Coca-Cola: A Commerce Leader Against Plastic Pollution? Maybe.
Written by, Vanessa Cole January 9, 2019
EDITED May 29, 2019
Is Coca-Cola a commerce leader in the Plastic Pollution CRISIS? It's a tough question to answer regarding any commerce leader seeking to transition into sustainable circular models within today's climate and plastic pollution crisis'. There are so many things to consider, for both the commerce partner and the consumer; especially, if you're a parent-consumer, like I, who feels great responsibility for the global challenges we will be handing to our children. My daughter became a 5 Gyres Ambassador this year, an organization bringing science to solution against plastic pollution. My daughter is only 8, and we've both learned a whole lot about the plastic pollution crisis as I've mentored her passion to do something about it, over the last year. I've also learned the impact of a one-use business model that has greatly contributed to this crisis. A business model many companies, including Coca-Cola have participated in.
Why my focus on Coca-Cola? Well, three years ago, our family was offered a job to shoot, as a family for the iconic Coca-Cola brand. At the time, we, like so many average Americans, had very little information on the plastic pollution crisis--- perhaps because we didn't notice it to be a crisis, hidden from the most prominent, visible impacts because we live in the US, or maybe because it wasn't yet the mainstream conversation it is now. In any case, Coca-Cola needed a family for a campaign and my husband had been in the industry of representing brands for over 20 years. So, when the offer came in, it was an offer that our family couldn't pass up, considering I had just made the decision to forego going back to a career and instead, dedicate my full time efforts to the 501(c)(3) my husband and I founded, AddyPresFoundation. Little did I know, three years later, I'd be mentoring our daughter as an AP Young Steward working to clean up plastic pollution.
While shooting the campaign, I was prompted to a chat with one of the Coca-Cola executives, who asked many questions about the charity my husband and I founded and how we meant to support public schools. I thought it was kind that she would be so interested in so many details, although we were just beginning this work and honestly, had a whole lot to learn and build so I didn't even approach the notion of support.
Shortly thereafter, our faces became part of a family lifestyle brand that launched the Coca-Cola school give program. Bah dum bump...
I'm proud to say that the money we made that day, also helped us fund the development of a set of free educational tools for educators & families; tools that activate youth stewardship so they lead their communities into a better world. Our work connects young stewards to information, resources & organizations that are accomplishing real work in awareness and clean up efforts, such as 5 Gyres Institute, Surfrider Foundation, Plastic Pollution Solutions, Plastic Pollution Coalition and 1% for the Planet. Our tools also enable educator, parent & college level mentors to engage youth with many high level resources that help activate initiatives that can help regenerate our precious mother earth, before it is too late.
Plastic pollution is poisoning our water, our bodies and wiping out the marine ecosystems we ALL rely on for FOOD, OXYGEN & LIFE. These aren't things we just want, these are things WE NEED. We believe leaders of all rank and all influence MUST not only voice this ecological crisis for what IT ACTUALLY IS, but also do the work to bring action to their own contribution and help to GET RESOURCES that inform and enable the public to adapt and act as well... commerce partners included.
In fairness, Coca-Cola is a business and they are certainly not alone in their contribution to the plastic pollution crisis. Business is built to make money and Coca-Cola has proven they are LEADERS in this regard. Let me make clear, I understand how important business success is, but, as a mother of two children who will inherit this planet, I also understand how important corporate responsibility is, and would like to see commerce leaders, especially highly influential ones, move in a direction that considers the cost & impact that comes with a bloated bottom line. I don't have the end all answer, I wish I did, but as I make the effort to continue to become more aware of commerce practice and it's impact on global ecological concerns. These complexities only increase as I delve in, and I realize more and more, we all have a part to act in, if solutions truly exist. I can only do my part, which I am carving a contribution to act and inform others with great passion in. I think, for some of us, this is all we can do... and for others, there are much bigger tasks...
Coca-Cola has many sustainable marketing campaigns---and, because I don't want to sugar coat anything, the company produces and distributes sugary drinks in plastic bottles, which have been identified as culprits in human health concerns and a one way bottle business model that contributes to plastic pollution. This model is utilized by many others, contributing to the plastic pollution crisis we are paying the heavy price for now. But, I believe, we must look and ACT with a forward motion in order to come to a solid solution. So, where does the problem root back to?
In the 1950's, plastic was considered a great solution. Lightweight, cheap and could be thrown away after one use, freeing stay-at-home moms the burden of clean up and other conveniences, but we now know, there is no such thing as away for products intended for one use, made from a material that DOES NOT biodegrade. So, how can a company that relies on the sales of sugary drinks distributed in plastic bottles make a compelling case that it also cares deeply about the health of it's consumers (many of whom are children) or the planet they live on?
