Meet the Social Entrepreneur Who Began Fighting Plastic Pollution with Vodka Bottles
Repurposing glass vodka bottles gave Paul Kupfer a greater purpose and set him on the road to accidental businessman.
The greatest problems of the world can too easily be dismissed as the responsibility of someone else. How often are we prone to falling back on the ‘I’m just one person’ copout? And to be fair, if we look at such behemoths as plastic pollution, it seems that one person’s efforts would be futile.
Plastic bottles alone are sold at a terrifying rate of a million a minute globally with 91% of them never being recycled. And then, they don’t disappear. Scientists estimate that it will take over 400 years for plastic to degrade. The situation is dire and seemingly unbeatable.
Yet, where some would see certain doom, Paul Kupfer, the co-founder and CEO of soulbottles, saw preventing plastic bottle use as a challenge with a rather simple solution: create reusable glass alternatives. For Paul, and the friends who soon joined him, this doubled as an invitation to collaborate with creatives in designing a truly striking product.
Paul visited adidas HQ during our Run For The Oceans week in June 2019 to share the lessons learned along his journey in social entrepreneurship. Through his experiences, he offered proof that the efforts of one person really can make a meaningful impact.
At adidas, we focus on preventing plastic from entering the ocean and at soulbottles you’re focusing on reducing the amount of plastic purchased. What is your approach from a product perspective?
We make beautifully designed drinking bottles and, with that, we want to motivate more people to drink tap water instead of buying plastic bottled water.
Because in the end, changing behavior only works if you make it look nice.
The designs really are eye-catching. Where do you get them from?
We work together with international young artists. Each design on a soulbottle is created by somebody else. We curated them from all over the world and the idea is to give you the opportunity to find your soulmate, the bottle that really fits you and your personality that you’ll want to use every day.
For the rest of the bottle we really went old school. The patent of the swing top is so old that it comes from a time when there was no plastic. The white part you see there is porcelain made in Germany. The wire stainless steel, and the gasket are made of natural rubber. We have one of the very few entirely plastic-free bottles on the market and we celebrate that. You have to take good care of your bottle as well as you have to take good care of the planet.
Where did the idea for a plastic-free bottle come from?
We basically used to drink from old vodka bottles because drinking water from glass is the best feeling. But people looked at us funny when we sat in the metro at ten o’clock in the morning drinking out of vodka bottles. So, we thought to print on them, like you can print on a t-shirt.
We lured our friends into our apartment with pizza and beer, and then they had to stick stickers on bottles for the whole night. The thing is that you have to burn the color in so you need an oven that burns really hot. That was only manageable at the University of Arts in Vienna. We were never students there, but they didn’t care. I think. Or they at least didn’t ask.
Then how did this hobby among friends transform into a full-fledged business?
Well, we [himself and co-founder Georg Tarne] really lived this ‘fake it till you make it’ standard. My business card read ‘CEO and founder’, when I was only CEO of a table with a few bottles.
But then the first collection came in 2011 and sold out within two weeks. From that moment on, we were always almost sold out. We made further changes to the bottle and started machine-based production to a successful €25,000 crowdfunding campaign in 2013.
As we grew, we started to work together with bigger partners like you guys [adidas] and supply to retail. Right now, you can buy soulbottles not only on our website, but also in over 500 shops worldwide. We’ve gone from two guys at a booth to over 50 employees based in Berlin.
That’s impressive success in a relatively short amount of time. As you’ve grown as social entrepreneur, what have you done to remain true to your roots?
As our sales numbers grew, we reflected on the very first world problem our customers have between drinking very safe tap water or buying bottled water from a supermarket.
We decided to donate €1 to clean water projects for every bottle sold. The problem in developing countries is immense. There’s over 300 million people without access to clean drinking water. So, we support W.A.S.H. projects. It stands for Water, Sanitation and Hygiene. For example, we partnered with Viva con Agua and Welthungerhilfe, two very big German NGOs, and since then have donated over half a million euros to our water project in Nepal.
To date, we’ve sold over 600,000 soulbottles and saved an estimated 5,000 tons of plastic. This means we made about three million euros in revenue. That’s a half a million euros donated. The broader W.A.S.H. projects all summed up to about 50,000 people gaining access to clean drinking water.
Making meaningful impact like that requires commitment. The way that you’ve defined W.A.S.H. projects as your priorities reminds me of how at adidas we’re focusing on reducing plastic pollution as a way to embody our core belief: Through sport, we have the power to change lives.
Yes, and for us as social entrepreneurs having a purpose is one of the key ingredients. We started with a purpose. We said, “Our purpose is to have less plastic and to give water.” All the work we do must come back to this. It’s where the organization began and it’s still the purpose today.
Last year we decided to sell all our shares to the company itself, so now the company can no longer pay out the profits it makes. All profits have to be reinvested into the purpose. Everybody who is with us for more than two and a half years can become an owner of soulbottles. So, while we are for-profit in the legal sense, we have all our business activities built around this purpose and the feedback that I get a lot from our employees is that it’s like working for an NGO.
Paul, we are always asking ourselves, “How can we make a difference in reducing waste, in ending plastic?” What advice do you have?
Well, you can always buy a soulbottle and drink more tap water. That’s very useful. But you can also just buy less. Seriously. It really helps a lot. And it’s simple. Less consumption is essential if you want to use less resources. It’s easy and it’s important.