Zero Calories or Zero Waste?



"Funny, the things you have the hardest time parting with are the things you need the least." -- Bob Dylan


Gopal Krishnan is Coca-Cola’s Global Director of Marketing Innovations. His Hindi tainted Queen's English rolls off of his tongue like a smooth mango lassi. Krishnan is quickly explaining the changes underway at the largest non-alcoholic beverage manufacturer in the world. Coca-Cola is in Los Angeles at the Opportunity Green conference focused on sustainability to discuss their efforts in recycling, converting trucks to bio diesel, water conservation and integrating non-petroleum plastic via their new "PlantBottle," a cane sugar PET hybrid. 

By 2020, Coca-Cola's goal is to be off of petroleum bottles 100% and into their PlantBottle. More than 2.5 billion PlantBottles are already in circulation, which may seem like quite a lot, but that's out of more than 3,300 beverage brands owned or invested in by Coca-Cola in more than 200 countries, and according to, more than 1.3 billion servings sold every day.

Coca-Cola is also actively investing in recycling plants, says Krishnan, citing that "leaving it up to city governments is just not working."  They are currently the world's largest recycler and claim to collect 35% of the bottles they put out. This is an arresting number when multiple sources, including Everpure, Coca-Cola's own water filtration supplier, cites that over 60 million bottles a day—more than 80% of all plastic bottles—end up in incinerators or landfills instead of at recycling plants. Recycling is big business for Coca-Cola, and with an 85% growth potential, it's no surprise they're pushing the single serve bottles in every market.

What's incredibly evident, if not downright chilling, is just how smart Coca-Cola is. Among countless ways they're dominating markets, they've realized there's really only one product ever worth selling, one that never goes out of fashion: You. Their biggest moneymaker is consumer confidence and nowhere is this buoyancy more prominent than in the booming sustainability movement. 

US sales of organic products continued to rise in 2009 despite the economic distress, because the people who can afford to buy organic in the first place were not the ones affected by the recession. Whole Foods and Trader Joe's, the nation's two leading natural food retailers throw out millions of pounds of edible, high-end organic food every year even while US poverty rates are at an eleven year high.  Repeated attempts to get them to employ company-wide policies on near-expired food distribution programs to decrease waste and feed hungry people have been deflected and ignored, yet Whole Foods still maintains a reputation as the leader in supermarket sustainability efforts.

The Opportunity Green conference where Coca-Cola appeared on panels to discuss their heroics cost over $900 per person to attend. And this green consumer is worth more to a brand like Coca-Cola than any of their other consumers.

The educated, passionate environmentalist is not only buying a product because it tastes good. It's the aftertaste that's much sweeter in rattling off the number of bio diesel trucks the product may have been delivered on or how many acres of rainforest are being saved with each sip and now, how much of the bottle is made from petroleum alternatives like sugar cane. These things may not matter to a typical 7-11 shopper who might opt for more economical or convenient purchases, but the green environmentalist will go out of their way to support a brand they believe is supporting their ethos.

Every demographic has their Achilles heel, and Madison Avenue marketing masterminds have meticulously categorized and pandered successfully to their target audiences for decades, whether it's appliances and nail polish to stay at home moms, fast cars and golf clubs to the hardworking dads or clothing, video games and junk foods to kids. The Green movement though, is proving to be the marketing pièce de résistance as there's an unprecedented genius at work selling them more than just an identity; they're selling Responsibility.

Whether it's organic food, bottled water or hybrid cars, persuasive marketing campaigns encourage repeat and rapacious purchases because it's a moral obligation. That's a hard plea to turn a back to. The quest for greening ones life can lead to consumerism extremes like redecorating a home to get up to LEED specs, and creating more waste by throwing away clothes, personal care items and paper products to make way for greener, more environmentally-friendly options.

With countless corporations like Coca-Cola now dominating the so-called "Green" market, one has to wonder if a sustainable corporate agenda is an oxymoron.  It would certainly seem that any decrease in carbon emissions, reduction in use of fossil fuels and increased recycling or water conservation efforts are notable achievements in the short term, but are they capable of sustaining generations? How soon until people begin to wonder whether or not they need all—or at least most—of this Stuff, Green or otherwise?

The Natural Kitchen author and sustainability expert, Deborah Eden Tull's philosophy rests heavily on her on her own personal Buddhist practices. She lives about as zero waste a life as possible, turning junk mail into envelopes, and bringing her own to-go containers to restaurants for take away. While Tull will do virtually anything she can, and make it look quite effortless, to avoid buying excessively packaged, single serve, trucked-around products, Coca-Cola's banking on consumers to cherish and maintain their disposable lifestyles, albeit with a Twist of Green. Feel better about drinking from PlantBottles and you'll overlook the fact that you're supporting a single-serve product and over-zealous marketing engines designed to distract you from your unhealthy daily soda habit.

