This week, I had the chance to speak 1 on 1 with Fill it Forward Founder & CEO Matt Wittek. We talked social entrepreneurship, risk-taking, climate solutions, and sustainability in a post-COVID world.
About the company: Fill it Forward
How it works
Fill it Forward syncs up with reusable items to inspire consumers and corporations to reuse more and waste less. People can affix a Fill it Forward scannable tracker to reusable water bottles & tote bags through their free app.
Every time someone reuses and scans the sticker, Fill it Forward will donate to one of its charitable partners. You can learn more about Fill it Forward’s giving model and charitable partners here.
With Fill it Forward, consumers’ actions are equally as valuable as their dollar. The more people reusing Fill it Forward’s products, the more support for clean water projects around the globe. Fill it Forward partners with household names like Amazon, Salesforce, Google, and Microsoft to fund these charitable donations.
Fill it Forward has its own online shop with reusable bottles and everyday tote bags you can use to enable more access to clean water!
About the Founder: Matt Wittek
Fill it Forward founder Matt Wittek is a social entrepreneur on a mission to inspire the world to reuse. Since graduating from the University of Guelph in 2003, Matt has been empowering people to make a worldwide change. His focus is on creating environmentally and socially responsible products and technology.
An industry leader and innovator, Matt converted his passion for environmental sustainability into creative solutions. His ideas amplify the impact of reuse around the world. Through global partnerships, The Fill it Forward Company has helped eliminate millions of single-use items from landfills and oceans.
Launching Fill it Forward
Since 2012, Fill it Forward has helped fund hundreds of clean water projects. These projects benefit communities across the world in an effort to alleviate the global water crisis. Working with multiple charitable partners, Matt and the Fill it Forward team are able to maximize their impact. They facilitate better hygiene, sanitation, and education in high-priority communities.
Matt has worked with many leading retailers, foodservice operators, universities, and brands to promote the use of reusable products. Millions of people around the world use his products and programs. These initiatives help to eliminate plastic bottles and disposable cups from our landfills.
You can find his work featured on Canada AM, CBC’s The National, Breakfast Television and the Globe and Mail.
Matt lives in Guelph, Ontario with his wife and three daughters.
1 on 1 with Fill it Forward Founder Matt Wattek
Q: As a Venture For America fellow, I am always fascinated by founder stories. What inspired you to leave a cushy sales job and launch Fill it Forward?
While the sales job was cushy, I wasn’t being fulfilled by my work. At the time, my wife was pregnant with our third daughter. As you can imagine, things were pretty hectic. We decided I had a one-year window to get Fill it Forward off the ground and make it work.
The short time frame of course kicked me into gear. However, my passion for starting Fill it Forward simply came down to reusing and inspiring others to do so. I wanted to create something where people were constantly engaging with simple actions and sustainability habits. I knew that could make a tremendous impact over time.
It started out with just a few ideas for the company but quickly snowballed into more. I started to connect the dots on how I could really make Fill it Forward impactful and meaningful.
As I watched my kids play outside, my mind wandered. Many people don’t have access to clean water and just how grateful we are. This inspired me to tie in the charitable component to Fill it Forward. Every reuse of water bottles, tote bags, etc. supports clean water projects around the globe. I wanted to ensure that every time we turned on the tap, we turned it on for someone else in need, too.
Q: Mission-driven for-profits can be extremely powerful, but many fail. Some B-corps struggle to align their mission with a sustainable business model. How does Fill it Forward stay environmentally conscious while staying profitable?
We truly have built our brand around the mission to be ‘always giving.’ It’s a thin line to walk between being environmentally conscious while staying profitable, but we’ve done so by staying 100% focused on reuse and following our north star – which is doing good, not looking to make a profit.
Everything clicked for us when we found a way for consumers to give back to charitable projects every time they reuse. It’s simple – people place a reuse tracker on their reusable items, scan the Fill it Forward app every time they reuse, and each scan contributes to the completion of a charitable project.
Our corporate partnerships, which range from our reusables being integrated at large-scale events (pre-COVID) or engagement programs for employees, along with product sales, are what fund our giving projects. Having said this, our “secret sauce” lies within our giving model, in the sense that we’ve created value for both corporate partners and consumers.
There’s also of course the link between giving models/sustainability and revenue. According to a recent IBM study, 57% of consumers are willing to change their purchasing habits to reduce negative environmental impact. When your business is fundamentally sustainable, you have a better chance of being profitable.