Well, they can't, really... not without an overhaul on the packaging front, sincere efforts to clean up the mess that has been made from past distribution and, well, on the human health front, there's a reality that just is...soda is not a healthy food choice. All things considered, we KNOW people drink soda, despite the knowledge that soda & sugary drinks aren't good for us and we know they don't always use proper waste management once they've consumed the beverage.
In our house, we like to call sodas and treats, sometimes foods. To enjoy them, on occasion, requires us to make responsible choices, and guide our children to do the same. I'd say it's pretty standard for the average American to consume a sugary drink or "unhealthy" food choice, on occasion. Fortunately, for companies like Coca-Cola, who distribute the number one selling soda in the world, a large number of consumers make these "sometimes" food choices more often than they probably should, regardless of the known unhealthy truths for their bodies, making the case for Coca-Cola to, in the least, consider where it's products packaging ends up, if they care to gain respect from responsible consumers. And this is the same for all commerce leaders, I'd say. Because, if WE CHOOSE to sometimes consume treats, knowing their health risks, we also must own the responsibility of this outcome... AND THIS rings true for most every human behavior we choose in life, no matter who we are or what we consume, produce or distribute. So then, I think it's safe to assume that we can also make the same responsible decisions when creating, distributing, consuming and disposing of the things we choose to buy & consume.
Although my family's images are representing the Coca-Cola Give Program, I don't advocate for kids or adults to drink soda, because it's not healthy. But, there are two things I do advocate for that help my family & I make informed decisions about choices that impact our health and our planet: self management and responsible decision making, both skills built through a value for educational Social Emotional Learning, which I spend a good deal of time advocating for & providing support for in public schools. I believe these skills grow good people who will do good things... like become responsible commerce leaders.
These skills are also used when I consider the environmental impact of the companies that manufacture and distribute the consumer products & their packaging that our family CHOOSES to bring into our home through the purchase power we all have. This corporate responsibility matters to us and determines the companies we buy from & consume from on a regular, sometimes, rare or never basis, because we believe companies have a responsibility to communities, people and our planet.
Because of all of these considerations, I would say that I'm an informed consumer, although I won't say that being informed in our times allows me or my family the luxury of being safe. Unfortunately, this luxury can only come from more truth in advertising (which consumers and voters have the power to demand) and responsibility in commerce practice & sourcing... and this, opens a can of worms...
Regardless of all the negative that has come from one-use packaging, I believe in growth mindset, that we learn from our mistakes, and can take these past mistakes, turn them into opportunities and rise above the consequences that our previous actions may have caused. For this reason, I'd like to acknowledge that Coca-Cola seems to be owning responsibility for their company's planetary impact and has the opportunity to show real leadership, regardless of it's contribution to the problem. As a global front runner, Coca-Cola has great responsibility in setting an example for others to follow... and they seem to care about that, given all the sustainable measures they are spending billions to promote. Still, from what I've learned, even forward steps in these times, require scrutiny.
I'm not a scientist, and I haven't the qualifications to make any attempt at engineering the next generation of plastic free, biodegradable bottle designs (perhaps one of the students who are mentored through our AP Young Stewards Work will, someday), but I'm a mom and I've spent many days cleaning plastic (including Coca-Cola bottles) up off of beaches, in parks and around buildings. Because I WANT to hand a healthy planet down to my kids... and I know there is a severe problem in the current recycling & waste systems that the average North American consumer believes is handling this global crisis. It's not. It can't. This is why corporate responsibility really matters to me, and why I've started delving in deeper to the transparency of the companies I will purchase from, or that use our family's image to promote their charitable efforts.
I recently took time to learn more about the Coca Cola Plant Bottle, which is derived from up to 30% plant material and 70% or more other feedstocks, and found that it is still 100% polyethylene and while it is recyclable, it is NOT biodegradable or compostable, which their green leaf seems to allude to. So, as a mother, handing THIS planet, within it's current state of crisis to our children, I want to say to Coca-Cola:
"Hey Coca-Cola, this is a forward motion, thank you. But there is no AWAY for a material that doesn't biodegrade WITHIN THE NATURAL ENVIRONMENT. Instead of this bottle improvement, with your influence & resources, would you consider improving your PLANT BOTTLE GOALS? We don't have time for slow progression, anymore, so, please set the highest example for other commerce leaders and don't just shoot for improved... shoot for problem solved."
