Introduction: Consider this. Of the top ten items sold in Hudson Group outlets in the USA, beverages, invariably in single-use plastic bottles, count for eight [Source: CNN Travel].
Or this. At the TFWA World exhibition in Cannes, packed out each year with an industry that prides itself on its Corporate Social Responsibility credentials and commitment to the environment, there are no water refill points available.
And this. There are virtually no reusable bottles in travel retail.
Those are the stark claims made by Yusuf Okhai, Founder and Managing Director of Aydya Group, a Dundee, Scotland company with a “brilliantly simple, simply brilliant” motto. It aims to offer solutions to everyday problems through a range of innovative products which include the AnySharp knife sharpener and PortaScent refillable perfume atomiser.
But it’s the company’s latest product that has Okhai more enthused than any other in his diverse business career. The concept is simple: a refillable and leak-proof Ion8 water bottle. It’s a product which he believes could make its mark in travel retail and play a vital role in ending the use of single-use bottles and containers.
Okhai describes himself as a serial entrepreneur. His career path included building and running a soft drinks factory and printing software before he founded Aydya – pronounced Idea – in 2008.
Okhai has always focused on brands. But, since developing Ion8, his main focus is on making a difference to the planet. “I spent half my career making single-use bottles, but I am 100% going backwards these days,” he says.
Okhai highlights the continued use of single-use bottles and the problems travellers face in ensuring they are adequately hydrated.
“Single-use plastics are a disaster,” he says. “Reusable bottles, if full, will be taken away by security at an airport and inside airports there are virtually no reusable bottles available, and few easy-access refill points.”
Travellers, Okhai says, have little choice but to buy single-use bottles. He highlights the CNN Travel report on Hudson Group’s best-selling items. It’s plastic, and single-use plastic, all the way.
Okhai believes there is a good market for reusable bottles in travel retail and that leading trade association TFWA should use to its considerable voice to address what is a major ecological problem.
“It scares me that there is absolutely no interest,” he says. “At the Cannes exhibition there are no refill points available and everyone has to wait as long as 20 minutes to get a bottle of water. We want to help change that. We want to bring the focus to an industry that is all too often panned for carbon emissions and more, but rarely congratulated for efforts to mitigate the damage done.”
Okhai told The Moodie Davitt Report about his mission, and the background that drove it.
The Moodie Davitt Report: You are a self-described “serial entrepreneur”. Tell us about your background.
Yusuf Okhai: I have lived in Dundee, Scotland my whole life. My father, who was pretty successful in his business career, was my mentor and teacher. I have always been taught that almost anyone can get answers to problems; questions are the key, not answers. If we ask the right question, the answers are often obvious.
My business career has been all about questions. I get bored easily, and get a thrill from the start-up, so I have started a number of businesses over the years; dramatically different products in totally different markets, from car boot sales and mass retail to working out own-label deals with corporations like LVMH.
I started with PET bottle production and filling, and moved into software solutions, blank recordable media, printer consumables, labelling solutions, light bulbs, knife sharpeners, perfume atomisers, beauty products and now water bottles. Almost all were start-ups, and all but one very successful, fortunately for me.
“In the last six airports I went to, there were no reusable bottles at all. We are in an industry that burns a lot of hydrocarbons, uses a lot of resources and affects millions of people a year. Surely we can be better than we are at, firstly, promoting the message, and, secondly, making it easy.”
You have spent a good part of your career making single use bottles and now you are going “100% backwards”. What’s prompted the change?
I used to make PET bottles and fill them with my own soft drinks – colas and lemonades, water and juice drinks. At that time, there was little awareness of the looming ecological nightmare that we see today.
If I am perfectly honest, I didn’t really start the investment in reusables for ecological reasons. I started it because I had difficulty finding products that work well; so we decided to design one. After launch, we researched single use plastics so we could find ways to increase sales. But the research made us sit up and pay attention.
We had no idea what we are doing to our planet, the oceans, and future life on Earth. But once we realised, it struck a chord; and I was surprised to find myself thinking about it and my past a lot more.
“Getting into reusable products is not something for tree huggers. It’s a fundamental responsibility for all of mankind, and we need to stress that.”
It’s nice to make a business. But it’s rewarding to make a real difference, and that is what drives us forward these days as much as any commercial benefits.
And with your latest passion, which has so much to do with the ‘reusable revolution’, how are you making a connection with duty free and travel retail?
The ‘reusable revolution’, as it’s called, is really a feel-good term to make people feel like being reusable is a positive action. For me, it’s the reversal of a negative action, not an outright positive one. For example, planting trees is a positive action; it brings added benefit. The reversal of a negative action is more to do with not doing something damaging.
Getting into reusable products is not something for tree huggers. It’s a fundamental responsibility for all of mankind, and we need to stress that.In terms of travel retail, it’s even more important. Firstly, people use more single use bottles when they are on the move, rather than at home. Keeping hydrated is important on trains, in cars, even when walking; it’s most important, however, for air travellers.
Liquids are taken away at security, and people are almost forced to buy water in stores at the airport. For me, duty free and travel retail is a perfect place to get the message out, and at least provide the option for people to go reusable.
