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Solving the Plastics Problem with Natalie Fée of City to Sea

“That for me felt like, I have to do something. I’m not going to sit here whilst a third of the Laysan albatross chicks die. I want to do something about it.”

— Natalie Fée, Founder of City to Sea

In this episode

Meet new SheEO Venture City to Sea! Founder Natalie Fée joins SheEO Activator Hannah Senior to talk about City to Sea’s initiatives, how they got started, and being part of a larger environmental movement.

They also discuss:

  • Engaging people across the UK in their refill campaign
  • Previous successful campaigns
  • Creating impact through behaviour change and retail partnerships
  • Natalie’s journey as an entrepreneur
  • Her experience in the SheEO community thus far

We invite you to join us as an Activator at SheEO.World.

Take action and engage with City to Sea:

Order Natalie’s book, How to save the world for free.

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Podcast Transcript:

The podcast is being transcribed by Otter.ai. (there may be errors, run-on sentences and misspellings).

Natalie Fée 0:00
That for me felt like I have to do something. It’s kind of like not on my watch. First of all, it was grief. And then quite quickly, it turned to anger. And then it turned from that into like, what can I do? What do I need to do?

Vicki Saunders 0:14
Welcome to SheEO.World podcast, where you’ll meet women and non-binary folks who are transforming the world to be more equitable and sustainable.

Hannah Senior 0:26
Welcome to today’s podcast. I am Hannah Senior, normally the host of the innovating ag tech plant breeding stories podcasts. But today I’m here with my SheEO Activator hat on to talk to one of our newest UK Ventures City to Sea. And I’m with the founder Natalie Fée. So would you like to start things by just introducing yourself, Natalie.

Natalie Fée 0:51
Thanks. Thanks for having me on Hannah. I’m the founder of City to Sea, I’m also an author and a mother and all the other roles that we juggle in life as entrepreneurs. So yeah, I set City to Sea up back in 2015, to tackle the issue of single use plastic, and to try to bring about change, really, I wanted to see what I could do as an individual to try and stop plastic pollution. I mean, I, you know, took on a fairly big task, but I was working in TV at the time and getting a bit frustrated with the lack of environmental coverage. So back in 2014. And so that’s where it began,

Hannah Senior 1:33
and City to Sea is a campaigning organization, is that right?

Natalie Fée 1:37
It is yeah, so we’re a community interest company, which in the UK is a structure really organizational structure for businesses that want to have more of a four purpose element. And that’s reflected in our governance. So we aren’t really a social enterprise. And we also now have a charity arm as well.

Hannah Senior 1:57
So tell me about the scope of the activities that you’re involved in.

Natalie Fée 2:01
Sure, we are effectively a digital campaigning organization. And we try to bring about change when it comes to tackling single use plastic in communities, on the high street and at government level. So we do that through running campaigns and behavior change initiatives that raise awareness about the issue of plastic pollution. So we’re communicators. We run petitions and campaigns that influence supermarkets and retailers. So we actually see changes in on the high street, as well as working with coffee chains and high street retailers. And then we lobby government. So what you might see from a more traditional conservation organization where we put pressure on government by running petitions and collaborating with other NGOs, or nonprofits in the space, to try and get legislation changed as well, so that the onus of the change we need to see in the world isn’t all on the individual.

Hannah Senior 3:03
And is that just focused in the UK? Or do you focus on other parts of the world as well.

Natalie Fée 3:08
We are predominantly based in the UK, we’re a team of about 20 staff. And although our biggest campaign refill is in seven different countries, so a lot of people in the UK recognize the refill campaign and the logo, because it’s in, gosh, over a quarter of a million sort of shops and cafes around the world, you might see the sticker in the window. And we have an app called the refill app. So that’s got quite a high brand recognition. And people recognize that.

Hannah Senior 3:39
And just for anybody that isn’t aware of the refill campaign, you’ve run quickly describe that for us.

