Ben Young has fond memories of Mickey Mouse.
When Young was six, his parents took him and his sisters to Disneyland. “We went there for a whole week,” he says. “It was crazy. Going on all the rides and meeting all the characters as they’re walking through the streets – it was a real fairy tale.”
Now the founder of Frank Green, an eco-friendly Melbourne company making reusable coffee cups and water bottles, Young happily drew on those memories to help create a commemorative vessel to mark Mickey Mouse’s 90th.
“It was mocking things up and asking people if it resonated with their childhood,” says Young. “That’s how we like to do things. It’s not an academic exercise. It’s speaking to people and understanding how it touches them emotionally.”
The resulting eight-ounce cup in black and white features the silhouette of Mickey’s distinctive ears, and was refined through a process of trial and error. The idea was to keep it classic. “I don’t think you should overcomplicate 90 years of tradition,” he says.
Clever simplicity is at the core of Frank Green’s products. The team developed a range of reusable cups and bottles that marry style, function and technology, in response to the “devastating problem” of single-use products and their impact on the environment.
Young says waste is a huge issue in Australia. Every year we throw out one billion disposable takeaway cups. Another 370 million plastic water bottles end up in landfill and recycling is not the win-win solution we once thought it was.
“The economics of recycling don’t work,” says Young, whose previous corporate job was at a major waste corporation. Pellets of recycled PET – the material used to make most drink bottles – cost more than virgin PET, which has better technical properties. “There’s no incentive to use recycled material,” he says. “You’ve got to stop it at the source.”
Part of that undertaking is providing people solutions so they “don’t have to sacrifice anything.” Frank Green’s products are guided by “human-centred design”, and Young is unafraid of taking on seemingly impossible challenges. The company’s latest innovation is a “Smartcup” with in-built, pay-wave technology that allows you to make purchases anywhere with your coffee cup.
“That’s been a really difficult thing to do,” says Young. “Imagine putting molten, 300-degree material over a payment chip in your credit card, or putting your credit card in the microwave – it’ll die,” says Young. “It’s been a massive journey for us, but well worth it.”
The Frank Green message is clearly catching on. Today the company employs 80 people, sells in 50 countries and has offices in Melbourne, Sydney, Hong Kong and London. In the last 12 months the business has grown by a staggering 900 per cent.
Young believes the solution to waste is to change consumer behaviour. “Frank Green’s vision is about stopping the manufacture of single-use coffee cups and water bottles,” he says. “It’s about working with your customers and giving them a sense of ownership.”
That ownership is something Young can apply to Mickey Mouse, which still resonates with him all these years later. “To compete on the world stage, you really need a point of difference,” says Young of the character, “We’re also trying to do things in an original way.”
This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with Disney.