What a CO2 sales business tells us about corporate greenwash, false narratives and creative storytelling
The SodaStream Greenwash Trick
It’s quite a trick, when you think about it.
In various corporate incarnations, SodaStream has been in the business of selling carbon dioxide for more than a century. From its 1903 UK origins to its current Israel-based multinational appendage, SodaStream has been steadily pumping more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, via fizzy drinks.
Most British kids from the 70s and 80s can probably recall SodaStream’s advertising jingle, exhorting us to ‘get busy with the fizzy’. It’s now been shelved, as the corporate message has migrated from ‘fun’ to ‘greenwash’, but the core business remains the same. SodaStream still sells machinery and supplies to perform an act of timeless cocktail conjuring – putting bubbles into flavoured water.
Over the past quarter of a century, SodaStream’s marketing – and market valuation – has been transformed. The main driver has been its success in re-casting itself as a greener home-made alternative to shipping heavy glass or plastic bottles of carbonated drinks around the world. In one form or other, SodaStream essentially sells magic.
With a SodaStream machine, you can perform alchemy in your own kitchen or lounge. With a thrilling touch of a button, you can turn water into wow. Children of all ages, including those who have children and grandchildren, continue to get a kick from this beverage voodoo. To buy SodaStream’s syphon-like machine, liquid concentrates and CO2 bottles, is to buy the power to conjure tap water into an exotic carbonated beverage.
Whether it’s sugary soda pop for the kids, or sophisticated cocktail mixers for the grownups, your table-top transformer performs routine secular miracles. Not water to wine, but still to sparkling, in seconds.
The trick we discuss in this article, however, isn’t the magical transformation from flat to fizzy, but how SodaStream has managed to successfully portray itself as a ‘green’ company.
It’s a sobering case study in copywriting trickety, abetted by wilful self-delusion. It embraces the power of advertising, and the consumer culture that makes our fossil fuel addiction so hard to kick.
In some ways it’s unfair to single out SodaStream. Like the like bubbles in one of its ginger ales, greenwashing, consumerism and corporate humbug permeate modern society and culture. SodaStream is by no means the corporate world’s biggest or worst greenwasher -but it’s a particularly poignant example of the insidious power of corporate greenwash.
How, after all, can a company whose business is quite literally selling the commonest greenhouse gas, portray itself as ‘green’?
How to Sell Carbon Dioxide and Look Green
SodaStream’s corporate history is effervescent with striking lessons, but before we look back on their journey, let’s first examine how the company casts itself today.
If you’re unfamiliar with SodaStream’s environmental posturing, it’s hard to avoid the company’s green claims and credentials once you enquire. These days, SodaStream wears its planet-saving colours on its sleeve. Their website is a greenwashing masterclass. Some excerpts:
- ‘Together We Can Make a Difference‘
- Coming together to make a difference: SodaStream Pledge We believe that something as small as sparkling your water at home can spark a huge change in the world. By 2025, SodaStream save [sic] up to 76 billion single-use plastic bottles from our planet
- Every SodaStream bottle will work toward eliminating thousands of single-use plastic waste and keeping our planet healthy and cleaner for everyone
- But the largest impact by far is made by you. In 2017-18 alone, SodaSreamers from around the world stopped over 6.3 billion plastic bottles and cans from polluting our environment. Thank you, Streamers!
- The fight against single-use plastic waste is part of the SodaStream DNA
- Your home sparkling water maker makes it possible to drastically lower your consumption of single-use plastic bottles, hydrating more, and leading healthier lives on a cleaner planet.
You get the idea. This green word-salad deploys the language of environmental activism while delicately skipping around the elephant in the room. Sodastream’s business is selling greenhouse gas.
Their claims to the environmental high ground are an exemplar of corporate misdirection. Our criticism is not a matter of fact-checking their stats about plastic bottle production and consumption, dodgy though they sound. It’s possible that everything they say would withstand a legal test of factually accuracy. They’ve been challenged often enough, it should be watertight.
The point we’re making is that allowing ourselves to focus on fact-checking is to fall for their more subtle misdirection. It avoids the Emperor’s New Clothes question:
Why carbonate drinks in the first place?
SodaStream deploys a common corporate greenwashing technique – claiming credit for doing less harm than we’re currently doing, instead of stopping doing the inherently harmful thing that they do.
Don’t look at us – blame yourself instead
This is the same trick pioneered by Big Tobacco, and perfected by Big Oil. Deny the science for as long as you can. When that runs out of road, distract by placing the focus on the consumer, not the producer.
