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How PR is turning Coke from the world's biggest plastic polluter to “a brand synonymous with sustainability”

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By Neil Russell-Bates

· 9 min read


Coke and Pepsi are marketing behemoths. After all, what they sell is just carbonated sugared water. For all the talk of secret recipes, it seems unlikely that without a huge global marketing machine, they would be capable of selling such large volumes of soft drinks, literally all around the globe. They’re also regularly in the spotlight for being the two largest polluters in terms of single-use plastic. They do, however, keep coming up with potential solutions to these problems; but are they genuine or are they just more evidence of their prodigious marketing abilities? Let’s look at Coca-Cola’s sustainability a little closer.

Iconic glass bottles – the real thing

Having started out as a soda fountain drink served by pharmacies, Coca-Cola really made its mark when it was packaged into its now legendary glass bottles almost 110 years ago. In fact, Coke historians attribute much of the success of the brand to the unique bottle design which helped distinguish it from hundreds of copycat cola products that were springing up in America in the early 20th century. Critically, back at its inception and for decades after, those bottles were returnable and consumers paid a deposit when they bought the drink which they had refunded when they brought back the empty bottle. Those bottles were then cleaned and refilled and used many times over, a system that largely remained in place until after the Second World War.

As Coke’s brilliant marketing campaigns encouraged people to consume the drinks in larger quantities and shopping habits started to shift more towards supermarket purchasing, non-returnable cans and bottles started to grow in popularity… as did the amount of them littering the streets.

By the 1970s the public was getting fed up with the packaging pollution and becoming more aware of the issues surrounding landfills. Efforts began to lobby for deposit return schemes to come back in… but Coke and Pepsi preferred to put the onus on the consumer and say they just needed better education on how to dispose of the cans and bottles.

Why? Because the returns scheme was a nuisance and a cost for the soft drinks manufacturers and for the supermarkets who had to devote space to the collection of returns. Fortunately, deposit return schemes (DRS) won out and were widely re-introduced.

Deposit return schemes usurped by multi-serve PET bottles

However, within a decade, as the marketing success of the soft drinks' giants drove ever higher consumption levels and people were now persuaded to buy 2 and 3-litre bottles of drink instead of those single-serve glass bottles or cans, PET started to take over and there was a return to non-returnable packaging for soft drinks. This wasn’t the case everywhere though. In some European countries, such as Hungary and Germany, whilst they used PET bottles, they produced slightly thicker and heavier ones and made them returnable so that consumers paid a deposit and the plastic bottles were collected, cleaned and refilled.

The world’s biggest plastic polluter

Nevertheless, come the 21st century, very few DRS schemes existed anywhere and Coke and Pepsi's profits soared as they reaped the benefits of cheap packaging with no pesky return schemes to manage. They banked on the relative ease with which PET could be recycled, leading consumers to make sure that bottles were properly recycled. That might even have worked had they not continued to cut costs by means of packaging developments that made the bottles thinner and lighter all the time. Psychologically, shoppers then attached less and less worth to the bottles and started to treat them once more as relatively disposable, not even worth recycling. Hence our cola kings ended up topping the pops for plastic pollution, put together by Break Free From Plastic (BFFP) for the last 6 years.

Using marketing and PR to shift attention

With organisations like BFFP, Greenpeace, The Plastic Soup Foundation, Greenpeace, As You Saw and others starting to put more and more pressure on the soft drinks industry and governments alike, the big cola boys started to feel the squeeze and so they started to put their marketing tactics to best use again. However, instead of using their clever campaigning to get consumers to buy more cola, they used their PR machines to convince governments and the public that they were really doing a lot of other good things with their packaging which might take the focus away from an emphasis on DRS schemes.

Coca-Cola in particular has excelled at this with a string of initiatives and campaigns which some would call mere PR stunts. This started back in 2018 when Coke launched World Without Waste, a campaign outlining the company's ambitious pledges to address its plastic pollution problem, collect and recycle more than it produces in terms of packaging and make at least 50% of its plastic packaging with recycled material by 2030. The company is possibly even better at making pledges than it is at making soft drinks, but promises and actions don’t always tally. In the meantime, a key element of the campaign was reverting back to 50-year-old tactics of educating customers to recycle properly and thereby trying to deflect responsibility for the pollution problem away from them and onto the public.

