Coca-Cola makes responsible moves — on obesity and bottles

The chemical industry has sometimes exhibited righteous outrage at Coca-Cola’s demands for alternatives to PET bottles. Moving to a 30% plant-based bottle (i.e., Coke’s commitment to using a bottle made with renewables-based glycol by 2020) doesn’t make thermodynamic sense, it is said. Coke’s whole strategy is about winning market share, not about sustainability, they argue. After all, Coke has little business lecturing the chemical industry on bottle composition when it fills those bottles with sodas that have few nutritional benefits, and which have been linked to the rapid global rise in obesity rates.

But Coca-Cola’s commitment to sustainability took a new and very positive turn a couple of weeks ago, when the company launched its new global commitments to fight obesity. The four commitments apply to 200+ countries in which Coke operates. They are:

  • Offer low- or no-calorie beverage options in every market;
  • Provide transparent nutrition information, featuring calories on the front of all of our packages;
  • Help get people moving by supporting physical activity programs in every country where we do business;
  • Market responsibly, including no advertising to children under 12 anywhere in the world.

Are these commitments just window dressing or real sustainable thinking? They hardly sacrifice sales for the common good, and redirecting consumption to other less-sugary Coke drinks may actually be more profitable than the original product. Children under 12 hardly have a lot of buying power, so withdrawing advertising from them is not likely to hit the bottom line.

I think that Coke’s commitments are sincere and welcome. It needs to act on the obesity phenomenon in order to sustain its business for the future among healthy consumers, and much as a chemical company will innovate to meet a client’s sustainable-development needs, so Coke is doing the same thing with everyday foods and drinks.

Now about those bottles . . . yes, they raise Coke’s market share, but as a pillar of an overall sustainability strategy, they have some logic if the thermodynamics make sense. The chemical industry needs to have a seat at the table in determining what those bottles will look like and be composed of, rather than distracting attention from Coke’s efforts to deal with wide social issues like obesity. And the industry needs to take some credit for the development of sugar-alternative food additives that are making Coke a more sustainable company.