In my Coca-Cola research, I also read an article... Please follow the link below to the full Washington Post Article I read, published January 7th, 2019:
Plastic production and disposal contributes to a parallel global crisis: climate change. These crisis' don't call for improvement, they call for UNPRECEDENTED ACTION NOW. And this action requires families, educators, communities, responsible commerce partners & leaders to connect and do the work that has a small window of time to regenerate our planet's natural resources. Everyone has a part in this action.
More of What I found on Coca-Cola's Sustainability Goals:
Coca-Cola, thank you for your ambitious goal to recycle the equivalent of every bottle or can you sell by 2030 and for your diverse programs providing valuable lessons that can be applied around the world. These goals claiming that, your Coca-Cola Company’s progress proves that sustainable, circular recycling initiatives are possible—and are valuable—for any country and any economy, is appreciated.
While positive in this progression, because circular business models offer great opportunity, I find there are still inherent flaws staring me in the face with these plans, because your plan relies on two things: consumer participation and recycling.
To be fair, MOST corporate responsibility programs require participation of its consumers, which is why I think the investment must also be made, by corporate partners, to engage this participation and awareness through organizations on the community level, offering the only hope in cleaning up & eliminating this mess for our kids. In my work, unfortunately, too many consumers are uninformed.
Beyond the truth that too few consumers realize they have a part in a circular recycling model's success, there is also the challenge of recycling infrastructure, which I've been informed, isn't yet in place to biodegrade new "plastic free" products. As well, the system hasn't been made convenient enough for the average American consumer lifestyle to truly be successful. From my view, these facts, simply place more responsibility on commerce leaders, like you, Coca-Cola, to do the right thing: move toward practices that will halt root causes, offer plastic free solutions to consumers of your products, support community organizations that do the real work to inform & activate consumers to help clean up the mess of past behavior and continue your positive work toward a circular model.
BUT WHY ISN'T RECYCLING GOOD ENOUGH ANYMORE?
Recycling isn't a sustainable solution for plastic pollution because we can't recycle the magnitude of what we are producing, incineration practices just contribute to the climate crisis and there is no away for a product that does not biodegrade. Claims that plastic packaging is biodegradable, bio-based, bio-derived or compostable isn't going to get us where we need to be for our kids if these claims are simply green-washing ploys to sell products without the infrastructure to fulfill the claims. We need to be transparent and responsibly participate in solutions together as consumers and as commerce leaders, this will take leadership and awareness.
So, while we work toward GOALS that will truly clean up and regenerate our planet, as a mom, I also ask the consumers who are reading this post, to become more informed on the true impact of plastic pollution, what happens when plastic becomes litter, how plastic breaks down but never biodegrades, the validity of alternative "bio-plastics" and the responsibility we too, must own.
We all know our kids are worth every inconvenience and there's A REAL FIRE BURNING RIGHT NOW... it doesn't care how inconvenient it is. This crisis can wipe out an ecosystem we rely on for 70% of the oxygen WE BREATHE and is contributing to one that threatens our very HUMAN EXISTENCE, called climate change. This is enough for me to put in a real effort to change the path, is it for you???
We offer the 5 Gyres Better Alternatives Now List 2.0 & The Plastic Pollution Coalition to assist you in becoming informed and our Young Steward Activation Pages for your ACTION NOW.
KEEP GOING...We're behind your Responsible Efforts...
Thank you, Coca Cola for realizing, YOU play a large part in actions that ultimately, WILL OR WILL NOT, allow us to pass a healthy planet down to our children... we appreciate your environmental efforts & programs and hope you continue to participate in the integrity of their effectiveness.
If you are a Coca Cola consumer, you can help Coca-Cola out with their goal to recycle the equivalent of every bottle or can they sell by 2030... next time you see Coca-Cola packaging, bottles or products on the ground- at a beach, a park or school play yard... pick it up, and send it to Coca-Cola's CEO, James Quincey using our AP Young Steward, Addyson's Activation Page Initiative #3: "Send it Back" LETTER TOOL, to say, thanks for the effort, I wanted to help you out. Maybe also drop a line that encourages them to be a leader in the improved development of a BETTER Plant Bottle that is biodegradable in the natural environment with the infrastructure to do the job.
**If you are a plastic pollution specialist, scientist or expert and have a comment or suggestion that might assist Coca Cola in their efforts or consumers in their action, we'd love to hear your perspective. Please share with a comment.**
If you are interested in supporting our work to bring high level resources to public schools, please consider making a donation to the AddyPres Corporation, a 501(c)(3) public charity, from this link: SPONSOR OR DONATE NOW
*The AddyPres Organization has not received support or donation from the Coca-Cola company, although the company uses our family image to promote their school programs from a former shoot that is now at it's term of renewal. This article expresses our own opinions & knowledge gained through field work and research.