Part of this campaign has gone on to involve the introduction of various packaging ideas which they claim have the potential to make a significant contribution to reducing the scale of the problem, but in reality are often either prototyped ideas that then never see the light of day in terms of production, or are thrust upon them by legislation.

Sustainable packaging initiatives that never made it to the shelf

Take for example the paper bottle revealed to the world in 2021 and touted to be an answer to the huge amounts of plastic waste. The unveiling of this idea glossed over the fact that it was only possible by adding a plastic liner to the inside of the bottle thereby making recycling harder rather than easier and did nothing to address concerns over what natural resources were going to be consumed in the production of the bottles. Needless to say, a test run with 2000 consumers has never progressed to production bottles, but it garnered valuable PR to convey an apparent intent to address a problem of the company’s own creation.

In 2022, Coke in the UK proclaimed to have attached lids on their 500 ml bottles as their own initiative to reduce plastic littering when in fact it is merely getting ahead of the game for an EU-wide legal requirement for tethered caps which will come into force next year.

Meanwhile further “developments” have emerged years apart with apparently minimal progress. 100% plant-based bottles have been launched by Coke in 2021. They first unveiled plant-based bottles as the future over 10 years ago, then prototypes came out in 2015 and then we had a launch that claimed these bottles were ready to be commercially scaled, but it appears they still aren’t at full production yet. While they offer 20-40% reductions in carbon footprint versus traditional PET bottles, they come with other problems and are still very much plastic bottles, just made differently.

Put a theoretically sustainable lid on it!

Most recently came the announcement that Coke has funded a 3-year research programme at Swansea University to look into making bottle caps with material made from carbon sourced from Direct Air Capture (DAC). Another good bit of PR that sounds great, or is it just virtue-signalling? DAC is a controversial technology that, even though proven to work at removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, does so at a very small scale currently and is very expensive meaning that, even if the project successfully produces bottle caps, they may well not be economically viable for Coca-Cola’s profit model. However, once again, the key is that Coke makes announcements about these concepts from the outset, milks them for whatever reputational enhancements it can give them and then quietly forgets about them if they don’t deliver the results suggested.

A history of failing sustainability pledges

Ultimately, the fact is that Coca-Cola’s results when it comes to making good on sustainability promises or following up on apparently ground-breaking initiatives such as some of those outlined above are not very good. For instance, the company has had targets in place over the proportion of its plastic bottles that would be made from recycled material for many years, but as The Plastic Soup Foundation pointed out in a report, "Coca-Cola has a very poor track record here. It has not achieved even one of its sustainability pledges. In 1990 it promised to use an average of 25% of recyclates in its PET bottles. Now, three decades later, that percentage is only 10%". Meanwhile, despite having a target of at least 25% of their products sold in reusable packaging by 2030, according to Coke’s own sustainability reports, the share of products with reusable packaging actually fell to 14% in 2022, down from 16% in 2020.

However, the marketing seems to work…

Despite all this, the Permutable AI site, which offers insights into market sentiments that might affect investments, says that “The Coca-Cola brand has become synonymous with sustainability, and its commitment to environmental and social causes resonates with consumers worldwide. This positive perception not only enhances customer loyalty but also attracts new consumers who align with Coca Cola’s values.” Proof, were it needed, that the PR and marketing activities of Coke consistently outperform the company’s real-world sustainability performance.

Beware Coca-Cola’s sustainability claims

It is perhaps little wonder then that analysts question the efficacy of ESG ratings for big corporates when giants like Coca-Cola consistently top the league table for the world’s biggest plastic polluter and fail to meet even their own sustainability targets, while somehow managing to convince consumers that they are “synonymous with sustainability”. Next time you see an announcement for a Coca-Cola sustainability initiative, you could be forgiven for asking yourself if this is just another PR stunt or if it is really making any positive difference for the environment.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Neil Russell-Bates is a business sustainability consultant specialising in carbon measurement, reporting and NetZero plans, as well as advising clients on sustainability strategy and alignment with sustainability matrices.

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