Has Coca-Cola Found A Sweet Spot Between the Evils of Sugar and the Global Good of Sustainability?

Then and Now

This Coke ad from 1971 has been called iconic and was featured in the latest season of ‘Mad Men:

A powerful spoof on the classic ad was produced by the Center for Science in the Public Interest earlier this month:

Although Coke has grown dramatically since 1971, and millions of people still chug down sugary sodas with abandon every day in America, we’re grateful that in 2015 awareness is being raised not only for the havoc sugary drinks have wreaked on the health of the American public but for the importance of huge companies like Coke having strong social and environmental responsibility. The question remains, has Coca-cola found a sweet spot between the evils of sugar and the global good of sustainability?

Coca-Cola’s origin lies in the pharmacy
The story goes that a wounded and morphine-addicted Civil War colonel was looking for a safer painkiller and developed the brown carbonated liquid. Ironic, eh? Coke as medicine?


Today, while the latest ad campaigns for the soda center on “happiness,” Coca-Cola Enterprises (CCE), the parent company of this sugary beverage, is receiving heavy criticism for contributing to the obesity epidemic, and negative environmental impact both here in the U.S. and in communities abroad. Hardly the fountainhead of wellness!

This trend, however, could be changing
Four years after launching its initial sustainability plan, CCE’s latest Sustainability Report shows it stepping up its game for the wellness of the world.

According to the report, CCE has dedicated significant resources into improving their performance in the areas of well being of costumers, climate change, resource scarcity, water stewardship, sustainable sourcing, and employment diversity. Some of the major commitments in each of these areas include reducing the total calories in their portfolio by 10% by 2020; reducing their carbon footprint by 1/3 by 2020; using 40% recycled PET or PET made from renewable materials by 2020; safely returning to nature 100% of its waste water by 2020; and aspiring to have a minimum 40 percent of women in both management and leadership gradesby 2025. Read the full report for the rest of their goals and metrics here.

sweet_spot.jpgThese are all impressive goals, and probably the loftiest of any sugary beverage company to date. As Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) reporting becomes routine amongst consumers and shareholders (this is CCE’s 10th CSR report), CCE’s newest report is potentially setting a new standard. Brynn McNally of Sustainable Brands quotes John F. Brock, Chairman and CEO of CCE:

Our new commitments embrace both environmental and social issues – with a stronger focus than ever before on promoting the well-being of our consumers. If we want to build a long-term, sustainable business, there’s no room for complacency, and these ambitious targets reflect our desire to take a lead in our industry when it comes to sustainability."

Great news, and a step in the right direction! Yet many questions remain unanswered. For instance, how are they defining the ever-squishy term “sustainable” in their commitment to sourcing? And, what’s up with their vague language about putting women in leadership roles—is their goal mainly to have aspirations towards female leadership in ten years? Another concern is the effectiveness of their 10 percent reduction of calories in the next five years. The obesity rate in our country continues to rise, and a measly 10 percent reduction of total calories across the entire world of Coke products most likely won't make a dent. Kelly Worgan of Food Ingredients First quotes Katharine Jenner of Action on Sugar:

We welcome any moves that will genuinely reduce total calories from our diet; however it does not seem that Coke’s bottlers will be able to gradually reduce sugar (the only source of calories) from their entire drinks line, but are hoping to shift consumer's behaviour, which is a much harder approach. We would strongly encourage the makers of Coke to make the bottlers’ job much easier, and actually remove some sugar from their sugary drinks.”

Coke seems to be open to this feedback, at least partially. The company has committed to be part of the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation’s Commitment to Healthy Communities study that will independently assess the efficacy of corporate food companies’ public health initiatives.

Let’s not forget, though, that while Coke is open to solutions, it is also most definitely part of the problem. Added sugar is a very clear contributor to the health crisis in our country. At least 30% of added sugar consumed by Americans comes from sugary beverages, and some people put that up to 50% if you include fruit juice. Coca-Cola Enterprises now holds the largest share of the U.S. sugary beverage market (roughly 40%).

So, well it seems that CCE is leading the way in sustainability and making a healthier tomorrow, they may very well be simultaneously one of the biggest contributors to the problems that they are trying to solve. Some may see CCE’s efforts as similar to the schoolyard bully who pushes someone down, and then offers them a hand back up. It’s a nice gesture, but we would have been better off without the beating in the first place.

That being said, CCE is trying, and consumer and stakeholder input was a large part of their new sustainability commitments. As we continue to band together and seek opportunities to engage Big Beverage and Big Food in cleaning up their act, they are being forced to listen. One might even argue that they want to listen.



Read all articles by Damon Cory-Watson

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