We caught up with Natalie Fée, Founder & CEO of City to Sea as part of ‘Product | People | Potential’. City to Sea is an environmental organisation who focus on stopping plastic waste at the source. With a focus on the top-10 most frequently found plastic items in UK rivers and oceans, City to Sea run campaigns powered by people to service the community. The problem of plastic waste may be complicated, but the solutions don’t have to be!
The purpose of article series ‘Product | People | Potential’ is to feature and showcase the very best UK start-ups with grand potential, truly inspiring businesses that are shaking up their sector. We capture and share the stories behind the name. We collate authentic peer to peer real talk, while celebrating the growth and success thus far and gather a glimpse of what’s ahead.
Nat: Sure! I am Natalie Fée, and I am the Founder of City to Sea and currently the CEO. I set City to Sea up back in 2015 when I became aware of the problem of plastic pollution, and I wanted to do something about it. We exist to stop plastic pollution at source. This means stopping the 10 most common polluting items found on our beaches and in our rivers. We’re trying to create a reusable future, rather than a disposable one. We’re currently a team of 20 and are based in Bristol. We’re running national and international campaigns that work from grassroots community level up to corporate and government lobbying and legislation change.
Nat: I became aware of the problem back in 2013/2014 and thought what I could do personally to stop plastic pollution. I was completely devastated at the images of the albatross feeding their chicks plastic pollution and the chicks were dying in their nests. I thought it was outrageous that this was happening on our planet. I was working in TV at the time, and I thought about what I could do. I started with a music video because I also write some music. I thought I could start with this as a creative side project. The video didn’t have the impact I hoped it would as I don’t have millions of followers. After this, I built City to Sea into the campaigning organisation that it is today.
Nat: The zero-waste movement and plastic-free packaging movement has a long way to go in terms of it being accessible for everybody on any income, especially those on a lower income. What we’re starting to see now and what we’re excited to be working on this year is a number of projects that’re democratizing the reuse and refill space by making it accessible and affordable in supermarkets. We’re going to start seeing some exciting changes in that space.
Nat: There’re also some good refill at home solutions coming to market now. For example, there is a company called Good Club so you can have zero waste groceries delivered to your door. I think that zero waste is slowly becoming easier and cheaper. I think we will really start to see a zero-waste shift over the next 3 years.
Nat: We grew quite fast quite quickly and due to plastic pollution being highly topical at the time (2016), we presumed that the focus on reducing plastic would stay. People and funders got behind us, so we were able to grow the team quickly but after 4 years, the focus shifted onto other environmental issues.
Like many organisations, we were impacted by COVID because a lot of our campaigns were about on-the-go products and partnerships with refill products that’re used out and about. Financially, we were hit by the pandemic but also, from a campaign perspective. There was a real push-back against reusables, such as coffee cups, because of contamination fears. The plastic’s industry seized this moment to try and reclaim some public support. We then launched a campaign to get reusables back on the menu, and we’re proud of this campaign as it did well.
In terms of growing our team, diversity has been a real focus for us. The traditional environmental space in Bristol is notoriously very white so we have embarked on very thorough in-house training and educating for our staff to identify potential barriers to diversification. This includes race, gender, and ability. We prioritised setting aside funds to expand our reach to harder-to-reach communities, working with specific consultants and recruiters to achieve this. D&I progress remains ongoing.
We’re also piloting a 4-day week. We’re almost at the end of our pilot study (6-months), and it has gone really well. The team are paid a full-time salary, but we don’t work Fridays. This is a real perk for our staff but also working within the social/environmental justice sector, it is good to have a day where you can balance work with self-care. We’re very proud to be championing a 4-day week and it looks like it is here to stay!
Nat: Yes, it can be easy for people to experience burnoutwhen you’re fighting a cause that may not be won in your career lifetime.
Nat: We focus on the top ten items of single-use plastic found in UK rivers and beaches. This keeps us focused and generally is further defined by packaging an sewage-related products. This includes plastic bottles, bottle top caps, coffee cups and lids, menstrual products, wet wipes, and cotton buds. Menstrual products, wet wipes and cotton buds are often flushed down the toilet so end up in rivers! For us, our main campaigns are refill, and plastic-free periods.
Refill is a campaign connecting people to places where they can eat/drink/shop with less plastic and has a strong community element too. Plastic-free periods focuses on raising awareness around plastic-free menstrual products and our education program, Rethink periods, which is unbiased and far-reaching. We train ambassadors, teachers, and nurses to help deliver the Rethink periods campaign across the UK.
Nat: Choosing to be a CIC (Community Interest Company) instead of a charity has had both advantages and disadvantages. It has enabled us to be more agile and take more risks through not being a charity; however, it has sometimes been a barrier to receiving funding. This year we’re setting up a charity alongside our CIC.
Another focus for me as CEO is the business model of the CIC because we have relied on goodwill, grants, and donations. I am keen for us to be more self-sufficient as an organisation. I would’ve liked to have focused on this earlier in our history, but we have done really well and had an incredible impact on the world for such a small team. Plus, we survived a global pandemic! Now we have the time to celebrate everything we have achieved and to see how far we can go!
Nat: As a CIC, we don’t look for investment, and have a diverse revenue stream. We have donations, corporate partnerships, product partnerships, work with local authorities, and more. This diversification has helped us make sure we don’t have all our eggs in one basket, and it has generally worked out well for us, so that would be my advice for other CICs!
Thank you for your time, Nat!