Coca-Cola’s “once in a generation” leadership opportunity

A UK Select Committee report on food and drink plastic packaging was published this month. It endorsed a number of government proposals to reduce environmental harm including the taxing of plastic packaging and introduction of a scheme where consumers pay an up-front deposit for drinks containers that can be reclaimed when they are returned.

It will impact small and big businesses alike. It will certainly increase the urgency of retailer initiatives to remove and reduce plastic use. All major supermarkets are trialing ways to reduce plastic consumption. Tesco is also collaborating with major manufacturers to test the ‘Loop’ online shopping service that delivers product in containers that are then returned to be refilled and sent out again.

Häagen-Dazs has developed a reusable steel container to support the Loop.

Coca-Cola’s UK management will be especially interested in the report. Globally the company has been found to be the biggest contributor to plastic pollution and was estimated to account for around 15% of the discarded plastic on UK beaches. The business also owns the UK’s biggest coffee chain Costa which means about 500 million disposable cups and lids are sold alongside plastic bottles.

Coca-Cola has become the brand you most associate with plastic pollution.

Coca-Cola packaging was the most frequently found in clean-up collections conducted across 42 countries.

Coca-Cola’s response has been far from complacent. . 100% of their plastic bottles are now recyclable and the aim is for new bottles to consist of 40% recycled plastic by 2020. The problem for Coca-Cola, however, is that stopping bottles ending up on beaches and in oceans requires both an infrastructure and a fundamental change in consumer behaviour that will ensure the vast majority are either recycled or reused.

a-Cola will no longer use plastic shrink-wrap on can multipacks sold in the UK, the company has announced.

Coca-Cola’s response has been far from complacent. The commitment to remove of plastic shrink-wrap on can multipacks in Europe is big step and positive step. Furthermore, 100% of their plastic bottles are now recyclable and the aim is for new bottles to consist of 40% recycled plastic by 2020.

The problem for Coca-Cola, however, is that stopping plastic bottles ending up on beaches and in oceans requires both an infrastructure and a fundamental change in consumer behaviour to ensure the vast majority are either recycled or reused.

The German deposit return scheme was introduced 15 years ago and today 97-99% of single use bottles are returned.

Changing consumer behaviour is not easy, but a UK Government commitment to a deposit return scheme is a unique opportunity for Coca-Cola and they clearly know this. Julian Hunt, vice president of Coca-Cola in Europe explained earlier this year: “we talk about this as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to work with Government to change the packaging recovery and recycling system for good. It is as historic as that.”

Assuming the UK Government move to action and legislation, Coca-Cola will face some big decisions in the UK. One of these will be the extent to which it invests resources and expertise in actively supporting the consumer behaviour change needed for success.

There is no doubt the company can contribute a lot with an iconic bottle and insight on deposit and return schemes based on decades of experience from Canada, Ecuador, Estonia, Germany and Scandinavia. It also has the resources to help generate the awareness needed for consumer adoption with a UK media spend of c£40 million annually.

Within Coca-Cola some will argue this is an infrastructure and consumer behaviour issue in which their products are simply most visible. This, however, is challenged with a recognition that Coca-Cola has the most to gain from success and is facing a challenge to remain relevant to a generation of consumers spoilt for choice, more concerned with their planet and more questioning on a brand’s purpose.

Hopefully Coca-Cola will embrace the introduction of a new recycle / reuse system as the moment to lead and champion change, rather than settle for the role of industry participant. It could then prove to be a historic “once-in-a-generation opportunity” for the brand to demonstrate purpose and remain relevant, perhaps iconic.

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