Q: There is a lot of debate in the online climate community about the environmental impact of producers versus consumers. What came first, the chicken or the egg? As a company that works with both consumers and large companies, where does Fill it Forward fall in that conversation?
Both consumers and large companies have an equal responsibility to make a positive impact on the planet. While large companies do have more of an impact than the actions of individual consumers, it’s truly on everybody to do the right thing. If one group fails, we all suffer.
Where Fill it Forward comes into play is that there’s a way to empower consumers to make an impact. Some people may think “hey, my actions aren’t going to make a difference here.” But that’s not true, and that’s the misconception we are trying to shift at Fill it Forward.
Knowledge is truly power, so the data we provide to consumers about their emissions saved, waste diverted from landfills, and plastic prevented from oceans, shows them that their daily actions do make a difference, especially over time. When they are inspired to reuse/be more sustainable, they become hyper-aware of the brands they are supporting or buying from. We do our part by teaching consumers that their actions can and do make a difference and instilling within them a fire to make the planet a better place.
Q: What makes Fill it Forward unique from other climate-conscious initiatives?
Fill it Forward’s recurring giving model sets us apart from other climate-conscious initiatives and existing giving models. With just one initial purchase of our Reuse Trackers that affix to reusables people already own, consumers are forever looped into our recurring giving model. This allows them to consistently fund charitable projects that support clean water, nutritious food, sanitation, education, and more.
Another unique aspect of Fill it Forward is that we allow consumers to see and measure their impact in real-time, which allows for active and ongoing participation. By providing personalized insights, access to 24/7 data, and an engaging experience, we’re helping to drive the adoption of sustainable habits and practices amongst consumers.
We’re working to inspire reuse by getting people involved in sustainability efforts through gamifying the experience and incentivizing people to reuse their own products.
Q: What is the biggest challenge Fill it Forward faces in a post-covid world?
In a post-COVID world, one of the biggest challenges Fill it Forward faces is getting consumers, corporations, retailers, food service providers, and more back on track when it comes to sustainability.
The plastic problem has reached new heights due to COVID-19. Before March of 2020, retailers, restaurants, and everyday consumers were headed in the right direction when it came to lessening their over-consumption of single-use plastic.
The pandemic disrupted efforts to reduce the use of non-recyclable plastics, from grocery bags to plastic forks. There’s currently an overwhelming need to get back on track with reusables, which is where Fill it Forward plays a key role. What lies ahead is much motivating and inspiring people to reuse.
From colleges and universities, household name corporations, major events, and even local fitness clubs, Fill it Forward will be continuing to build a community of changemakers that are always giving.
An opportunity for Fill it Forward
While it’s a challenge, we’re also seeing it as an opportunity. There’s a growing conversation about single-use plastics and the damage they have caused over the last year, so we’re looking at this as our chance to get in front of the problem, inspire people to reuse, and combat the issue. One of the ways we are doing so is through the Beyond the Bag Challenge.
Fill it Forward was one of the nine winners of the competition put on by the Center for the Circular Economy at Closed Loop Partners. The challenge aimed to identify innovative new design solutions that serve the function of today’s single-use plastic retail bag — delivering ease and convenience for consumers in a sustainable way.
Our reuse tracker and app that connect to the reusable bags that consumers already own was recognized given the solution allows people to track environmental impact, earn rewards, and help give nutritious food and clean water to people in need.
Q: For my entrepreneurial readers… what’s the biggest mistake or lesson from the first few years at Fill it Forward? Would you do anything differently if you started a business in 2021?
In hindsight, one of the biggest lessons I learned is that in the first few months of launching Fill it Forward, I was selling a product. I needed to be selling a mission. Luckily, I realized pretty quickly that my original product wasn’t resonating, and I needed to expand/be more purpose-driven. Once I had a strong mission in place, I was able to build the company more. The mission – of reuse and always giving – began to supplement selling a product. This was a huge game-changer for me and the trajectory of Fill it Forward.
So, my advice to other budding entrepreneurs is to have the foundational pieces in place from the beginning so that you are building on a solid foundation. It seems that your revenue path is most important when you’re launching a company, but it’s not. Your mission, ideal user/audience, and big picture impact need to be as clearly outlined, if not more, than your revenue stream. Best of luck to anyone going through it now, it’ll be worth it!