Iâ€™ve got to confess: I donâ€™t drink Coke or diet Coke or, for that matter, Pepsi. Iâ€™ve never been a fan of soda. (Or â€œpop,â€ for those of you Midwestern blogreaders.) But Iâ€™ve become an admirer of The Coca-Cola Co. as Iâ€™ve learned about the companyâ€™s sustainability work. Led by chief executive Neville Isdell, the global beverage giant is making a thoughtful and sustained effort to lighten its environmental footprint.
But thatâ€™s only part of the Coke story. To succeed in becoming a more environmentally-friendly company, Coca-Cola needs to bring along its bottlers, its retailers and its customers. Thatâ€™s proving difficult. I decided to write about Coke to examine the gap between good intentions and meaningful results that is frequently created when companies try to â€œgo green.â€
You can see this gap all over corporate America. Despite â€œecomagination,â€ GE makes incandescent, energy-wasting lightbulbs and turbines for dirty coal plans. Despite the greening of Wal-Mart, the company sells lots of bottled water. So, of course, does Coke. Even with a deeply committed CEO, there are limits to what any one company can do.
A one-page version of the story is running in the $4.99 print edition of FORTUNE (cover date: April 28) and the full story is available here at fortune.com. Here is how it begins:
To save the planet, we’ve been told to stop burning coal, ditch our gas-guzzlers and switch our light bulbs to energy-efficient CFLs. Here’s something else to worry about – the vending machine down the hall.
Yes, the vending machine. Vending machines and commercial coolers that keep drinks cold run around-the-clock, rely on inefficient compressors and, worst of all, use HFCs, a potent greenhouse gas. So when Greenpeace challenged the Coca-Cola Co (KO, Fortune 500). to get rid of conventional vending machines and coolers, the world’s largest beverage company promised to develop replacements that are 40 to 50% more efficient and HFC-free.
Since then, Coke has invested $40 million in research and testing, published a 900-page technical study and organized a coalition of companies that sell cold drinks and ice cream, including Unilever, McDonald’s and (gasp!) PepsiCo., to attack the problem. Last year, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Coke declared victory: E. Neville Isdell, the company’s chairman and CEO, and Gerd Leipold, who leads Greenpeace, unveiled a new, HFC-free, super-efficient vending machine. About 8,000 of the climate-friendly machines have been deployed, most to high-profile venues like Davos and the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.
That’s good for Coke because its reputation is so important. “The name on this building is the name on the bottle,” Isdell says. But all of its hard work hasn’t done much for the planet, at least not yet: Coca-Cola and its bottlers still have about 10 million old-style coolers and vending machines deployed in the 210 countries where its products are sold. That’s because its bottlers, who are independently owned, don’t want to pay extra for HFC-free units. And manufacturers, who have lots of capital sunk into their current production lines, have yet to produce them in bulk. “We have the technology and we know it works,” Isdell says. “The problem is, the economic logic doesn’t hang together.”
The story goes on to talk about Cokeâ€™s water initiativesâ€”probably its most impressive workâ€”and its efforts to develop a sustainable package. You can read the rest here. And CEO Isdell gave us permission to show some of his photos of African wildlife, which are here. Because of the way business mags like FORTUNE work, we focus on CEOs but I should be clear that the sustainability work at Coca-Cola is being carried out by an impressive team of people–Jeff Seabright, Greg Koch, Scott Vitters, Bryan Jacob, Dan Vermeer. There’s more to say about their work and I hope to revisit the company again before too long.