Refill, a campaign to combat single-use plastic bottles, has won Natalie Fee the Volvo Visionaries 2019 award. The award, presented by Volvo Car UK with The Sunday Times, was established to celebrate the work of entrepreneurs who want to improve the world around us.
An expert judging panel drawn from socially aware businesses selected Refill from four finalists that demonstrated innovation, business insight and commitment to making lives better. The award aligns with Volvo's people-focused business ethos and commitment to safeguarding and nurturing the environment. It also coincides with the introduction of the new Volvo S60 saloon, an ideal car for modern entrepreneurs and individuals who like to do things differently.
Fee was moved to action after watching a documentary film on the plight of Pacific seabirds poisoned and killed by ingesting plastic waste. Supported by a group of like-minded people and activists in the Bristol area, she formed the not-for-profit company City to Sea to campaign against the use of plastic stems for cotton buds. This helped prompt many large high-street names to move to biodegradable alternatives.
Refill is her largest campaign yet, encouraging businesses to offer and publicise free tap water refills. A successful pilot scheme in Bristol in 2015 has led to more than 200 local programmes, powered by 250 volunteers. In 2016, an app was launched to show refill locations and soon attracted 140,000 downloads. Refill has won support from Water UK, the body representing the UK's main water companies, and established around 20,000 refill sites. Success in the UK is leading to international expansion, with City to Sea preparing similar campaigns in Italy, India, Australia, Chile and Japan.
Fee's £60,000 award prize will support this work and Refill's expansion to target other disposables such as coffee cups, lunchboxes, and containers for toiletries and cleaning materials.
"I am overwhelmed and thrilled to win the award," said Fee. We usually have to work extremely hard to get grant funding and create commercial partnerships, but this win means that we can push ahead to create Refill More. It gives me real hope that we can turn things around – and that people truly are starting to prioritise the planet.
"We want to create a world where the beaches are strewn with driftwood, sand and seaweed – not plastic."
Mike Johnstone, Volvo Car UK's Marketing Strategy Director and a member of the judging panel, said: "Strong businesses have a clear purpose and that was true of all our finalists. A company's purpose drives it forward, creates a reason to be, beyond just financial gain and the culture to be successful. Natalie Fee's Refill campaign captures the essence of this perfectly and is delivering excellent results in its drive to cut the amount of plastic that's damaging our environment. With proven success and ambitious future plans, she is a worthy winner of the Volvo Visionaries 2019 award."
Darren Smith, Content Director, Bridge Studio at News UK, said: "The Times and The Sunday Times have long argued that businesses will play an important role in building a more sustainable future, and Volvo is one of the leading companies driving that change. It's incredible that in our partnership they have put their money where their principles are. The results have been fantastic, and Natalie Fee – whose 'Refill' idea gives other businesses a chance to play their part in making a better world simply by turning on a tap – is a worthy winner of the £60,000 prize fund."
The award comes on the back of Volvo's own commitment to remove single-use plastics from all its offices, canteens and events across the globe by the end of 2019. The company also has an industry-leading ambition for at least 25% of the plastics used in every newly launched Volvo to be made from recycled material from 2025. Volvo's global manufacturing operations will be climate neutral by 2025 as well.
The other award finalists were: Helen Dempster, creator of Karantis360, a monitoring system to help vulnerable people stay in their own homes; Mursal Hedayat, inventor of Chatterbox, an online tuition programme to help refugees make use of their overlooked skills; and James Roberts, whose mOm incubator is designed to protect the health of newborn babies in warzones.
The judging panel also included start-up expert Bindi Kara, social entrepreneur Cat Gazzoli and Peter Evans, The Sunday Times Enterprise Editor.