This week we chat to the founder of the recycled eyewear company Good Citizens about what it takes to successfully deliver on a sustainable business idea.

Upcycling creative smarts

How this ex-advertising creative pivoted their career to develop world-saving sunglasses alongside two business partners under 11.

Peter Bidenko

Senior Freelance Copywriter

Learning Organisation

5 minute read

Nik Robinson is a Sydney-based ecopreneur who recently launched Good Citizens, a company producing seriously cool sunglasses made entirely out of used soft drink bottles. One bottle = one pair.

I caught up with him to chat about his ambitions, his passion for the environment and his business partners who are his wife, Jocelyn, and two young sons, Archie and Harry (now 9 and 10). Here’s an edited extract from our conversation.

If you’d like to view a video of the interview, tune in at the bottom of the page.

Pete: Where did the name Good Citizens come from?

Nik: Good question. Here was our thinking, if everyone in the world was actually a good person, things would move in the right direction and we’d be OK. It doesn’t matter who you are, as a citizen of this planet, you might as well be a good one and do the right thing. That’s what we’re trying to be (without lecturing anyone).

Pete: Why sunglasses?
Nik: We looked at this [an old discarded soft drink bottle collected three years ago in Balmain] and wondered what we could turn it into. That’s ugly [holds up the bottle], these are kind of beautiful and cool [holds up a pair of Good Citizens sunglasses]. We never set out to make sunglasses, we set out to ‘untrash the planet’. So we made the glasses as a symbol. People go ‘they’re cool, what else in my life could come from recycled material’?
Pete: How big is the plastic bottle problem?
Nik: When we started thinking about this project three years ago, we looked at some stats and there are 500 billion bottles produced every year. 1 million bottles are sold every minute. 30 seconds later… in the bin. 12% gets recycled, so you could safely assume more than 80% are going into landfill, or worse, into waterways.
Pete: Any plans to expand the product range?
Nik: As long as it turns trash into good, we’re on brand. But it takes a lot of research and hard work if you want to start making other products. For the moment we’re concentrating on expanding out the range of sunglasses and introducing new styles.
Pete: When did you know you had a viable product?
Nik:  2018 we first floated the idea in response to a question by the boys about plastic waste. I went away and researched it for 4 months. Starting up a business you have to solve a problem, and our problem was single-use plastics. Once we had the idea about the sunglasses, design took 9 months. When you work with virgin plastic, like any other sunglass brand, it’s very easy. When you’re working with recycled plastic, it’s not so easy. If somebody had laid out the roadmap at the start, I would have walked away.
Pete: But you didn’t, what were some of the obstacles that you had to overcome?
Nik:  Production was a nightmare, Joce called it ‘trial and terror’. We had a machine made in Taiwan and flew it to Sydney, unwrapped it, plugged it in and it didn’t work. 53 changes later we finally got it to a point where it was starting to work. I cried. I was exhausted. And it cost the same as 13 Golf GTIs to get the machine up and running and productive. Research was half a Golf, design was a Golf and a quarter and the ‘trial and terror’ was 11 and a half Golfs. But it was worth it, now we make a pair of sunglasses every 90 seconds with far less energy than a normal pair and 70% less carbon.
Pete: You talk about your kids a lot in your conversation and I know they’re partners in the business. What role do they play?

Nik: Being in business with kids is great because they force you to simplify things. They also keep you focused. During the tough times, with these two little pairs of eyes imploring me not to give up, I’m not about to give up.

They came to us with the problem, there’s too much plastic in the world. We sat down with butcher’s paper together and set about making the four rules – the foundation of the business:

 

  1. Only use recycled materials

  2. Produce a product that lasts and can be repaired easily

  3. Ensure nobody (including the planet) is taken advantage of

  4. Every employee gets time with their loved ones, budgie or dog.


Archie was 6 when we started. By the time he was 8 we had our first pair. They’re now 9 and 10. If I asked them to make a pair and dispatch it, they can. They’re amazing. They’re both doing presentations to schools. Tesla invited Harry in to talk. Harry and I also spoke at the UN.

