A water refill app to engage people for systemic climate action – the story of Robin Lewis
By Marte Hellema, Youth Co:Lab
Long before Robin Lewis started mymizu, he was on a path of making a difference through working on humanitarian relief and climate policy issues. But there was always something brewing. A desire to do more. With the creation of mymizu, he and his co-founder, Mariko McTier did just that. Create a community of change for a world with cleaner oceans, heathier ecosystems and because of that, happier people.
2011 was a big turning point for Robin. He graduated from university. But it was also the year the tsunami struck Japan resulting in the Fukushima nuclear crisis. Having a personal connection to one of the areas that was hit, he urgently made his way back to help.
He ended up working on humanitarian and emergency relief with Peace Boat, and later joined the World Bank consulting on disaster management. Alongside that he was also running his own organization, Social Innovation Japan, which focused on the realization of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in Japan.
But something kept brewing. The idea that:
“(..) responding to these things was very important, but unless we address the underlying drivers like climate change and so on it is just going to keep happening and getting worse and worse. (..) how do we create more structural change not just responding to emergencies, but how do we prevent these things from happening in the first place.”
In 2018, Robin and Mariko found themselves walking the beach in Okinawa. The beautiful beach was swamped in plastic. Fishing gear, cosmetic items, and more than anything else, plastic bottles. It triggered their idea to create something to address the issue of plastic bottles but to use it as a hook to engage people in on a much larger conversation around sustainability and sustainable development.
They started with doing research on plastic consumption and waste in Japan. They found that even though Japan has among the highest quality of drinking water in the world, the consumption of bottled water grows significantly every year.
“(..) we use something like 25 billion plastic bottles every single year. Just in Japan. Which is enough to go around the world 128 times.”
They also discovered many misconceptions around recycling. In Japan the official recycling rate is around 84-85 percent, but what is less known is that roughly 50-70 percent of this is burned through a process known as “thermal recycling”.
Having done their research, they started pulling together a team. To develop the concept, do surveys, and talk to businesses that might be interested to participate.
In 2019, mymizu, which means ‘my water’ in Japanese, was born. In just three months they went from the initial conversation with the team to launching their flagship project, the water refill app. It provides users the location of shops and cafes who let you refill your water bottles for free.
The app is free and crowdsourced. Mymizu has not done any sales to gain refill partners, the growth has been completely organic. By now it has over 200,000 locations worldwide, including almost 10,000 in Japan. The app also enables users to track how many plastic bottles, CO2 emissions, and money they have saved by refilling instead of buying bottled water.
The benefits for the refill partners are threefold: It is a great way to increase their foot-traffic through the door; It allows them an opportunity for positive branding; and it opens opportunities to build relations with their local community.
But the app was only the beginning. The core belief of mymizu is the importance of community and co-creation. With a vast range of different strategic partners, they are undertaking a plethora of projects, ranging from joint marketing campaigns creating videos about ocean plastic; to offering renewable energy through mymizu electricity; and education and awareness raising projects with schools, universities, and local governments.
“(..) we have had so many instances of people whom we have never met go out and evangelize mymizu to their local cafes and restaurants, to their local people to their local schools. I mean, just recently we had a group of high schoolers, they made their own mymizu posters and they went around their neighbourhood signing up cafes and restaurants without our involvement at all.”
They have also launched the mymizu challenge, which is a paid version of mymizu for companies and organizations. And have signed partnerships for other projects with brands like Audi, Nike, and many more.
The last couple of years have been a rollercoaster for Robin and the rest of the team, filled with challenges, opportunities and insights.
One being, that Robin believes there has never been a better time to be a social entrepreneur. There are more support systems, resources, and funding available than ever before.
Programmes like Youth Co:Lab, an initiative co-led by UNDP and Citi Foundation, which provided a very meaningful experience to mymizu.
“(..) first of all, I met a lot of really interesting people. And I think just being there provided a lot of motivation because when you are given that platform to talk about what you are doing (..) it becomes sort of like a gentle pressure to keep going.”
His participation in the Youth Co:Lab Springboard programme coincided with the growth and expansion of mymizu. Going through the different modules and having to submit the various assignments forced them to review the fundamentals, while he also gained new knowledge and tools.
“(..) Springboard is very comprehensive. There is everything from finance to marketing to storytelling. I think it is extremely holistic in its approach, which is really valuable for any startup or any social enterprise in its early stages.”
Robin also learned that with their flagship project being tech-based solution, it is crucial to always remember the people who you want to reach.
“Technology is one thing, and technological solutions will take us part of the way, but unless there are people behind your idea, people behind your service, then there will be no one to use the technology.”
One year into setting up their social enterprise, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. It led to the cancelation of many projects, events, and collaborations. The first months of 2020 were hard, but as the year progressed, they managed to regain and eventually increase their expected revenue.
They had to innovate, be creative and pivot in many ways. But it also allowed them to learn new skills and set up projects that otherwise might have never been, like the mymizu challenge, which is now one of their key products. It changed the way they conduct a lot of their activities.
“A lot of what we do is around education, so we do workshops, and talks and seminars, at least two or three times a week. And now, given that we are not bound by geography, we can reach people from all over the place.”
They also learned to be creative with their onboarding and teambuilding. Doing teambuilding entirely on Zoom has been challenging. But in some ways, they became even closer as a team, because they had that regular touch point. They became a stronger team with even bigger dreams.
While Japan will remain their base and focus, they want to expand to other countries. Find new partners and create different movements. They also want to expand beyond water to other beverages, foods, or other products. Apply the same philosophy and concept to other products and services.
And they have one really concrete dream, to engage 3.5 percent of the population of Japan.
“This is our next milestone. And the reason we have chosen 3.5 percent is because of a concept called the 3.5 percent rule. Which states that if you can engage and take action with 3.5 percent of a population and actively do something together, then you will almost always create big systemic change”
And that is the end goal, create systemic change not just around plastic waste, but on sustainable consumption and sustainable living in general.
Co-created in 2017 by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Citi Foundation, Youth Co:Lab aims to establish a common agenda for countries in the Asia-Pacific region to empower and invest in youth so that they can accelerate the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through leadership, social innovation and entrepreneurship. Read more about Youth Co:Lab here.