“Companies should be issuing bottles and refusing to pay for single-use water bottles in expense bills. Then we will start to see a real revolution.”
In the last six airports I went to, there were no reusable bottles at all. We are in an industry that burns a lot of hydrocarbons, uses a lot of resources and affects millions of people a year. Surely we can be better than we are at, firstly, promoting the message, and, secondly, making it easy.
Travellers are usually on the move for a number of days; for them the reusable will likely pay for itself within one journey.Companies should be issuing bottles and refusing to pay for single-use water bottles in expense bills. Then we will start to see a real revolution.
“I would like to sponsor water refill points at the TFWA shows, and gift every delegate with a bottle they can easily carry. I believe we can make life easier for everyone, get a message to key decision makers and benefit travellers in one fell swoop.”
Finally, we developed a bottle specifically for travel. It is leak-proof, sealed and can be opened and closed with one hand. This really makes a difference when you’re carrying a bag or briefcase; nobody wants to stop, put bags down, undo the lid, sip, put the lid back on, and then move off again.
What role can the industry play here?
If I’m honest, the industry does not seem to care. Even at the TFWA Exhibition in Cannes – and everyone has faced this – getting water is a tedious job. When you’re in a rush you face long queues, sometimes no stock and locations are invariably inconvenient.
I would like to sponsor water refill points at the TFWA shows, and gift every delegate with a bottle they can easily carry. I believe we can make life easier for everyone, get a message to key decision makers and benefit travellers in one fell swoop. But I need to get into the exhibition first. Someone needs to pick up on it, take it to heart, and help. I know TFWA can make a huge difference.
As an example, we have just pencilled a deal with Friends of The Earth as their official source for reusable steel bottles. They are not really commercial, but they can have a real-life impact with commercial partners like us.
What solutions are you offering?
We design for travel. We have leak-proof water bottles, leak-proof travel mugs, and, new this year, a reusable straw. Our solutions cover cold drinks and hot drinks.
We take the eco message further by having spare parts to extend the life of the product, and we have extension parts to extend functionality. I don’t see why I need a separate bottle for a fruit infuser, or a separate product for a protein shake. We have add-ons that make one Ion8 bottle capable of all that. Carry less, and do more.
And alternatives to single-use bottles?
The best alternative, particularly for travel, is the OneTouch product range from Ion8. We have five sizes, in Tritan, which is a BPA-free plastic, or steel, in over 50 colours and designs to appeal to a wide market range, children and adults, leisure and professional.
What makes your product stand out from other reusable bottles?
We make everything with travel in mind and highlight the one-handed operation. We ensure that all our products are BPA Free, phthalate free and have no toxic effect. Our materials are approved for food contact use by the US Food and Drug Administration, Health Canada, European Food Safety Authority, European Commission, Japan Hygienic Olefin and Styrene Plastics Association (JHOSPA) and are Greenguard Indoor Air Quality assured.
What markets are you targeting and how?
There are two simple facts to bear in mind. One, we are all up to 80% water, and two, liquids are a pain to handle.
These two facts, regardless of the technologies we develop, regardless of how we live, are not going to change. We know every single person can be converted to reusable so every single human is a target.
“Nobody – and I mean nobody – should ignore this growing and difficult issue. It is a fundamental responsibility, not just a ‘good habit’ as I have been told many times.”
In the long game, we just want to get the message out, and show people what we do. In the short game, of course, we need to break through in a more specific and targeted way. We started with school kids, offices and sports activity markets; for me travel retail is the next big frontier.
Are the Ion8 products already available in travel retail and what is your strategy for the channel?
No, embarrassingly, there are virtually no reusable bottles in travel retail. Our strategy is – if we can have representation at the TFWA Cannes show – to get the message out, get people to care and the positions will come. Inevitably, the sell-through will also come when we have availability and visibility.
“We have the product; so now we need the convenience of availability, and the simplicity of refill points in airports. That’s it. It’s so simple and so important; we want to shout from the rooftops.”
The products are as necessary as travel pillows, if not more so. They sell for a similar price range, and take similar space in store. Where there is a total lack of any model, we don’t think a detailed strategy is the way to approach it. First we get the message out, and we will follow the consumer and retailer feedback.
It’s possible. Travel retail needs new sizes, new formats, new features; we are ready to act first and react later.
If there is one message you want to get across to retailers and consumers what is it?
Nobody – and I mean nobody –- should ignore this growing and difficult issue. It is a fundamental responsibility, not just a ‘good habit’ as I have been told many times.
For mass adoption we need convenience and simplicity, as well as a great product. We have the product; so now we need the convenience of availability, and the simplicity of refill points in airports. That’s it. It’s so simple and so important, we want to shout from the rooftops.
And the key message? Look into it; I defy anyone not to be affected. Help us make a difference. Further, as players in a global game with the potential to address a global market, the responsibility is incumbent on us to act. We think it is incumbent also on the organisations that can help us to invest in making single use bottles a thing of an embarrassing and grossly wasteful past.