A colleague from the Cleantech Group showed me a brilliant product the other day: Vessel Drinkware’s tumbler line of cups. These stylish and reusable porcelain cups are designed to look almost exactly like the disposable paper coffee cups that have become ubiquitous in trash cans worldwide. Vessel also makes a line of acrylic tumblers made to look exactly like plastic soda cups, complete with a straw.
There’s a lot of irony in designing something to look cheap and disposable. From a distance you can’t even tell the difference. But somehow it works. Perhaps consumers have become so accustomed to the disposable coffee cup that buying a ceramic look-alike just makes cultural sense. There’s something about the novelty factor, or the familiarity, that jogs the memory in a way that makes a reusable Thermos seem frumpy. More importantly, making the consumer feel good about reusing their cup without being preachy about it ought to pay dividends for the company.
Graham Hill figured this out when he created the brilliant ceramic version of New York’s “We Are Happy to Serve You” cup, a pre-Starbucks icon that is still found in it’s original form at bodegas around the city. By making an artistic statement, his cups get a conversation brewing every time they’re offered at the breakfast table. Vessel’s may have a similar effect. Their portability could also bring that conversation into the office and coffeeshop. I can picture folks standing in line exclaiming “Oh what a cute cup! And you can re-use it? Wow!” Perhaps this is exactly the kind of provocation consumers need to keep sustainable thinking on their minds.
Granted, you have to crunch a lot of numbers in order to accurately determine whether a ceramic or porcelain cup is truly “better” than a properly sourced paper version. But assuming the reusable is regularly used for a reasonable amount of time, it is still likely the more sustainable option. Plus it’s pretty darn cool.
Will we see Starbucks offering a novelty re-usable any time soon? Will the paper coffee cup decline in popularity? Time will tell, but marketing and design will have a lot to do with it.