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Nik Robinson Good Citizens
Photograph: Ingvar Kenne/Good Citizens

Time Out's Sustainability Future Shaper: Nik Robinson

The Time Out team talk to the exceptional individuals moulding the future of Sydney

By Maxim Boon
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Time Out is profiling the incredible people who are shaping the future of Sydney in this Future Shaper series. These remarkable individuals and organisations were nominated by a panel of expert judges including editor of Time Out Sydney Maxim Boon, celebrity chef and restaurateur Kylie Kwong, head of talks and ideas at the Sydney Opera House Edwina Throsby, NSW 24-hour economy commissioner Michael Rodrigues, CEO of IndigiLab Luke Briscoe, and NIDA resident director David Berthold. Read more about the project here.

If your child is afraid of the dark or birthday clowns or a monster under the bed, it’s a fairly easy task to reassure them. But what if they’re afraid of the greatest existential threat ever faced by humanity? That’s a more complicated fear to soothe, as Nik Robinson, the founder of 100 per cent recycled eyewear company Good Citizens discovered in 2018, when his two young sons, Harry and Archie (then 8 and 6), told him they were scared about the amount of plastic waste polluting the environment. 

“As adults, we understand that things aren't always as they seem – that these issues are complex and take time to solve. But [Harry and Archie] were genuinely terrified that the world was about to break,” Robinson recalls. “They were convinced that all the animals were going to die, and they were going to die, and that there would be no one left to clean up the planet. They were deeply upset. And that, along with everything I had read in newspapers and seen on the news and on the internet, all of it started snowballing in my head. I have kids, and frankly, anybody who's got kids should be like, well, what planet am I leaving for them? Really, what am I leaving behind? Surely I should leave this place in a better state than I found it, for them and for their kids?”

Robinson knew that he wanted to do something not only to ease his children’s fears but to also bring about a positive change in the world that they would eventually inherit as adults. But where to start on addressing a crisis so colossally, globally huge? For Robinson, the first step was creating a philosophy for the endeavour – four simple principles that would guide all the decision making. The solution should only use 100 per cent recycled materials; what they choose to make should be durable enough to last; nothing they do should exploit either the planet or people; and finding the solution shouldn’t take away time with the kids (a deal-breaking clause insisted upon by Harry and Archie). 

The eventual expression of these four key values would be just as elegant in its simplicity. Through a process of research and development that lasted more than two years (to be exact, 752 days and more than 2,500 failed attempts), Robinson perfected a technique to take a single 600ml PET drinks bottle and from it create a single piece of eyewear. Not only does this 1:1 ratio of repurposed material ensure the product meets the 100 per cent recycled target, but the process refined by Robinson for Good Citizens is also currently one of the only ways this ubiquitous type of plastic waste can be recycled.

Today, Good Citizens is a thriving, award-winning brand sold all over the world. But Robinson didn’t achieve all this on his own. “Good Citizens wouldn't be anything without the kids,” he says. “And it's funny – starting a business is always perceived as being complicated, but having [Harry] in the business – and he is my business partner, not just a helping hand, he is vital to the business – meant that anything we did had to be simple.” 

To be clear, simplicity in this context doesn’t mean basic; at Good Citizens, simplicity is the highest form of purity. “My background was in creative media – advertising spaces, brands, creative ideas. And in that world, it’s easy to think that consumers stop everything and watch with every ounce of consciousness when you’re trying to communicate with them. And in reality, they don't. They're distracted, the TV’s on, the dog’s barking. But having the kids involved [at Good Citizens] brings a simplicity to everything, an absolute simplicity. And if it's simple, people understand it and will share it.”

Making sure their products say as much as they save has been an essential part of the Good Citizens story. Developing the technology for his revolutionary recycled eyewear may have been the practical solution to the plastic waste conundrum, but Robinson recognised that this only solved half the problem. The choice of name for his family’s company was carefully selected to have a double meaning. The Robinsons are good citizens for wanting to reduce the amount of plastic pollution in the world, but in buying and wearing a piece of their eyewear, the company’s customers are also good citizens, paying forward their eco principles and hopefully spreading this message further.

But while it might be simple, being good isn’t always easy. During the development phase of Robinson’s exploration of plastic recycling, his experiments had hit a wall. The level of recyclability he could reach was high – almost 90 per cent. But this still fell short of the 100 per cent recycled goal enshrined in the company’s mission statement. Instead of accepting defeat and going to market with a product that had decent but not unimpeachable ecological creds, he continued his work. It would take another year and half to finally reach the 100 per cent threshold, but for Robinson, this was time well spent.

“The way I explained it to the kids was, our problem is a plastic bottle. If we’d launched it at 90 per cent, we'd have only solved 90 per cent of the problem, and that made no sense, because we're still adding 10 per cent more of that wasted bottle to the world. So hitting that target was very important to us. And we also wanted to be an example, because there's a lot of greenwashing in the consumer world. A lot of brands make wild claims that they're made of recycled materials. And what consumers don't actually ask is, what percentage is recycled. Some are just saving 10 per cent or 8 per cent of ocean waste. Greenwashing can be one of the biggest environmental cons, because companies that are in fact extremely wasteful or who make claims they don’t back up, can claim to share the values of their customers.” 

Robinson, alongside his wife, Jocelyne, and the boys, are also in demand on the speaking circuit, sharing their remarkable story, including in mid-2020 at the United Nations as part of the Global Compact summit. This recognition is, as you’d imagine, something Robinson is immensely proud of. But the fact that his entire family is at the heart of his mission to improve our world is the greatest reward he’s received. “I think it was about ten months in, when we were really struggling mentally to keep things going, and I was walking Harry to school, and he goes, 'You know, most people would have given up. But you haven't.' I got home and I said to Jocelyne, we've already won. Knowing the boys have these values, to find solutions even if it isn’t easy – that gives me a lot of hope."

Follow Good Citizens here: @goodcitizens_official

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