- Smoking is your individual choice. Nothing to see here, at the global cancer-stick factories
- Beat yourself up for your personal carbon footprint. Ignore the fact that 100 oil companies generate 70% of global carbon emissions
- Feel good about not using plastic bottles. Let’s not linger of the fact that you’re buying CO2
There’s a way to justify short-term carbon-producing bridges while we ‘transition to a sustainable future’, of course. The problem is, this argument is usually only deployed as a last resort, and is generally short of hard commitments that would demonstrate sincerity.
We’ve written elsewhere about the Internet’s dirty carbon secret, but pointing out that our online habits generate twice as much CO2 as the airline industry isn’t to say we should abandon the Internet, any more than it it means we should immediately ground all airplanes. Rather, we have to face reality, and decide how to spend our rapidly diminishing ‘carbon budget’ most prudently, while we rush to replace fossil fuels with renewables.
Our transition to sustainability will almost certainly have to involve the internet, AI, and distributed cloud computing. This journey will also involve some people burning kerosene as they sometimes fly to some places sometimes in airplanes.
In moderation, judiciously rationed and with a clear off-ramp to a sustainable alternative, computing and flying qualify as a ‘need’.
Fizzy drinks? Not so much.
Needs and Wants
SodaStream’s attempt to present carbonated beverages as a kind of universal human right brings a new meaning to ‘gaslighting’. Their ingenious, manipulative copywriters encapsulate this sophistry as perfectly as one of their re-usable carbon dioxide containers hold their lethal product, with SodaStream’s inspiring, insidious tagline:
- Our Earth needs less waste and more sparkle!
See what they did there? Not a word wasted:
- ‘Our’ makes us complicit
- ’Earth’ inflates their self-importance to a planetary level
- But ‘needs’ carries the Big Lie
We ‘need’ food. We ‘need’ water. We ‘need’ shelter. We don’t ‘need’ soda pop. This is not a Luddite rejection of all modern technology, but a nuanced criticism.
Homo sapiens evolved over hundreds of millions of years without the Internet or air travel. Our ancestors survived without carbonated beverages. But these modern technologies occupy different spaces in our path to a sustainable future. The former are temporary crutches. The latter is a frivolous millstone.
‘Our’ pre-aviation history is almost exactly as long as our pre-fizz existence – all but the last 100 years or so for rich countries, all but the last few decades for poor ones.
Hogarth’s 1751 Gin Lane engraving didn’t depict London’s poor quaffing gins-and-tonic. The French somehow limped through to the end of the 17th century before a Benedictine monk (by the name of Dom Perignon) stumbled across sparkling wine.
If we can’t categorise fizzy drinks as a ‘want’ rather than a ‘need’, human civilisation really is in trouble.
Q: Since when did humans ‘need’ carbonated drinks?
The answer to this apparently rhetorical question is instructive
A: Since the alcohol industry saw mixers as a way of selling more alcohol.
Which brings us, neatly, to…
SodaStream: a corporate cautionary tale
1900s: Aspirational origins of the Fizz Biz
In 1903, a leading London gin distiller was looking to expand its business.
Lobbying government, and the resulting favourable tax laws, had created the modern alcohol industry, producing Victorian booze barons like W & A Gilbey. We’ve touched elsewhere on the origins of beer branding, around the same time, and its association with the birth of the modern advertising industry, and the gin business was no different.
The British Empire ran on gin. By 1903, this flavoured ethanol had done a bang-up job of re-branding itself as something aspirational.
Gin no longer belonged to the gutter, but to the glitterati. The social evil of Hogarth’s gin-swilling hoi-polloi had been replaced with fashionable cocktails – ‘more sparkle’. Whisky-and-soda. Gin-and-tonic. Rum-and-ginger-ale. Carbonated ‘mixers’ were bringing in new customers, and creating a new non-alcoholic side business.
In 1903, Gin baron Guy Hugh Gilbey patented his ‘apparatus for aerating liquids’. The Royal Household, followed enthusiastically by the upper classes, snapped up his invention. They bought his machines, and his syrupy concentrates like ‘Cherry Ciderette’ and sarsaparilla. Commercial versions soon followed, further expanding the fizzy drink market.
Post-WW2: the Fizz Biz grows downmarket
Two world wars later, and the fizz biz had reached middle-class homes.
The modern version of the SodaStream home carbonation device was launched in 1955.