Natalie Fée3:44
Yeah, absolutely. So that’s our campaign to try and get people off of single use bottles and on to refilling their reusable bottle on the go. So it began in Bristol in 2015. For us and we started directing people to shops and cafes with posters and stickers that we gave to volunteers to sign up any kind of business that basically had a tap that had passed a health and hygiene certificate and logging those taps initially on a Google map. And that quickly became an app. So it was really about getting people used to carrying a bottle addressing some of the behavior change barriers to carrying a bottle perceptions around tap water in the UK. And we really designed the campaign to try and make it easy and accessible for people to save money, save plastic and refill for free on the go.

Hannah Senior 4:34
And so that campaign is international, but sounds like some of your other activities are local.

Natalie Fée 4:39
Yeah, I mean, it’s it is a bit of a hybrid. So that campaign has gone global. Although we primarily focus on the UK, so there is a toolkit for communities so people can sign up and run a refill scheme in their community. So we’ve got over 400 Refill community schemes. Some of those are run by At local authority, so councils but mostly they’re run by individuals, people like you or me who are passionate about changing the world and have maybe got a bit of time that they wanted to volunteer and to go out and refill where they live.

Hannah Senior 5:14
So how do you decide which aspects of the plastic challenge to focus on because plastic and single use plastic is everywhere? And clearly, you have to pick your spots. So tell me a bit about how you go go about thinking about that problem?

Natalie Fée 5:31
Yeah, well, it was quite easy, actually, for us because well, in fact, in my head of campaigns, Joe Morley was very clear and strategic that we wanted to focus on the top 10 most polluting single use plastic items. So for us, it’s the top 10 items that are most commonly found on beaches and rivers around the world. So one of the items that was on the top 10, which I think has dropped off now, which is exciting was the cotton banned, or the Q tips as they’re known in the US and Canada. And in around the world on beaches, you can barely sort of walk a few feet without seeing a plastic cotton bud washed up on the shoreline. And particularly, here in the UK, people were flushing cotton buds in their millions. And we were picking up hundreds of them. And we ran a campaign back in 2016 called Switch the stick can we get all of the UK supermarkets to stop making cotton bags out of plastic and make them out of paper. And then about four years later, the government finally got with the program and banned them. So banned the plastic cotton bud sticks. So we’ve seen now percentage decline in the number of cotton buds washed up on beaches since the implementation of that. So that’s really satisfying that was stopped over 400 tonnes of non recyclable single use plastic being produced each year.

Hannah Senior 6:56
Thank you. That’s a really good example. And it’s interesting that because it sounds like it started with consumer awareness before you then went on to target the manufacturers. Is that is that your normal way of thinking about things to try and start with the consumer awareness? Or? Or have I misunderstood?

Natalie Fée 7:16
Not at all? No, it’s more actually just a frustration of how slow it is to get the government to change. And actually targeting retailers is a faster way of bringing about some of the changes we want to see, because they’re dependent on their brand and their customers. Whereas, you know, with politicians, obviously, they want to stay in power as long as they can. But we’re stuck in this cycle of you know, a four year cycle. So actually putting pressure on retailers we found was a faster and more effective than doing the slow, but steady pressure on the government route. And unless you’ve got people who can vote with their wallet every day and can vote, you know, in elections, unless those people are aware of the problem and motivated to do something about it, then generally those changes don’t come about, we wouldn’t be seeing the shift that we’re seeing now towards a more circular economy and towards refill and reuse systems if it wasn’t for the pressure that organizations like City to Sea. But also lots of other organizations have put on manufacturers and government to make those changes.

Hannah Senior 8:25
So one of the things about plastics is or environmental issues generally is that they’re devilishly difficult. You try and solve one problem here. And you can end up causing another problem there so that I’m thinking of things like packaging food with plastics, in some cases, it stops food waste. In other case, it is just gratuitous use of plastic that isn’t needed. So how do you think through that kind of problem when you’re figuring out which which uses to target?

