Think at London Business School
An initiative by students at IIT Delhi has the potential to help combat two of India’s most problematic environmental challenges
By Nick Mickshik
How two LBS alumni set out to find an innovative way to tackle plastic pollution
The middle of the Indian Ocean isn’t the most obvious place to plan a new business, but for Will Pearson MIM2018, the co-founder of the award-winning Ocean Bottle, it provided all the inspiration he needed. During a year working on a super yacht Pearson was witness to the devastating impact of plastic pollution in our oceans and set about finding a solution. “Seeing stretches of water quite literally choking with plastic made me motivated to take action,” he says. “I was left asking myself, how could we possibly collect plastic before it enters the ocean in a truly scalable way?”
Pearson wasn’t alone in his concern. It was shared by his fellow London Business School alumni and now co-founder Nick Doman MIM2018, who had a passion for purpose before profit businesses. “The two don’t have to be mutually exclusive,” says. “I was looking to redefine business and prove that we could fix global environmental and societal issues by putting people and the planet first.”
After a meeting of minds during their Masters in Management degree programme the pair launched Ocean Bottle in 2018. The premise was simple: to give plastic a value so it was no longer discarded. But the execution involved tackling ocean pollution on two fronts. Firstly, by creating a slick reusable bottle that was smart-chip activated, and thus prevented consumers needing single-use, non-degradable plastic bottles. And secondly, ensuring a percentage of sales was used to fund plastic collections in coastal communities.
“By giving plastic a value in Haiti, Philippines, Indonesia and Brazil we have engaged tens of thousands of people in communities to become plastic collectors and have the option of earning a living wage while keeping the environment clean,” reveals Pearson.
“Sustainability isn’t a marketing stunt for us, it’s part of our DNA.”
No mean feat, but the ambitious pair admit conveying that message and the intricacies of the business model have been challenging.
“Being able to clearly tell our impact story, collection process, and connection between customers and collectors is something that is crucial to our success,” notes Doman. “Sustainability isn’t a marketing stunt for us, it’s part of our DNA and is rooted in 1 for 1000 — that every Ocean Bottle funds collection is equivalent to 1000 plastic bottles in weight.”
That dedication to transparency includes Ocean Bottle’s entire value chain — although there is still work to be done. “We have created a net positive business model, however, we are always looking to reduce our negative impacts from production and supply chain even further,” says Pearson. “Our communication is clear, simple and to the point. There is a lot of greenwashing going on out there and for us, it’s important to challenge this but also do things properly through actions.”
For the founders, that means taking the long road, investing extra time and resources, and paying above the odds to find the best options. “Being a net positive company from the get-go, we’ve always been looking to push ourselves and reduce any negative impacts from production and supply chain,” adds Doman.
Such a thorough approach has already begun to pay off. Since launching, the company has funded the collection of 2,773,531 kgs of ocean-bound plastic, the equivalent to 243,977,000 plastic bottles. “We’ve also pushed the boundaries of the impact business model, giving almost 20% of our revenue to date to the plastic collection,” reveals Doman, “and we’re looking to grow that to 25% by 2025.”
Ocean Bottle reached £1M revenue in its first year of operation and grew revenue by 30% through the Covid 19 period, while the company’s inspiring founders featured in the prestigious Forbes 30 under 30 List. They have also received the royal seal of approval earlier this month when Princess Eugenie was spotted attending climate talks at COP26 with her trusty Ocean Bottle — leading to a 400% spike in sales.
“It’s an amazing feeling to have come full circle since studying at LBS.”
While both Pearson and Doman are typically modest about their success, they are quick to credit the influence of their time at LBS. “A huge part of Ocean Bottle’s success at the beginning was thanks to the LBS Launchpad Programme, where we spent three months developing the concept of Ocean Bottle, the brand, and our marketing strategy,” notes Pearson. “Here we learned how to pitch and build a team. We worked with some fantastic mentors during the program who taught us a lot. The LBS alumni network has meant that we’ve been able to connect with a wide range of people, one being an employee at the World Economic Forum who is an expert on the ocean!”
Which makes being recognised by LBS’s Institute Entrepreneurship and Private Capital all the sweeter. Three years on, and having collected three million kilograms of ocean plastic, the pair are last year’s Early Stage Winners of the Accomplished Entrepreneur Awards. Established in 2010, the awards recognise and celebrate alumni who have created successful entrepreneurial value.
“Being the early stage winners is a huge achievement for both of us, and it means even more to us coming from LBS — the place where Ocean Bottle was born,” says Pearson. “It’s an amazing feeling to have come full circle since studying at LBS and launching our venture, to being recognised for this award and we can’t thank the School enough for all the support to date.”
Not that the founders will be sitting back and celebrating their latest accolade. Rather, they are focused on the next five years and growing the impact of Ocean Bottle.
“By 2025, we aim to fund the collection of 7 billion plastic bottles,” reveals Pearson. “We hope to create a huge and global impact on preventing ocean plastic from quadrupling by 2040, whilst improving livelihoods for millions of people.” Doman continues: “At the cornerstone of these plans is our ambition to drive behavior change for consumers to make more sustainable lifestyle choices and for any business to have the opportunity to make a positive impact.”
For the fast-growing team of 18 at Ocean Bottle, the onus is on every business to have sustainability front and centre of their operation going forward.
“We can no longer leave CSR [corporate social responsibility] at the periphery of what companies do,” says Pearson. “Just as environmental damage has been a by-product of human progress, perhaps there is now the opportunity to make a positive environmental impact a by-product of business.”
Doman concurs: “It’s our belief that we are living in yet another Kodak moment,” he says. “One where companies who do not take into account their impact on people or the environment will likely be left in the wake of the eco equivalent of the digital camera.”