By the 70’s, a SodaStream was every British kids dream, further boosted by the 1979 launch of their catchy jingle ‘Get Busy With The Fizzy’.
90s: Globalisation and Green(wash) Shoots
With post-Cold War globalisation, SodaStream suffered the same fate as many venerable, pioneering Victorian brands. It became a corporate token, bought and sold by multinationals who were themselves traded and swallowed up by bigger corporate fish.
The carbonated drinks market lead the way. The Coca-Cola Corporation and Pepsico vied to ship more fizzy drinks in more cans and plastic bottles to more places. Fizzy drinks were the pathfinders of ‘Western’ culture, the first to peddle their wares in the huge new markets. From big fish like Russia and China, to tiddlers like Moldova and Mongolia, Coke and Pepsi formed the corporate vanguard. Fizzy drinks were capitalism’s stormtroopers, the white knights of consumerism. Grateful citizens could finally freely consume sweet fizzy drinks.
Amid these shifting global currents, SodaStream bobbed along like a decomposing plastic bottle in the ocean, directionless and slowly sinking. The more plastic bottles of pop were shipped around the world, the more marginal the role of a home-carbonator business became. SodaStream became the centre of a game of a corporate pass-the-parcel.
In 1985, SodaStream was acquired by Cadbury Schweppes, in the days before this British confectionary giant was itself acquired by US giant Kraft.
In 1998 Cadbury’s sold SodaStream to specialist carbonated drinks company, Soda-Club. Soda-Club, founded by SodaStream’s former Israel distributor, moved its HQ to Kfar Saba in Israel.
And it was in the late 90s, when the consequences of our fossil-fuel addiction started to trickle from university side-streams to the mainstream, that SodaStream saw and seized its opportunity to re-invent itself as a ‘green’ company.
Advertising executives and sustainability gurus started to point out that its business model just happened to cut out the middle man in the Fizz Biz, and people were starting to care about such things.
2000s: Pepsi Max, globalisation max, greenwash max
After becoming Israel’s eighth biggest company to launch on New York’s NASDAQ exchange in 2010, SodaStream rapidly grew into a billion-dollar company. This growth was driven by a series of marketing campaigns which trumpeted its environmental credentials. SodaStream’s publicity campaigns form a comprehensive rap-sheet of greenwash charges:
- An initiative promoted waste reduction and quality improvement in Israeli tap water
- Supermodel Erin O’Connor fronted a campaign to raise awareness of plastic bottle waste
- £1,000 donated to a UK school for an ‘educational beach cleaning initiative’
- Replant Our Planet promised to plant hundreds of thousands of trees in Brazil for each Rethink Your Soda product line item sold
- Join the Stream: fight the bottle, campaigned to remove plastic bottles from Venice
- Actress Rosario Dawson fronted Unbottle the World Day to ‘raise awareness to the impact of cans and plastic bottles on the environment’
SodaStream pulled off the common marketing trick of portraying itself as the plucky underdog outsider, taking on The Establishment. They launched their ‘cage project’ -10,657 bottles and cans crammed in a big wire cage, representing the volume of containers they claimed a single SodaStream bottle could ‘save’ an average family over 5 years.
They toured their cage around 30 countries, including parking it outside Coca-Cola’s South African HQ. When Coke threatened a lawsuit, SodaStream doubled down, announcing they’d display the cage outside Coke’s Atlanta global HQ.
Waving their green flag, Sodastream embodied the maxim that there’s no such thing as bad publicity.
A UK TV advertising watchdog declared their commercial showing soda bottles exploding every time someone made a drink using a SodaStream machine to be ‘a denigration of the bottles drinks market’. Undeterred, SodaStream made a similar ad, only featuring Coca-Cola and Pepsi delivery men reacting to the exploding bottles.
When CBS rejected their attempt to run this ad during the Superbowl final, SodaStream claimed ‘The banned ad was a win because of the quality as well as the quantity of the exposure we received’.
The advertising industry loved it. Trade rag Marketing Week was wowed by SodaStream’s green reinvention, writing in a 2011 article on the company’s relaunch:
SodaStream is back with a vengeance and now it’s got a green tint to its messaging. Before sighing and wondering what tenuous link SodaStream could have to being green, it’s actually pretty valid.
2010s: Fizz Goes Flat
SodaStream’s cheeky-chappy effervescence started to go flat following the 2008 financial crisis. The numbers held up well, but the company’s no-such-thing-as-bad-publicity confidence started to backfire. Global politics intruded on its Fizz Biz, and was a real party pooper.