Natalie Fée 8:54
Well, I think as I said, we tend to focus on the kind of plastic that we find on on rivers and beaches, so that’s been lifted, or that’s escaped our ineffective sort of recycling systems really. So it’s mostly bottles, coffee cups, single use sort of On the Go items. And that’s generally what we tend to focus on. So the refill campaign expanded at the end of 2019, to include places that you could refill your coffee cup, your lunchbox, your household goods. So it’s more a platform that you can use to eat, drink and shop with less plastic. In terms of suggesting alternatives, we generally only really promote and support and push for reusable packaging, because, as you said, you know, even sort of people getting excited about switching to bio plastics has been fraught with problems because although people will say oh, it’s okay, this coffee cups compostable. It’s only compostable in a high heat industrial composter for 90 days and there’s very few of those around and there’s certainly not going to be one on when you just happen to chuck your coffee cup away in a municipal bin, so that technology is exciting and like you say food packaging is one of the biggest areas of concern around increases in plastics production, those sort of new innovations that will prevent food waste at the same time as reduce plastic pollution are very much going to be part of the future. But for now, there are so many ways that we can just reduce the amount of plastic that supermarkets are using, by introducing refill and reuse and return systems.

Hannah Senior 10:37
Another question that springs to mind and this conversation is how, you know, a, what good looks like because I guess there’s always another thing to be dealing with. But be how do you know that you’ve done a good job? How do you know that the plastic washing up on beaches is reducing? Who who does that work?

Natalie Fée 10:56
There are a number of amazing organizations who do regular beach cleans and big clean beach clean data. So keep Britain tidy and rain Conservation Society break free from plastic organized sort of global beach cleanup. So we tend to see who the biggest polluters are, what the most common items are that are found. And then slowly but surely, collectively, we’re all working to see a reduction in those numbers. In terms of other ways that we can measure success that might be a government introducing, for example, it recently banned cotton buds straws and stirrers. We’ve been putting pressure on them to now ban single use cutlery. So it’s kind of like a little bit piecemeal, but we’re getting there. And that does make some some huge changes. So yeah, I think there’s a number of different ways that we can celebrate success and see it. But there’s also the stuff that’s much harder to measure, which is the cultural shift and the behavior change shift and the trends, we know we can see that bottled water sales are declining. But you know, we can’t claim that it’s because of our work through the refill campaign that’s done that, you know, we’re part of a movement and and so I think you just have to trust sometimes that your work matters, and it’s making a difference.

Hannah Senior 12:22
And I’m sure it is, I ought to say that the fact that you’re getting wins, like, you know, getting the plastic cotton bud things banned. I mean that, you know, those are clear examples of making a meaningful difference. So it’s quite encouraging that you can see it as well as it coming through in the numbers. I am curious about your background. So you said 2014 Was it that you got into this what what made you make the switch to, to focusing on this issue and becoming a campaigner,

Natalie Fée 12:52
but I think like many of us, there’s, you know, there was definitely like a wake up call for me. But I think for me, it was a video on Facebook of beautiful fluffy albatross chicks dying a horrible death in their nests. And I think we can often be bombarded with all these different environmental or social problems in the world. And sometimes we can become a bit numb to to it, and probably is a form of self protection because there is so much going wrong in the world or that we could care about. But for me, I think I was at home on my own. I wasn’t in a public space. And it was presented in an incredibly powerful, beautiful way. It was an artist called Chris Jordan with the film midway, actually, sorry, ended up being called Albatross, but the back then the trailer was called midway. And it just was such a moving experience. When I watched this one minute trailer, two minute trailer for the film, I was so grief stricken that I kind of have I had space to feel it. And I think that’s quite often we don’t really have space to feel the grief or the loss, you know, and I’ve had two moments of that like that in my life one. Well, I’ve had many more than that. I’ve dabbled in environmentalism for many years before City to Sea but I think that for me felt like I have to do something it’s kind of like not on my watch. I’m not gonna sit here whilst you know a third of the lace on albatross chicks die. I want to do something about it. Because I think really, I just felt this well of energy. I mean, I think that’s how I would describe it. First of all, it was grief. And then quite quickly, it turned to anger and then it turned from that into like, what can I do? What do I need to do? And I started off with a music video. Which, because I had a full time job in TV and I dabble with music, I write occasionally write songs and I’d written a song and it felt like that could work if it was set to a video about plastic pollution. So I started off in my spare time doing a crowdfunding campaign. Got this music video produced, raised about 5000 pounds, and then ended up from the sales of the, you know, the song and downloads, I think I ended up raising about 17 pounds for conservation charity. And at that point I felt, yeah, okay, maybe I can do more than sort of failed music video and, and I took that momentum and started building up City to Sea that in my spare time in Bristol.

