Coca-Cola offers example of focused sustainability

When it comes to corporate social responsibility, Coca-Cola manages three major agendas: water stewardship, better packaging and public health.
Written by Heather Clancy, Contributor on

Earlier this week, I referenced a McKinsey article about corporate social responsibility and why it needs to be really focused on areas that a company actually has a real opportunity to make an impact ("Could you be more specific? Why your corporate social responsibility plan needs structure"). Beverage giant Coca-Cola offers a great example of this philosophy in practice.

I spoke with Abby Rogers, vice president of marketing for Coca-Cola in charge of helping communicate the company's sustainability efforts, to get a sense of how the company prioritizes. She says their efforts are prioritized around three main agendas:

  1. Water and water stewardship
  2. The environmental impact of packaging
  3. The impact of its beverages on public health

Pretty specific and yet relevant for a beverage company, don't you think?

One example is PlantBottle, a packaging program that will start working its way into the company's products in January 2010.

Rogers says the initiative is intended to help decrease dependence on non-renewable resources: each PlantBottle PET bottle contains materials from plants. Specifically sugar cane and molasses culled from the refining process. What's more, each of them is 100 percent recyclable. The company hopes to ship up to 2 billion of the special bottles during 2010. The first generation will show up in Coke brands in Copenhagen (subtle tie-in to the climate talks) and Coke, Sprite, Fresca (yay!) and Dasani water bottles in the western United States (Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles).

This video link featuring Coca-Cola chairman and CEO Muhtar Kent explains more about the PlantBottle manufacturing process and its impact on the company's carbon footprint.

What makes Coca-Cola's efforts all the intriguing to me is the fact that these efforts aren't being orchestrated from above. While corporate is setting direction, each of the individual bottlers and local distribution partners that the company works is empowered to do what is right for their individual community, Rogers says. "Our environmental commitments are made hand-in-hand," Rogers says. "We together are working to reduce the amount of material that we use to focus on more recycled and renewable materials and to make sure we collect more of the materials after [our beverages] are consumed."

To the point about collection, Coca-Cola claims to run the world's largest bottle-to-bottle recycling plant in the world, located in Spartanburg, S.C. The plant is capable of producing the equivalent of approximately 2 billion 20-counce Coca-Cola bottles annually; over the next 10 years, it is estimated that it will help the company prevent the release of approximately one million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions -- roughly the equivalent of 215,000 cars. (Here's a video about the operation.) The company is encouraging consumers to hand in their bottles through the Give it Back campaign.

The third, and probably the most complex of Coca-Cola's sustainability priorities is water. Overall, the company emphasizes using less water throughout its manufacturing processes. Globally, it has reduced this amount by about 10 percent already. "We are also using stringent standards to recycle and to treat the water in our plants so that it can be returned to nature," Rogers says. "We know an awful lot about cleaning and purifying water."

In my estimation, this is the area where Coca-Cola could potentially have the most global impact. Today, the company is affiliated with close to 200 community water programs. It also partners with the World Wildlife Fund to support clean-up efforts for major waterways.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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