In yet another case of a company boasting about its sustainability street cred with a relentless PR machine that wants to set any debate on its own terms, Coca-Cola has threatened SodaStream with a cease and desist letter in South Africa. The controversy stems from when SodaStream, a manufacturer of home carbonation units, started displaying cages around the world full of bottles and cans to demonstrate how much waste the company’s products prevent when consumers make their own carbonated water or soft drinks. The cages included numerous Coca-Cola products.
Coca-Cola is not taking SodaStream’s actions lightly and threatened the Israel-based company with a legal nasty-gram last week. Reminding SodaStream that its collections of brands are among “the best known products and trademarks in the world,” Coca-Cola’s outside counsel demanded that SodaStream dismantle its display at Tambo International Airport. Whether or not SodaStream will have to follow orders is a matter for the lawyers. Trademark and copyright issues are not always obvious to those that do not speak legalese and the rules vary by country. But if a daisy, or three parallel stripes, can be trademarked, Coca-Cola South Africa may have a case. No matter what the outcome is, however, SodaStream will win in the court of public opinion, while Coca-Cola looks like yet another corporate bully that wants it both ways.
SodaStreams’s outdoor marketing campaign, which has traveled around the world, features cans and bottles that the company’s employees have collected. Depending on the exhibit, the cages display the waste than average family produces during the span of three to five years. Look closely and you can see some Pepsi and Schweppes products jumbled in that cage. But Coca-Cola objects to the “unauthorized use” of its registered trademarks and claims that the stack of junk is “disparaging” and also amounts to “unlawful competition.” (Read the entire letter here) As far as competition goes, at last count SodaStream’s market capitalization is far less than one percent of Coke’s, though business for the homemade soda kit maker is booming.
Whether those of us who feel that the unwanted sight of Coca-Cola’s, or for that matter, any company’s products discarded on a park trail or on a sidewalk is disparaging is another matter. And it is also curious that a company like Coca-Cola, which until recently has resisted calls to take more responsibility for its products’ waste, suddenly has decided it has ownership over those discarded cans and bottles. The stubborn fact persists that despite recent improvements in recycling and extended producer responsibility, far too many plastic bottles and cans find their way into landfills, and the latest and greatest plant-based plastics will not help much if they, too, end up tossed and not recycled. SodaStream is simply taking advantage of growing consumer interest in reducing their own household waste – not to mention that SodaStream’s product line is free of high fructose corn syrup and uses real sugar or stevia root.
SodaStream and its CEO, Daniel Birnbaum, have responded to the threatening letter by standing firm and refusing to comply. In fact, one of those cages spent the weekend in Atlanta’s Centennial Park. not too far from Coca-Cola’s headquarters. “If Coca-Cola claims to own these bottles,” said Birnbaum, “then they should clean up their own garbage.” Watch for the battle to become even nastier as these 30 cages continue to tour the world. While Coca-Cola looks petty, SodaStream wins by snagging some great publicity. And if waste diversion efforts score even more improvement, SodaStream may deserve a big “well done” for shining more light on the problem that disposable packaging has on the environment.