will.i.am on making green look good

May 2, 2013, 2:14 PM UTC

will.i.am looks freaking great. Even Fortune managing editor Andy Serwer said so, during the final panel of the Brainstorm Green conference, which ended May 1. Settling down for a discussion on sustainability and design, Serwer commented on will.i.am’s jacket with mirrors on the sleeve, “I got to get one,” Serwer joked. “I’m sure I can’t afford it, but I mean, it’s awesome.”

That design insight is part of what will.i.am contributes to his collaboration with Coca-Cola (KO). Together, they have formed a brand called Ekocycle that features products made from recycled materials that also pass the pop star’s test of looking cool. The idea for Ekocycle came to will.i.am after a concert in Chile, he said, when the Black Eyed Peas had to stick around after a show because of a traffic snafu. For the first time, he saw the “sea of trash” that’s left at concerts and wanted to do something about it.

The artist contacted Coca-Cola’s chief sustainability officer Bea Perez, also on stage at the Fortune panel. With them was Dean Kamen, not an Ekocycle partner, but an inventor and founder and president of DEKA Research and Development Corp. Kamen, for most of his career, has worked on medical devices. His latest project with Coke is the Slingshot, a small water purifier that can make 250 gallons of hospital-grade H2O per-day out of impure water. The idea is to install these devices in places around the world with poor access to clean water. In 2011, Kamen and Coke conducted the first field trials of the machine in Ghanaian schools.

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Kamen and will.i.am have worked together too, on Kamen’s public charity U.S. First, which aims to get kids excited about robotics. Every year, FIRST has an international robotics showdown featuring high school kids. In 2011, will.i.am attended the event, per Kamen’s request. Kamen remembers, “I said, ‘Will, now you see the excitement, can you really make this thing cool to kids?’” will.i.am’s answer, according to Kamen, was “I can’t make this cool.  It’s already cool.  But I can make it loud.”

will.i.am said that generally didn’t prefer products marketed as green, “because the style and design that they put for the green stuff — it ain’t cool.” It can be, though, which is where he says he comes in. Part of his job with Ekocycle is to serve as the face of partnerships with brands like Beats by Dre, Adidas, and the NBA.

will.i.am made U.S. First loud by putting on a concert at the 2012 finals in St. Louis, Mo., and he wanted the concert to get on television, which was proving difficult so “…after we filmed all the content, I called up ABC and bought the time myself,” he said. “I said, hey, why don’t I just call ABC, [and] ask them if I could buy an hour’s worth of time and turn it into a Back To School Special?”

Now, that’s the kind of clout every sustainability executive would like to have.

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