Are Coca-Cola’s Recent Actions “Unsustainable” ?

Coca-Cola made headlines earlier this month after announcing a plan to collect and recycle all the 60 million plastic bottles that are expected to be consumed during the London 2012 Olympics. Another positive mention came from the UK-based NGO Carbon Trust, which announced that Coca-Cola Enterprises (CCE) earned the highest score ever recorded for carbon reduction efforts. And if this is not enough, we’ve just learned that Coca-Cola will change its traditional red cans to white over the holidays as part of an advertising campaign to draw attention to the plight of the polar bear.

Coca-Cola, as you can also tell from their sustainability reports, is making a serious effort to become more sustainable. The only problem is that when it comes to their core business – selling soft drinks – it’s a totally different story as we witness from two stories that also made the headlines in the last couple of weeks.

The first one is on a YouTube clip. About three weeks ago, the Plastic Pollution Coalition released a public service announcement (PSA) on YouTube presenting 11 of the 2010 American Idol finalists. The contestants encouraged Americans to reduce their use of single-use disposable plastic items like bottles and shopping bags. Like most PSAs it wasn’t really shocking or subversive, including sayings like “it’s not cool to keep trashing our oceans.” In other words, not exactly Occupy Wall Street material. Yet, not everyone thought it was a fun likable PSA.

Daniella Russo, executive director of Plastic Pollution Coalition, which includes individuals, organizations and businesses working together to stop plastic pollution, told Forbes one of the show’s sponsors was very angry at seeing the piece and demanded that the show have it removed. Russo said that when she asked if the sponsor in question was Coca Cola, “they said, ‘You didn’t hear it from us.’ But even before all of this we were told that the PSA could only launch after the American Idol concert tour because Coca-Cola was a sponsor and might get upset,” she added.”

Russo refused to take the PSA down, explaining that they had worked for eight months with American Idol staff on it. From the letter 19 Entertainment, the production company of American Idol, sent them it looks like there was no contract in writing, but Russo, however, insists that 19 Entertainment has been on board for months. Forbes received emails from her that appear to back this claim.

Coca-Cola however denies the allegation. Susan Stribling, a spokeswoman for Coca-Cola Refreshments USA, told the Huffington Post, “We did not have any role in that. We did not express any sort of desire for ‘American Idol’ to take action.”

Now, you can decide if you believe to Coca-Cola or not. I would really like to give Coca-Cola the benefit of the doubt, but the next story makes it a bit more difficult for me.

Two weeks ago the New York Times reported that “Grand Canyon National Park officials were in the final stages of imposing a ban on the sale of disposable water bottles in the Grand Canyon late last year when the nation’s parks chief abruptly blocked the plan after conversations with Coca-Cola, a major donor to the National Park Foundation.”

The ban was supposed to address the biggest source of trash in the park. Discarded plastic bottles account for about 30 percent of the park’s total waste stream, according to the park service. This is also not the first time such a ban was imposed in a national park – Zion National Park in Utah instituted a similar program in 2008, and according to the NYT, it was given an environmental achievement award in 2009 for eliminating 60,000 plastic bottles from the park in its first year.

The planned ban was going to include only smaller bottles and would not have applied to other beverages such as soda or juices. Frankly, I find it a bit strange that the ban planners thought soda drinks are any different from bottled water, but I guess they thought it will help them avoid problems with soft drinks companies. Well, they were wrong, or at least they didn’t take into consideration that Coca-Cola also distributes bottled water under the Dasani brand.

In this case, Coca-Cola doesn’t deny its involvement, although it doesn’t really confirm it. Susan Stribling told the NYT “the company would rather help address the plastic litter problem by increasing the availability of recycling programs. “Banning anything is never the right answer,” she said. “If you do that, you don’t necessarily address the problem.” She also characterized the bottle ban as limiting personal choice. “You’re not allowing people to decide what they want to eat and drink and consume,” she said.”

This is not the first time you see such a pattern with Coca-Cola. Just to remind you, the company fights back with full power when its sales are at risk, whether it’s a soda tax, banning the sale of sodas and sugary drinks in schools vending machines and cafeterias, or banning the use of food stamps to buy sugar-sweetened beverages. In all, Coca-Cola seems to love sustainability as long as it doesn’t impact its sales. More recycling? Definitely! Less carbon emissions? Absolutely! Campaigning for polar bears? Sure! Selling less coke? Not so fast.

In this case it’s a problem because of the nature of the product we’re talking about and its social and environmental impacts. At the same time, under the existing business model you can’t really expect a company to want to sell less. It’s obvious we can’t demand that Coca-Cola internalize its externalities – this is the job of policy makers and we need to demand them to do their job. Still, it’s also important to acknowledge the full picture and know the extent to which Coca-Cola is willing to move forward when it comes to sustainability.

Image credit: roitberg, Flickr Creative Commons

Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris, a green company working to green up the book industry in the digital age. He is also an adjunct professor in the University of Delaware’s Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics.

Raz Godelnik

Raz Godelnik is an Assistant Professor of Strategic Design and Management at the School of Design Strategies at Parsons The New School for Design. His research interests include the convergence of innovation, sustainability, business and design strategies, the sharing economy and sustainable business models such as B Corporations. He is the co-founder of two green startups (Hemper Jeans and Eco-Libris) and a contributor writer to Triple Pundit.