Hannah Senior 15:29
So I wouldn’t I wouldn’t put it down as failed. I think it’s just you try some things. And you’ve learned from that. Don’t you evolve as you go along with that? Which brings me to my next question, which is from that early beginning, tell me a bit about the journey that you’ve been through from, okay, that initial video didn’t raise what I wanted it to raise. But now I’m going to change direction. Tell me how you got from there to now?

Natalie Fée 15:53
Well, I think pretty quickly, I started exploring the landscape in Bristol. Is anyone working on this already? Can I get a job working with someone that was already doing this? There wasn’t anyone doing it locally, in my hometown of Bristol. In the UK, there were a couple of sort of more marine conservation organizations, I reached out to them, they didn’t have anything going. So I thought, okay, keeping my full time job, what can I do in my spare time that could build this and we ran community consultations to see what people wanted us to focus on. And I had all this energy for it. And I think we’ve kind of Kate settled on two ideas of what kind of plastic we wanted to tackle, we managed to unlock about 10,000 pounds of funding to pilot the refill campaign in Bristol. And so two people that I knew that were also interested and raising awareness about plastic pollution at the time I delivered that project whilst I still have my full time job. And then I left my job in TV and got some more funding in to do the switch the stick campaign from the water company. So I started kind of working with corporate partners and seeing who who could fund this for us. And I kind of drew on my previous business experience, to really start getting some cash so that we could run those campaigns and set it up in 2016. As a community interest company, it was quite a tough, tough decision between Amaya social enterprise and my charity, what we’re doing here, but we went with a kind of hybrid community a kick off CIC in the UK. And from there, it kind of snowball, we had that success with switch, the stick refill was building slowly, we started walking working with the UK water companies. And then they funded a an England wide rollout of the refill campaign. And at that point, we kind of went from, I think I got us up to about a team of maybe 12. And then or maybe sort of eight and then we went up to 12. And then about a year later, I promoted our head of partnerships up to CEO. So she became CEO, and we had almost two years of her in the CEO role and me as founder, which worked really well as a sort of leadership team. And yeah, so we are where we are today with I’m back in the CEO role still conscious that I do need my other wing women, you know, I still we came through the pandemic, which I think was quite a big challenge for ball. What for everybody, really, but you know, particularly for for nonprofits. And, yeah, we’ve got some amazing partnerships, and we’re starting to see some really interesting changes coming,

Hannah Senior 18:52
just expand on the team for me a little bit. You know, obviously, you’ve been through the pandemic, that’s a difficult time for, especially for organizations like yours. How are you structured now? How, you know, is it a large team that you have? So we’ve got about

Natalie Fée 19:05
20 in the team. We are just introducing a four day week. So we’ve been piloting that for six months, which I think is really exciting to talk about, because we’re now fully as of May that we’re integrating that. So we’re all paid the same as if we were on a five day week. But we’re working four days, which I feel is one of the perks of being the founder and the CEO that I can go on to say, I want us to do this. And quite often it will get implemented if it makes sense for the team. So we have myself we have my senior leadership team, which is head of campaigns Head of Development, head of partnerships. And then we have a sort of slightly more app based digital team. We’ve got the marketing and campaigns team. We have the partnership team that we We work on our corporate partnerships, but also our third sector partnerships as well.

