be open source.

First, because it’s the right thing to do. Second, because consumers will demand it.

Massive corporations need to become engines for human and environmental good, not just quarterly profits. Those that don’t make this shift don’t deserve to survive.

So if you work inside a big brand, what can you do?

Probably you’re not in a position (yet!) to decide that you’ll dedicate millions of dollars to solving a shared global challenge in 2019.

But you can start a movement. Get your colleagues talking. What is the shared challenge your brand is best placed to solve? What would it look like if the company took action on that challenge?

Get the attention of higher ups. Write your own Open Source Solutions manifesto. The journey towards a reformed capitalism that truly serves humankind will be a long one. But it can only start with a first step. If enough innovators, executives, marketers and other professionals take that first step, they will create a powerful wave of change that can’t be held back.


David Mattin is writer and speaker and is the global head of Trends and Insights at TrendWatching.