Hip hop celebrity Will.i.am has approached leading brands and offered them solutions on how not to let waste go to waste.
Most music fans are accustomed to seeing their favorite celebrity walking around with the obligatory plastic water bottle glued to their hands. It’s almost become a fashion accessory for some and has been adopted like wildfire among millions of young followers. While the focus has always been on the music and lavish lifestyles, no-one has really given the plastic water bottle a second thought.
Post-consumer waste of plastic has reached endemic proportions. According to the U.S. Environmental protection Agency, 32 million tons of plastic waste was generated in 2011, with only 8 percent of this amount recovered for recycling. There are few global superstars who get anywhere close to the world of corporate sustainability. But Will.i.am, founder of the hugely successful band The Black Eyed Peas and the director of creative innovation at Intel, is on a mission after recognising that the world is threatened by a combination of population growth, resource scarcity, climate change and over-consumption.
Rather than fall into the traditional celebrity trap of being used by companies to sell even more products in exchange for a multi-million dollar check, Will.i.am decided to approach a few well-known brands with his own solution, the EKOCYCLE project.
Will.i.am has always composed music with a social conscience, now he’s turned that focus onto the damage we’re doing to the environment by discarding our plastic waste. His EKOCYCLE initiative has collaborated with The Coca-Cola Company and other iconic brands to help inspire a global movement that will help identify plastic bottles that can be converted into what he calls “aspirational goods.”
To keep it appealing to the young and trendy music crowd, these goods include Levi’s jeans, Case-mate smartphone cases, Beats by Dr. Dre headphones and New Era baseball caps. While Will.i.am has lent his enormous celebrity influence to the venture, Coca Cola has also made a $1 million commitment to EKOCYCLE over the next five years. The stand-alone brand is dedicated to helping encourage recycling behavior and sustainability among consumers.
“With the EKOCYCLE brand, I’m on a mission to educate and inspire consumers around the globe to seek out more sustainable lifestyle choices,” says Will.i.am. “This will ultimately play a part in the movement toward a world with zero waste.
By making products that contain recycled materials more attractive to both businesses and consumers, everyone can do their part to keep the cycle going to turn discarded waste into cool, new items,” he says. The 38 year-old, worth $75 million should know a thing or two about creating cool.
Beyond his popular music talents, he counts entrepreneur, actor, DJ, record producer and philanthropist among his many passions. He is also the founder of i.am angel, a non-profit dedicated to “transforming lives through education, opportunity and inspiration.” In an interview, the performer once said “I hope none of the kids I send to school only want to do music. The world doesn’t need another musician. They need another Bill Gates.” As self-depreciating as he is, Will.i.am cannot deny that popular culture and music can disrupt the way we work and think for the better, as does technology. Educating consumers about everyday recycling choices and helping to empower their purchasing decisions is part of a social change movement that has been going on for a decades.
While green and eco-friendly initiatives have been around since the 1960s, people like Will.i.am have realized that the power of influence from someone in the glare of celebrity, can fast-track behaviour change among consumers, and much faster than handing out flyers at the supermarket.
By plugging environmental awareness directly into mainstream culture, he has prevented the issue from becoming just another government or NGO campaign, with it’s inevitable image failure. Will.i.am felt there was a need for a unifying campaign, with attractive branding, under which recycled products could be promoted to consumers. Combining trash with fashionable items might sound like a risky business venture, but it’s working, and has attracted the next wave of consumer looking to support a cause.
Traditionally, goods made from recycled materials have been ugly and undermined by insufficient funding, but that’s changing. One of EKOCYCLE’s key products, Beats by Dr. Dre headphones, for example, are made from 31 percent recycled material, yet have become one of the most desirable and coolest headsets around.
This “fashion for the ears” accessory, with its distinctive “b” on the earcups sold nearly $500 million worth of recycled product in 2012. Will.i.am feels that recyclable materials such as plastic and metal are “waste,” because we have wasted an opportunity to turn them into something.
“An empty plastic water bottle doesn’t have to necessarily be turned into another water bottle,” says Will.i.am. “It could be turned into jeans or a watch.” Young, switched-on consumers are beginning to recognize that items they consider waste today may become part of a lifestyle product they can use tomorrow. Will.i.am hopes this will encourage a demand for recycled materials, and reinforce the importance of creating finished products from recycled material. Ultimately, recycled waste needs to be promoted and marketed, just like any other product.
Today’s generation of young consumers represents an active economic force and the EKOCYCLE brand aims to be a driver in rallying their support around a global sustainability movement. The Coca-Cola Company shares this vision and together they are working with local communities worldwide to showcase the greater value of recycling, rather than discarding.
Another partner, Earth911, host of the largest recycling directory in the U.S., listing more than 1.5 million ways to recycle, will provide an interactive and searchable recycling directory for consumers, accessible at the EKOCYCLE website. “Recycling is one of the easiest sustainable actions consumers can take,” says Raquel Fagan, vice president of media for Earth911. “But without real-time access to local options, people are often left confused and frustrated. The EKOCYCLE brand initiative takes a forward-thinking approach and demonstrates how companies can play a role in eliminating this confusion and empowering consumers.”
Will.i.am’s interest in sustainability was first sparked in 2008 when he attended the Clinton Global Initiative where he learned that the world population would reach 9 billion people by 2042. His first reaction was to wonder how everyone would be fed, given the finite resources on the planet.
A while later, after one of his concerts he saw the aftermath of waste from people who had attended and realized that he too was part of the system. He also realized he could be part of the solution too. Having always looked at other companies and criticized them for bad practices, Will.i.am decided that finger pointing and complaining was not the solution. He determined to come up with a creative solution that would influence people’s behaviour.
By tapping into popular brands, and offering them a sustainable alternative, Will.i.am now has a strategic partnership with Levi EKOCYCLE jeans, Adidas EKOCYCLE shoes and EKOCYCLE NBA. His goal is to have an EKOCYCLE day for every team and hopes it will spread from the NBA to the MLB, FIFA and NFL, to start educating people in the inner cities, and around the world.
The typical sponsorship arrangement with celebrities sees a brand approach them to promote their product. Will.i.am has flipped this arrangement on its head, with him approaching the brands.
He’s of the opinion that celebrities know they will be approached at some point by major brands, and should rather choose in advance how they’d like to interact with them. Most celebrities are short-sighted in their business dealings, looking only at short-term profit or having their manager structure the deal, who might only look at what percent they’ll get.
The potential for earning more exists when a celebrity proactively presents an idea to a brand. In Will.i.am’s case, he has created an entirely new company that is sustainable.
Musicians are usually more in touch with their fan base, which can border on a two-way conversation at concerts. They are uniquely positioned to sense the mood and desires of the people who have bought into their music and the accompanying lifestyles.
Most brands sit in an office and analyze data to make their decisions, and sometimes miss one of the crucial elements of advertising – emotion. The emerging, young market of global consumers is no longer satisfied with just buying something, they want a story behind it, and one that is making a difference to a person, community or piece of land somewhere in the world.
Will.i.am says we’ve designed a system where if you purchase something, it breaks, and then you throw it away. “I know this is what America was built on: planned obsolescence, but that system is not sustainable, so we have to start thinking about what the next system is going to be.”
Companies built this version of the world and they should change it, says Will.i.am.
“Companies have been made powerful by people and people should realize they have the power to change them. In the past, people who were powerful were born into power, but tomorrow’s power people can come from having had nothing 20 years ago.”