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Cool Products, Hot Topic: Can EKOCYCLE Inspire a Social Movement Around Recycling? will.i.am Says Yes.

By:  Jay Moye Sep 26, 2013
will.i.am

On Saturday, will.i.am will take the stage at the 2013 Global Citizen Festival in New York’s Central Park not to perform, but to invite attendees and viewers to participate in a recycling challenge through EKOCYCLE, the innovative brand initiative he launched last summer with Coca-Cola.

EKOCYCLE repurposes items like plastic bottles into aspirational, yet attainable, lifestyle products from trend-setting brands like adidas, Beats by Dr. Dre, Levi’s, New Era and RVCA. By building demand for products made from recycled materials, will.i.am says EKOCYCLE is inspiring a social movement around recycling and making sustainable purchasing choices.

The entertainer, creative innovator and philanthropist also will announce a $200,000 EKOCYCLE grant to be awarded to Global Citizen – whose mission is to inspire people to take action on social causes dealing with poverty, sustainability, health – and plans to launch a national recycling campaign in 2014.

The free-ticketed Global Citizen Festival will feature performances by Stevie Wonder, Kings of Leon, Alicia Keys and John Mayer. Last year’s concert became the largest syndicated charity event in online and broadcast TV history, with more than 15 million viewers.

We caught up with will.i.am, who will emcee the concert, to learn more about the past, present and future of EKOCYCLE:

We’re a little over a year into the EKOCYCLE journey. What have been the highlights so far?

EKOCYCLE is off to a strong start. We set out to seed change among world-class, internationally recognized brands such as Levi’s, Beats Headphones and RVCA, and we’ve done just that. This weekend, we will welcome a new brand partner, H Brothers, which has created something amazing and in a new category: the first EKOCYCLE sustainable suit. The products are dope, fresh and fashion-forward and definitely products that guys will want to own and wear.

Is the movement to recycle and purchase products made from recycled materials growing?

People are definitely more aware of the need to recycle, and that there are more sustainable choices on the market when shopping for clothing, bags and accessories… so they can select items that include recycled content. By purchasing an EKOCYCLE product, people automatically join the movement and are recycling in a new and, for most, an unexpected way. We must recycle in two ways: By doing... putting empty plastic bottles in the proper recycling bins, and by creating... making more products available that contain recycled materials. So when people are shopping, they can contribute to recycling and sustainability efforts when making a purchase decision.

Why is the EKOCYCLE concept resonating with young people?

It’s easier to reach people when they have choices, and can buy branded products they really want to own. We have research that shows how eager youth around the globe are to be socially proactive and responsible, and EKOCYCLE was created to tap into that. We have fast-tracked the process by teaming up with brands people recognize and want to own. This younger generation wants to blend consumer consumption and materialism with environmentalism and live a more sustainable lifestyle. They want cool stuff, and it should be made better and smarter than it was before.

What sparked your passion for recycling/recycled materials (and when)?

In 2008, after a Black Eyed Peas concert in South America, we went out to look from the stage once the crowd had left and saw piles of trash, including bottles and cans. It was a reality check to see that by gathering our fans for a concert, we were contributing to the problem. Even worse, the trash was left in seats and on the ground versus being placed in recycling bins and trash cans – an easy problem to solve. So this sparked the idea: How could I help solve this problem? How can we get people to understand and care about why it is important to recycle, and how can we turn plastic bottles into new and desirable products, versus just another bottle? 

You had the idea for EKOCYCLE in 2008 and approached Coca-Cola in 2009. Why are they the ideal partner?

After that concert, I started looking for a partner who could help bring this idea to life. I also went to the Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting and learned about the millennial global commitments companies were making to reduce waste and operate more sustainably. Then I learned that Coca-Cola, one of the largest companies in the world, a company that reaches people in every market around the world, are the go-to experts when it comes to plastic bottles and cans. Then you combine this expertise with the company’s mission and mandate to reduce waste. Coca-Cola has a global reach and is also very engaged in youth culture. So they brought the expertise required and, after presentations and meetings with (Chairman and CEO) Muhtar Kent, (Chief Sustainability Officer) Bea Perez and others involved in sustainability at multiple levels throughout the company, an agreement was reached and we went to work!

How do you select brand partners to bring into the EKOCYCLE family?

Deciding which brands are a strong fit to join the EKOCYCLE family is a very detailed process. First, is the brand already popular, well thought of, make quality products and have strong ties to youth culture? Second, does the company have a passion for driving change and creating a better future for the planet? Then we evaluate how they can create a special-edition version of their product that will contain 25 percent or more recycled rPET (plastic). We ask for prototype products to be sent for evaluation, we check how they source the rPET and also look at each company or brand’s greater commitment to greater work place conditions and sustainability. Then we look at the commitment each brand has to distribution, marketing and overall support for their special-edition items, as well as to support the EKOCYCLE brand guidelines. Changing manufacturing materials, processes, shopper habits and retailer practices is complex, and we appreciate the efforts and lengths each partner goes to to join the movement.  

Tell us about the recycling challenge and grant you will announce at the Global Citizen Festival. Why is this concert a great platform for the EKOCYCLE message?

I will be onstage at the Global Citizen Festival to present a grant to Global Citizen to support greater recycling awareness and education. We are also challenging everyone who attends to make sure they leave no cans and bottles on the ground at the end of the event. EKOCYCLE is placing recycling stations throughout the concert area so attendees can make the smart choice and carry their containers and trash to be placed in recycling bins and trash cans. The next challenge will be to live a day without waste, to point out how much each person contributes to landfills every day.

How do you measure success for EKOCYCLE? What’s next?

One way we measure the success is by the caliber of EKOCYCLE brand partners and their global reach. We look at how EKOCYCLE is influencing people to be more aware of the need to recycle, and that recycling supports more than turning a plastic bottle into a new plastic bottle. More people now understand that a plastic bottle can have a whole new life. Recycling and sustainability are global issues, so our focus is going to widen to invite more international brands with strong regional popularity into the EKOCYCLE family. H Brothers from New Zealand is our first regional power brand to join the family. We are in conversation with brands from Europe, Asia and Latin America, looking for the right products and partners. In tandem with Coke’s global reach, this will be a powerful way to invite more people to join the EKOCYCLE mission.