Will.i.am is on the cover of the latest issue of British Global Business Travel magazine. In this edition you can read an interview wth Will in which he talks about recycling, spending power, technology, travellin, EKOCYCLE and more.
The airlines list him on their manifests as William Adams. He’s a multi-million-miler mega road warrior who averages 600,000 real air miles a year, currently commuting around London, Los Angeles, and Australia. At hotels, he almost always registers using an alias.
But to millions of fans, he’s known as will.i.am, an integral part of The Black Eyed Peas and a celebrity coach on both the U.K. and Australian versions of the hit show The Voice.
Will.i.am was “discovered” as an eighth-grader in 1987, when he met up with two other rappers and began performing around Los Angeles. The trio had a recording contract by 1992. And then came The Black Eyed Peas. The group has sold 33 million albums and 58 million singles worldwide. A Grammy and Emmy winner, will.i.am has produced some of the music industry’s biggest names, from Michael Jackson and Rihanna to Usher and Britney Spears. And he’s been living on airplanes and in hotel rooms for more than 20 years.
“It’s all too easy to be consumed with your own identity, your brand, and your schedule,” he says. Especially when you’re traveling. I was just not aware of how serious a problem this was, then I tried to put it in perspective and thought about my lifestyle, the music that we make, the people we are bringing together—and the wasted opportunities. We have to seize the moment to inform people about the decisions we make as consumers: what we support, what we buy, and how it all ends up in landfills. It’s a crime.”
And he thinks he knows the reason for this. “Every single person is part of the reason why things are intentionally made to become obsolete. We are all part of this machine called planned obsolescence. We purchase stuff, and almost immediately it officially outlives its usefulness and we simply throw it away.”
Will.i.am’s awareness level started to climb after he attended the Clinton Global Initiative in New York in 2008.
That’s when he was confronted with some hard numbers. “It wasn’t difficult to do the math. We are nearing 9 billion people on the planet, with staggering amounts of consumption. So that was the beginning for me. And then,” he says, “came the concert.” He was performing with The Black Eyed Peas in Costa Rica, just another stop on a multi-city tour. “Usually, after a concert, we’re a quick-out. Off the stage, into the cars, and gone. But this time it was different. I wanted to stay in the place after the audience had left. And that’s when it hit home.”
Will.i.am witnessed, up close and personal, how much waste was left by the fans after the concert. “I was beyond shocked when I saw how much garbage was in that arena. Just the plastic bottles and containers alone. . . It was like when you go to the movie theater, the film is over, and you leave right away and you don’t really see the aftermath of the audience until the lights come on. You don’t see the spilled soda and bags of popcorn and plastic. But this time, in Costa Rica, I did see it, and the impression was indelible. The audience didn’t see it, but I did.”
And that, he says, is one of the biggest mistakes travelers make: not seeing. “I look at myself as a business traveler, but until that concert I wasn’t seeing the aftermath of what happens when I travel. I was not understanding the basic cause and effect proposition of consumption and waste. It’s wrong. And it can be changed.”
It’s all about strength in numbers and being to able to demand a different way of doing things, he acknowledges. “If you’re just fueling up your rental car with gas and driving off, then you are fueling the same system that no longer works. You need to get out of your regular rental car and get into electric,” says will.i.am, who owns a Tesla.
“But that’s easier said than done,” he continues. “Frequent travelers need to demand more charging stations and more battery swap stations, or it won’t make a big difference.” And then, he says, comes real change. “Once we make that difference, then we can demand a different way of building highways that will be—literally—conductive, providing direct electricity to run the cars.”
The bottom line, he argues, is that if we can’t make those demands to make those connections, “then we remain stuck in a behavior of a wasteful cycle of consumption without regard to consequences.”
As an example, he points to the exponential growth in cellular technology. “Twenty years ago, not everyone had a cellphone. Now, so many people on the planet do. More people have cellphones, or access to them, than have access to fresh water. Now, take that same pattern and apply it to cars. Today, not everyone in the world has a car, but on a physical and environmental level we cannot sustain 7 billion people having a car. So what are we doing about that? And we don’t have electric planes yet. It’s a tough issue, but for the moment we do have biofuel, and that’s a start. More airlines need to adapt.”