This is the conundrum of "sustainable businesses." If the goal of sustainability is to move towards zero waste, it is a nearly impossible moving target. For one, it's difficult to produce anything at scale without waste; and scale is essential for growth and profits. In other words, zero waste mean zero profits. Even for the truly kind-hearted eco-friendly Patagonias and Clif Bars of the world, profits must exist and growth must exist in order to sustain the business model. A company simply can't keep its employees happy or employed long-term without successful revenue growth.

Second, it's also nearly impossible to be in the business of selling things without them requiring other things. This laptop travels in a briefcase; the briefcase travels in a car, the car parks at the office where the desk and chair are. There's a co-dependency amongst products that makes it difficult for any industry to not affect another. And while some things are clearly indispensible, the line between what is a necessity and what is non-essential has practically disappeared completely.

Sustainable finance expert, Greg Wendt, says the predicament is that these financial models dominating our fiscal landscape are outdated. They're focused on a virulent growth model that leads to a disastrous wake of disruptive corporate behavior that disregards employees, consumers, the environment and future generations. Though his clearly optimistic bend leans towards elucidation, he has a tough time articulating specific, tangible solutions. Nurturing the corporate citizens so that they may transform into agents of change, or butterflies as he likened, is at the very least, ambitious, and does not address the bigger issue of excessive consumer spending habits, brand dependency and corporation's planned obsolescence, as evident in Coca-Cola's PlantBottle. Rather than attempting to decrease the number of bottles entering the market, they're just re-dressing it and banking on selling more of them because of their green designation.

Coca-Cola is clearly most keenly aware that of all the products out there, the world doesn't really need soda. This awareness is driving their massive marketing efforts and now their foray into being recognized as a global leader in sustainability. Certainly the end of Coca-Cola as it is today would mean hundreds of thousands of jobs would be lost. It's happened before to companies as the times change, and if there's one silver lining, it is possible for the world's largest beverage distributor to get into another line of work entirely like rebuilding our aging water main pipes (bursting at 700 a day in the US) or installing rainwater tanks, or creating furniture, toys, appliances or art out of the billions of empty Coke bottles sitting in landfills or floating out to the Texas-sized Garbage Patch in the middle of the Pacific ocean.

"Sugar is not addictive. It is one of the best sources of energy," claims Krishnan on the health effects of Coca-Cola's soda products.  Is it hypocritical to boast sustainability efforts when the product inside their sugar cane PET plastic bottles contains high fructose corn syrup, a leading cause of diabetes and obesity and linked to increased risk of attention deficit disorder, heart disease and cancer? How much of a sustainability statement should reflect a product's personal sustainability? Since our own state of health impacts our interactions and priorities, if it's unhealthy for you, is that ultimately healthy for the planet? "We have wellness and lifestyle information on our Web sites and encourage moderation," says Krishnan. "Coca-Cola is also the largest manufacturer of juice products in the world," he says, referring to Minute Maid and products like "Pulpy Super Milky," a dairy-based juice blend beverage sold to billions of Chinese, despite well-documented studies that suggest more than 80% of Asians are lactose intolerant.  Coca-Cola's juice products are made mostly from concentrate, contain added flavorings and are excessively processed. Recent research also suggests that fruit juice may be as unhealthy as sodas because it's little more than concentrated fructose.

Responding to the detrimental effects of consuming excessive amounts of sugar throughout the seventies, Coca-Cola produced Diet Coke in 1982. While the Aspartame-sweetened product does eliminate the effects of sugar, it comes with its own set of risks. Aspartame is an artificial sweetener found in most diet sodas and has been linked to infertility, cancer, headaches, tinnitus, depression, anxiety, fibromyalgia, lupus, and dozens of other diseases. Countless studies have indicated that diet sodas can also actually cause weight gain because of their sodium content and the psychological effect of thinking that calories are being sacrificed, can therefore be spent on eating unhealthy foods. The PlantBottle is today's version of Diet Coke. It may alleviate the stress associated with plastic, but brings it's own set of unrelated issues. For one, sugar cane production is directly responsible for the destruction of critical ecosystems like Florida's Everglades. And, a bottle is still a bottle, using fresh water, energy and other critical natural resources in production. 

Coca-Cola also distributes bottled water under the brand name Dasani, a product that they have no immediate exit strategy for. While the other 3299 products Coca-Cola sells may be made up of proprietary formulations, which are arguably an integral unique identity to a brand, it would seem that an abrupt cessation or even a slight decrease in selling bottled water is the most logical sustainability effort, rather than just repackaging water in sugar-plastic.  

Even with investments in brands such as Honest Tea, who also boast healthy ingredients and environmental commitments in single-serve bottle after single-serve bottle, the questions about sustaining sustainability on massive scales are staggering and confounding. Corporate bottom lines are bottomless.

The current financial growth model of companies like Coca-Cola and their ilk will never allow for them to say they've made enough money or sold enough products even if they recycle every single bottle they produce, capture every drop of rain, and convert every truck to bio diesel. It will never be enough.  "Greening" business practices is not the end point, as it would seem, but rather it's an opening to the bigger dialogue about humankind's relationship with stuff--our identity via branded food, apparel, cars and media and how much of it we're willing to part with to create a world that works for all.


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Photo by Dominic Alves