The road to hell is paved with good intentions. And coffee cups.

A few weeks ago I bought a fancy reusable coffee cup from a well-known supermarket.  I liked it for its design – slender and quite tall.  And the electric purple colour is pretty cool too.  Being a creature of habit, I get my coffee from the same place most days and don’t really pay much attention when I hand over my cup.  But one day last week, for some reason I found myself looking over whilst the coffee was being prepared.

I’m glad I did.  I watched gobsmacked as the barista first placed a disposable cup under the filter nozzle to collect the coffee, before then pouring it into my cup.  This kind of defeats the purpose of having the reusable cup in the first place.  It’s then when I realised that my nice new cup is too tall to fit under the filter nozzle…

*shock emjoi*

I did feel a little bit stupid as I gratefully accepted my coffee and walked out.  I should have known better (especially considering what I do for a living) and considered the practicalities of my purchase rather than the aesthetics.  Seriously though, it’s lovely colour.  But then I started thinking, is it really my fault, or this a series of collective failures?

As the consumer, should I have done more research before purchasing the product?  Should I have identified the potential pitfalls of a slightly taller cup?  Is that expecting too much?  With all the information being thrown at us when we are making decisions, we find ourselves not being able to conduct due diligence on everything that we buy.

As the cup producer, is any of this my fault?  After all, I’ve produced a product that, theoretically, is and does what it says on the tin.  Should I put a sign on these cups to state that you (the consumer) should check the size as it may not be suitable for use in coffee shops?  This could get me some brownie points, but why is it my problem that you didn’t realise that the cup was too big?

As the coffee shop should I be responding to the growing range of coffee cups by changing the set-up of my infrastructure accordingly?  What can I do when you, the consumer, present me with a cup which I know is too tall for the machine?  Should I risk your annoyance by informing you that I still need to use a disposable cup, as maybe you might then buy a better alternative?  Is it really a case that the cup cannot somehow be strategically manoeuvred, or would this just take far too long and there are too many customers to serve?  In fact, is any of this really my problem at all?

As you can tell, I’ve given this a lot of thought and could go on! What about the coffee machine manufacturer?  But my biggest question is how many other people have purchased this type of cup and haven’t realised that their efforts have actually been in vain?  It’s an own goal, and one which highlights one of the biggest barriers to sustainable resource management.  Responding to rapidly emerging issues with equally rapid and unaligned responses doesn’t fully solve the problem.  Instead, it often just pushes it further up or down the value chain.   And at the heart of it all is the consumer, who is trying the make the right choices off the back of a range of messages which are often differing, conflicting, or incomplete.

Of course, solving this issue is much easier said than done and requires a fundamental shift in thinking at industry and consumer level.  Embracing the vital role of widespread collaboration will not happen overnight, especially considering the inherent mistrust and scepticism that exists at all levels.  There is also the issue of how this collaboration will be brokered: there needs to be someone either within or overseeing the process that is trusted by all parties.  But even as I’m writing this I have realised that by questioning who is to blame for “Cupgate”, I have taken the exact approach that will only hamper the spirit of collaboration.  Yes, much easier said than done.

My intention isn’t to paint a picture of doom and gloom, because the seeds of encouragement are certainly there.  Single-use plastic has taken social and political prominence but has also shed light on the whole circular debate and how we create, use and dispose of products.  For the first time in my career there is a sustainability issue which has no counter-argument from the environmental sceptics.  The debate is concentrated on how to best tackle the problem rather than whether there is a problem at all, and the number of new innovations developed over the last 18 months indicates the willingness to solve this truly global crisis.

My little story serves as more of a reminder that all these good intentions need to be shared by everyone involved.  The long journey towards circularity has truly begun, and we can make it smoother through widespread collaboration and a willingness by all parties to trust in the greater common goal at play.  Success in this area will be measured collectively, as will failure.  By fully grasping this notion we can focus on creating coherent narratives, empowering consumers with a full understanding of their choices.  This will help to remove their own scepticism that their efforts are leading nowhere, or maybe even creating bigger problems for the future.  After all, there is a well-known saying about good intentions…


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