Hannah Senior 20:04
And are there any partnerships that you particularly want to tell us about where there’s

Natalie Fée 20:08
some great ones? Yeah, I think probably our Chili’s partnership. The Chili’s reusable bottle. So we partnered with them back in, I think 2016, possibly even 2015. When they were just beginning and they went on to become the fastest growing company in the UK, I think that was 2020, that they became that. So they have one particular bottle in their range. And they give us 10 pounds every time someone buys one of them refill chilies, bottles, and coffee cup or lunch pot. And that’s been a brilliant partnership, because we meet their need of getting more places that people can refill, and showing people where they can refill their bottles and get access to water or other things. And in driving demand for those kinds of products. And then we benefit obviously, from the donation so that we’re able to do the work that we did. So that’s one example of like a product partnership. We also do a lot with like period companies who’ve got reusable period products, because we had our plastic free periods campaign, which was a big part of our work and has evolved into a education program called rethink periods. So we’ve got a number of smaller, reusable period product partners, and also organic disposable, so raising awareness around hidden plastic in period products. We’ve worked with sort of a big investment bank as well previously. And they had me speaking at their conferences at sort of pension conferences and talking about plastics, but also the wider environmental issues. So they offered sort of refill bars at their conferences. And I was also that sort of add some environmental messaging and maybe gravitas on the environmental subject.

Hannah Senior 21:56
Very good. Very good. So Natalie, I’d like to ask a brass tacks question now, which is tell me a bit about how the organization is financed? How is it that you can fund all these activities?

Natalie Fée 22:10
Yes, so we’ve got a fairly diverse set of income streams, I mean, initially, that was to make us more resilient. And we have slightly got to the point where actually we’re just a bit too stretched to be managing those different income streams. So we have the the conventional donors, philanthropic giving, and some trusts, grants and foundations, because we’re a CIC, which means that we are actually eligible for some grants and donations, that we’ve made it on the product donation. So that’s been a big part of us of working with reusable and refillable product partners. And then we have some public sector funding. So we work with, for example, Welsh Government have funded refill in Wales for the past two years. We’re doing a really exciting project down in Bournemouth, Christchurch, and Poole, with a big sea front engagement hub, and we’re providing the project plans and the engagement and the strategy for how that hub and the surrounding retailers can become plastic free and use reusable cups and coffee cups and lunch pots and things. So we’ve got this fairly wide range of partnerships. But then yeah, a small percentage of grant funding and, and the occasional philanthropist who just loves what we’re doing and helps us on our way. Excellent.

Hannah Senior 23:31
I think that’s a good segue into talking about SheEO. Tell me a bit about how did you come across SheEO because I gather you applied to be a venture last year. So tell me a bit about that backstory.

Natalie Fée 23:46
We did indeed. And so that was Rebecca Burgess, who was our CEO for almost two years, and my wing woman. And so it was heard that got SheEO on the radar. So we were kind of applying together. However, when we got through to the sort of second stage at that point, I was considering we’ve never had a loan before we hadn’t gone for investment, we haven’t really needed to go for investment. And I was concerned that we were really going for a loan for business as usual. And I didn’t feel confident, I think enough that we would really be able to pay that loan back. So at that point, I felt like it wasn’t something that we needed to do at that stage. But we had really become part of the SheEO community and started had a taste really of what amazing things were going on within the SheEO community and so this year, I felt like we were ready to come back and do it again, but for a different ask this time.

Hannah Senior 24:55
Okay, so So you applied to become SheEO venture What was the thinking behind that? What was it that you were hoping to get out of it?