The bigger, underlying issue is not just about the power of the collective public to demand electric cars and, possibly, electric planes, but to fi rst recognize what will.i.am calls our “rambunctious consumption behavior with no contextual information. My grandfather,” he continues, “didn’t live like we do now. He made things to last, and he used things that lasted.
“When my grandfather was alive, he made stuff that endured. The table he made for my father, who then gave it to me, is now called an antique. But it’s still a wonderful, workable table, and I can also hand it down to my son. But besides that, what am I supposed to give my kid 20 years from now? An iPhone 5 that doesn’t work? But we don’t think about stuff like that—especially when we travel. What does the airline do with the newspapers, plastic bottles, and aluminum cans that were used on board?”
When will.i.am travels, he starts with the little things, such as water consumption. “When I’m in theshower, I’m in and out. When I brush my teeth, I don’t let the water run. I often brush my teeth with just mouthwash. Every time I check in to a hotel, they have maybe four towels for me. I only use one. And,” he says, “I never use anything from the minibar. But that,” he adds, “has less to do with the environment than it does with a principle about excessive and unnecessary high prices.”
All in all, it was his experience as a global music artist, entrepreneur, and traveler that brought him to the point of seeking a creative and workable solution that could involve his audience. He called it EKOCYCLE. Considering how easy it is for a celebrity to be tied to an endorsement, he figured he would flip the situation and approach the brands from this perspective.
And that’s how EKOCYCLE got its start. Will.i.am went to Coca-Cola with the idea, and the corporation wasted no time jumping on board. The concept: to repurpose materials into high-end items.
“Will knew about our Give It Back program and our recycling ambitions,” says Scott Williamson, a Coca-Cola executive. “He laid out EKOCYCLE and his vision of making items people want, from hats to headphones.” But the concept goes beyond product to embrace social change.“EKOCYCLE aims to embed sustainability into peoples’ lives by offering aspirational, attainable products made in part from recycled content,” Williamson continues.
Today, each EKOCYCLE product is made from at least 25 percent recycled material, including plastic bottles.
“It is simple but forward moving,” says will.i.am. It’s not about recycling but upcycling, creating products such as shoes for Adidas, hats for New Era, and jeans for Levi’s.
“And,” he promises, “that’s just the first of the applications. Our upside is almost endless.”
EKOCYCLE officially launched August 1, 2012, with a pair of $349 headphones from Beats by Dr. Dre. “We need to beat the dangerous concept of planned obsolescence by blending substance with style and to have a new approach to waste: It’s a commodity. And once we add that awareness to everything we consume, then we win.
“With the EKOCYCLE brand,” he continues, “I’m on a mission to educate and inspire consumers around the globe to seek out more sustainable lifestyle choices that will ultimately play a part in the movement toward a world with zero waste,” he says. “Music has allowed me to travel around the globe and meet fans and see what is happening in popular culture,” he adds. “It literally saved my life. And now it’s time to pay it forward.”
The attitude at Coca-Cola mirrors this: The company is donating its portion of licensing profits from the brand initiative to support recycling and community improvement organizations.
“I look at plastic as a verb,” will.i.am says. “We forget that before it was plastic it was oil in the ground and before that it was a living animal. So where does landfill come in? It doesn’t. And we can’t forget that. And,” he continues, “where does Coca-Cola come in, considering its use of aluminum, rubber, and plastic? The aluminum becomes a chair, the plastic becomes a jacket, the tires become clothing.”
And in typical will.i.am fashion, EKOCYCLE isn’t the end of the line. His fame as a musician and recording artist tends to camouflage his real passion as a travel and technology wonk. He’s obsessed with the art and the process of travel, and that—literally—brings him to his other passion, STEM, which is the acronym for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
Moving beyond his already full plate, will.i.am is Intel’s Director of Creative Innovation. He was brought in by the corporation two years ago to consult on the development of smartphones, tablets, and laptops.
The people who work in the STEM disciplines “are my real heroes,” says will.i.am. “When you think about it, just about everything we do, every device we operate, and every car we drive incorporates technology. These scientists are the real superstars and athletes.
“Still,” he continues, “it’s up to everyone else to realize that technology cannot take precedence over common sense. Each time we travel, whether it’s to a concert in Cleveland or a business meeting in China, it’s our responsibility to ask questions. And then demand solutions that divert and then end planned obsolescence and unconscious consumption. ‘Sustainable’ is not a buzzword. It’s got to become a language.”