For a company that is as big as it is, you would expect a greater sense of responsibility. So far, it appears that the Coca-Cola Company is content with doing the bare minimum to help the environment and a good amount to harm it. For any change to be brought about, the company urgently needs to be more transparent in its practices and has to start holding itself accountable for the impact it is having on the environment. But until that happens, you might want to consider buying another drink.
Unsurprisingly, a major constituent of the Coca-Cola beverage is water. According to their website, back in 2004, the company was using 2.7 litres of water to make 1 litre of the product; 1 litre in the actual product and 1.7 litres in the manufacturing process. As of 2017, the company claims to have reduced those 2.7 litres to a modest 1.92. Good work, right? Maybe.
Coca-Cola has an interesting relationship with water. In 2007, at a WWF conference in Beijing, the company’s CEO at the time, E. Neville Isdell pledged to make the company “water neutral” by 2020. That is, “every drop of water” used in the product and to make the product will be replenished. According to their website, they achieved that goal in 2015, a full 5 years ahead of schedule. Amazing work, right? If only.
In 2018, The Verge reported on Coca-Cola’s water use in collaboration with the Investigative Fund. What they found was that when the company was referring to “every drop” it was only referring to the water that was going into the actual bottle. What it didn’t include were the water used in its supply chain and manufacturing process - something that the company admitted was a large part of its water footprint (almost 99%, but we’ll get to that).
In summary, Coca-cola has booked itself as another example of corporate “green-washing”.
Moving on from the water debacle, we come to our next big problem: plastic. A report from Break Free From Plastic found that Coca-cola is one of the biggest plastic polluters in the world. Now, the company has promised to take steps to reduce its waste. It’s “World Without Waste” initiative plans to collect and cycle “the equivalent” of every bottle/can that is sold by 2030. You’d think that perhaps the company would consider phasing out its plastic bottles and replacing them with more eco-friendly packaging. But nope, the company stated publicly last year that it had no intentions to do that. Coca-Cola’s senior vice president, Bea Perez, stated their consumers want plastic bottles and so long as the consumers want them, Coca-Cola would continue producing them.
Now the company has said that it plans to move towards 50% recyclable material by 2030. Back in 2009, they even introduced their PlantBottle packaging that was fully recyclable and made of 30% plant-based material. But this really hasn’t done much to quell the concerns of experts. Just because something can be recycled, does not mean it will be. Once the product has left the company’s factories and is up on the market shelves, it’s basically out of the company’s control. Something that Coca-Cola itself understands, which is why instead of promising to recycle 100% of its bottles, it promised to recycle “the equivalent”. Quite ironically, since 2008 Coca-Cola has increased its number of single-use plastic bottles by almost a third and now they constituent 70% of its packaging worldwide.
Of course, water and plastic aren’t the only ingredients in the beverage. We also have our sugar, caramel colouring, natural flavourings, phosphoric acid (yum), and caffeine. None of which are especially healthy for you. To gauge the full environmental impact of these ingredients, however, we’ll have to move towards how the product is made and its supply chain.
A report released by the company all the way back in 2010 found that for every half-liter of Coke, 35 liters of water are used. Most of that water (about 28 liters) is used for growing sugar beets that are then used to sweeten the drink. The other 7 liters are used in the making of the plastic bottles. At the time, the company promised to reduce its water footprint.
It did so only marginally.
At first, the company tried to calculate its Global Water Footprint. And by “tried” I mean it “tried to cheat”. The company attempted to pressure researchers to adopt a method of calculating their Global Water Footprint that would consider “net green” water use instead of complete “green” water use. A methodology that could reduce the value of their true footprint by almost 50%. Thankfully, they didn’t succeed in their attempts. So instead they decided to ditch the original plan of calculating their total footprint and instead focus on the water that is actually being poured into the bottle.
In 2015, when the company had claimed to have achieved its goal of water neutrality, it proudly presented its figure of 191.9 billion liters, all of which it said had been returned to nature. Depressingly, that figure covered little more than its “operational water” i.e. the water that is in the bottles. There was still 99% of its total water footprint that was not being addressed.
If it weren’t for the fact that it was real, it might have made for a humorous story. Unfortunately, all it does is serve as a red flag for Coca-Cola’s practices and casts skepticism on its entire operation.
In 2018, the company expressed its intentions to move towards more sustainable methods of sourcing its key ingredients. Coca-Cola owns no farms so it purchases its ingredients from suppliers. Out of its total annual agricultural ingredients purchases, 80% come under “priority ingredients”. As of 2019, the company claims that 54% of those ingredients are sustainably sourced and it has made it clear that it intends to increase that figure.
One thing that all of its suppliers must follow is its Sustainable Agriculture Guiding Principles. These principles take into account water management, natural habitat preservation, worker rights, and energy consumption. How committed the company is to these principles is up for question.
Back in 2014, it became known that Coca-Cola that been funding the building of trenches in Mexico that would supply water to farms. The problem was that these trenches did little to improve the growth of the crops and instead contributed to soil erosion and forest degradation in the area. The incident became known but it is still not confirmed whether or not Coca-Cola has ceased funding.
The bottom line is that the company is not being transparent enough. The company claims to be committed to environmental sustainably, but much of what we’ve discussed indicates the contrary.
The Coca-Cola Company is an international beverage company based in America. Its most popular product, Coca-Cola, consistently ranks as one of the best-selling drinks in the world. The company itself consistently ranks as one of the biggest plastic polluters in the world.
The company has been particularly crafty in its attempts to dispense some of the criticism it faces. It has donated tens of millions in dollars to water efficiency and access programs and has partnered up with a whole host of organizations, including the UN Development Program, the US Agency for International Development, the World Wildlife Fund, and The Nature Conservancy.
But when it comes to tangible and measurable outcomes, these initiatives have not achieved much. Greenpeace UK has been especially critical of Coca-Cola’s failure to commit to environmental sustainability and its attempts to cover those failures up with public awareness campaigns.
Even Coca-Cola’s promise to make 50% of its products recyclable by 2030 looks especially meager when you compare it to McDonald’s commitment to making 100% of its packaging recyclable by 2025.
It’s simply not enough.