Natalie Fée 25:05
I think for me, so what we were doing differently this year is looking at a more sustainable business model, because and interestingly, a lot of the feedback I got from activators was like, you’re doing great work, but what’s your business model. And so that’s really what we were applying for support with this year is support with transitioning to a more sustainable business model, which was what I’d always sort of had in mind for easy to see. And that when we kind of got that nailed, then we could then fund the charitable side of our work as well through our own successful sustainable income stream. So that’s kind of been the dream. And this year, we applied to SheEO. With that in mind of looking at funding a couple of well, basically restructuring, and revisiting our business model. So that’s the piece of work that we’ve been doing. And also, as I said, very openly, and honestly, we’re looking for, you know, that COO or possibly CEO, the the integrator to my visionary, so it’s, you know, I’m quite clear on my, my skill set. And it’s certainly not what an integrated us so that’s, that’s the sort of the thing that I was saying to SheEO so that’s exciting. But But really, I think once I’d, you know, I picked it up again, I was like, Okay, well, it’s time to look at SheEO again, this year, is this something that I feel I’d like to do, and it was about that community and that I feel as CEO, it can be quite lonely because I haven’t my SLT but quite often, there’s still a sense of the SLT being a team and then the CEO slightly being outside of that, and I think it was the peer to peer support that I was interested in. And, and also interested in bringing something to it as well, like I’m, I love supporting others and, and sharing, I guess my energy with other people as well. So I was curious and keen to contribute to the community. And the more I saw, as I went through the process in terms of the idea of radical generosity, and how people can have their asks for they can also have their Gibbs that just really resonated with me to be part of a group of women and non binary people that are here to help each other thrive.

Hannah Senior 27:43
And it’s early days yet, but have you found that those expectations have been met? And is there a specific example you can give about how the community has been there for you?

Natalie Fée 27:55
I mean, it has blown my expectations out of the water. Genuinely, I have been bowled over by the amount of support offered in terms of activators reaching out saying, you know, responding to my asks or just wanting to help say either through the venture welcome. Circles are three the deep dives that we’ve done in introducing my UK cohort to to, to the SheEO activators and communities so it’s been really exciting and really high level, bright, bright women as well that are reaching out that I’m just like, wow, you want to help us. I get you mean, I get to help you and then like the coating, you know, I hadn’t realized that I’d get a year’s coaching and you know, I’ve been teamed up with MJ and I’m loving. I’m loving it. It’s just like we get on our calls and we’re like power straight to the point and I’m like buzzing with you know actions and so having that kind of mentor ship as well. It’s a phenomenal I’m feeling extraordinarily lucky. I genuinely am feeling very blessed.

Hannah Senior 29:11
Do you have an ask for the community whilst whilst we have this opportunity?

Natalie Fée 29:16
I just had about three rush to my mind. So I think I mean, right now a simple one is that we’re running. We’re running a crowdfunding campaign, which is more just a sort of short term cash injection of just anyone who’s got a spare few pennies or pounds or just wants to share the campaign with their community. We were just looking to raise a bit of interim cash for one of our our cup of cutlery campaign. So that’s a way that if people just want to throw a bit of cash into the pot for the crowdfunded that can really help. But I think longer term I think the sort of visionary integrator piece that I’m going to be going into that process. So I think anyone that’s got experience of hiring an integrator or a COO, I’d be I’d be really interested to hear from them. How that process was, as a as a founder or visionary how that process was for them finding their integrator.

Hannah Senior 30:28
Excellent. Is there anything that we haven’t talked about today that you would like to take this opportunity to share with the community? I would like

Natalie Fée 30:37
to give a shout out for my book, because I get so busy as CEO of City to Sea I feel like I don’t do my book justice, because I’m also an author. And my book, How to save the world for free came out at the end of 2019. And then the paperback came out last year, and it did really well. It’s popped up in bookshops, and libraries and museums all around the world. But if people Yeah, want to have a look at that, or give it an Amazon review, or just buy it for someone, I think, or even just look at the cover, it’s a pretty cover. That kind of thing. Yeah, that would be my last thought. Third, third and final ask.

Hannah Senior 31:15
Excellent. Well, it’s been really interesting learning about CTC today. Thank you very much for taking the time to share it with us. And we look forward to seeing how things progress from here on.

Natalie Fée 31:27
Thanks, Hannah. I appreciate everybody’s is listening into this and thanks ever so much for your questions and your time.

Vicki Saunders 31:36
Thank you for listening to the SheEO.World podcast. Like, comment, subscribe, and share this podcast with your friends. We invite you to join a global community of radically generous women and non binary folks at SheEO.World.

Transcribed by https://otter.ai

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