Pete: If it wasn’t for the kids do you think you would have given up?
Nik:  No. Once I got into it and understood it, I realised how many eyewear brands out there were faking it and saying they were sustainable when they’re not. The only thing that’s sustainable is that they’re in a recyclable box. Sustainability is a very overused, complicated word. Most of it is just nonsense.
Pete: I can see you have a commitment to good, what are some of the other things that make up the word ‘good’, as far as Good Citizens go?
Nik:  We don’t treat customers as customers, we treat them as citizens. Also like we’d treat our best friends. We look after them because they’re our ambassadors, they’re not just a transaction. We have a population counter so every time someone buys a pair, they become part of our population and are given a Good Citizen number. We want to prove that a good (ethical business) can actually be good financially as well.

Every decision has to be a good decision. For example, the way we treat suppliers, even to the extent of paying them 10 minutes after we receive their invoice.


"We don’t treat customers as customers, we treat them as citizens... We look after them because they’re our ambassadors, they’re not just a transaction."
Pete: What would say to anyone starting up a business?
Nik: Firstly, start with solving a problem. You don’t have to reinvent anything, you can simply make something better. You can look at a business or a product and say, OK, it’s not working for the following reasons. You must do research. And you must look at the problem and go 'how can I fix it?'. Carry a notebook about and scribble ideas, once you put pencil to paper it becomes real, you can show someone.

On that note, don’t run your ideas past friends and family. I went out and asked four people who scared the bejesus out of me, and they gave me between 20 minutes and 8 hours. We went in and presented to them and all four encouraged us to do it. I respected their take on it and going forward, I didn’t want to let them down.

Trust your gut. If you don’t feel it’s right, stop. On numerous occasions we listened to experts against what we were feeling and every time it came back to bite us and cost us a considerable amount of money. 
Pete: Should ethics and sustainability be a motivation?
Nik:  If someone sets up, for instance, a golf business and it’s highly lucrative and it works and they make a tonne of cash and they have a lovely lifestyle, then that’s great. But for me personally I think there’s enough overconsumption in the world. We’re trying to do the opposite.
Pete: How are you marketing the products?
Nik:  We had a strategy about people connecting. And then Covid hit. We’re doing Facebook and Instagram, it kind of kills me but you have to play the game and go where people are. Our strategy of going to shops has changed because people actually want to feel them, try them on and when they do, they think, ‘what an amazing pair of glasses’.
Pete: Tell me about the Selfridges window?
Nik:  We were approached by Selfridges on the recommendation of a contact we had in the eyewear business in Europe. I got invited to a meeting in London (I happened to be there at the time), and then flew back to Sydney. They asked me to do another presentation to the buying team. Lo and behold they bought the idea and gave us a window next to Prada. I’m sat in Sydney with a prototype and they said they’d give us a window for three months. They set it up, Covid hit, Oxford Street was shut down and no-one saw it. The window was there and nobody went.
Pete: Thanks Nik, any final comments?
Nik:  I’d say to anyone who has an inkling to start a business, just grab a blank piece of paper. Once you’ve scribbled it down, keep going back to it. Then share it with people (not friends and family). The creative field that we’re from are full of the most talented people – copywriters, art directors, strategists, business people, relationship people – and businesses need all those kind of ingredients. So if you’ve got a thought, you never know, you could probably do a better job than us of helping to untrash the planet.

Don’t be afraid, give it a go. Worst thing that could happen is it all just falls to pieces and you have to go out and get another job. If you don’t have to, then you’ve made it. That’s where I feel like I’m up to now… not looking for another job.
Watch the full interview here
on nudge theory
While 46% of consumers say they’re inclined to buy eco-friendly products, a gap between intention and purchase lives on – one that could gradually lessen through the use of authentic eco-labeling (not greenwashing) to nudge price-based purchasers into making better decisions over time. The more they see it, the more they’ll consider it.

Written by Peter Bidenko, editing & 52 Words by Natasha Velkova, key visual by Jaimii Jakab, video edited by Joseph Redding, page built by Jessica Nord.

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