SodaStream’s Israeli owner’s decision to locate the main manufacturing plant in the West Bank of Palestine became a major problem. Public image shifted from Saving the Planet to consumer boycotts, legal rulings and backfiring celebrity endorsements.
- The EU’s Court of Justice ruled that SodaStream was not entitled to claim a “Made in Israel” exemption from EU customs payments for products manufactured in the West Bank.
- Hollywood actress Scarlett Johansson signed up as a brand ambassador for SodaStream. Any upside was rapidly eclipsed when her public support of SodaStream’s ethics obliged her to resign as ambassador for global poverty alleviation charity, Oxfam.
- In another Pyrrhic victory, a Paris court ruled against French campaigners accusing SodaStream of fraud because it sold products partly manufactured in the West Bank as ‘Made in Israel’. They were ordered to pay €6,500 in compensation, but the reputational damage, though unquantifiable, was assumed to be much greater.
- UK consumer boycotts and protests lead to SodaStream closing two flagship stores in Oxford Street and Brighton.
In August 2018, SodaStream made it to the top of the corporate food chain when it was bought for US$3.2Bn by the former adversary Pepsico. In the end, Goliath simply bought David.
Life under Pepsi
Pepsi continues to enthusiastically parp SodaStream’s environment horn. Maybe they see its ‘tap water and returnable gas cylinder’ image as a hedge against the fact that its own core business involves shipping huge quantities of plastic bottles of flavoured fizzy water around the world.
SodaStream’s Wikipedia page includes a comprehensive summary of the company’s litany of environmental flim-flam, from when it first jumped on the green bandwagon in the late ‘90s, to its current Pepsi incarnation.
SodaStream is active in 45 of the world’s richest countries, and doing fine. Since Pepsi bought it from its former Israeli owners, the political bad press seems to have disappeared, like bubbles.
The corporate greenwashing is still working just fine too. In 2020, SodaStream’s US advertising campaign featured rapper-for-hire, Snoop Dog, and it has enthusiastically embraced influencer marketing.
SodaStream continues to benefit greatly from its sly framing of the issue as Good Pop v Bad Pop, rather than Pop v. No Pop.
Buy our Product and Save The Planet
We hope it’s now clear why SodaStream’s story is such an instructive cautionary tale.
Apart from the fact that – and we feel we have to repeat this – they literally sell greenhouse gas, their product’s ephemeral nature is a great metaphor for the lack of seriousness with which we’ve collectively taken the climate challenge, so far. SodaStream’s business history is a hymn to modern advertising and corporate greenwashing, and the disastrous role they continue to play in our climate crisis.
Look at us!, they cry. Buy our product – and we won’t be shooting ourselves in the foot!
In reality, their pitch is. Buy our product – and instead of shooting ourselves in both feet, we’ll only shoot ourselves in one foot!
Claiming credit for doing less damage that we’re currently wreaking, is a dangerous distraction from the effective climate action we urgently need.
We no longer have the luxury of a long, slow, meandering ramp from fossil fuel to sustainability. The faster the short cut we take now, the less damage we’ll do. That route involves doing the minimum possible damage, not feeling good about doing less damage than we’re currently doing.
Yet we’re still complicit with our government, media and business in attempting to negotiate with atmospheric physics, pleading for indulgence like spoilt children who don’t know any better.
We allow ourselves to be fooled into rebranding fossil fuels as ‘natural gas’, ‘clean coal’ or ‘blue hydrogen’. Google ‘differences between green and blue hydrogen’, and you’ll find explainers from global insurance giants. Po-faced gnomes of Zurich, who control the capital we need to invest, seriously ponder ‘Is hydrogen the fuel that can save our planet’.
We’ve written elsewhere how anyone talking about ‘saving the planet’ with a straight face only betrays the shallowness of their thinking about the problem. We provide handy tips on spotting greenwash, but wishful thinking, and those who encourage and profit by it, is a formidable opponent.
Exasperating though SodaStream’s version of this trick is, it’s relatively trivial when compared with more pressing greenhouse gas emitters. It’s also emblematic of the same problem that lies at the heart of huge, urgent issues.
The same wishful thinking lies behind our clinging to the carbon credits fantasy. A growing multi-billion-dollar carbon auditing system is allowing itself to be co-opted by the same greenwashing prestidigitation, with our passive consent.
Any effective climate action has to start with looking the problem in the eye.
Don’t be distracted by the sparkle and the fizz.