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Coca-Cola aims for gold by going green

The company is using the 2010 Winter Olympics to trumpet its “environmental call to action” and herald a new image for the 123-year-old firm.

Market research in Canada told the company it had a lot of work to do to sell its green image – especially to consumers in the 13- to-29 age group, the company's most important market. The Vancouver 2010 Winter Games was the perfect platform, decided the company, which has been an Olympic sponsor since 1928.

One major push will likely be for what Coca-Cola calls the PlantBottle, its new eco-friendlier container, made in part from sugar cane and molasses. Along with trying to find a better bottle for its beverage products, Coca-Cola is trying to use water more efficiently, in response to criticisms in places such as India that the company wastes water and sucks aquifers dry.

“We had to work on the image of Coca-Cola in Canada,” said Nicola Kettlitz, the company's general manager for the Vancouver 2010 Olympics. “The Olympics are a powerful property in Canada – it appeals to a wide percentage of the population. What a great opportunity to talk about our agenda. We do a lot of great things that nobody seems to know about.”

Critics accuse the company of wasting water, and of filling landfills – the destination for 75 per cent of plastic bottles that carry Coca-Cola products such as Minute Maid juice and Dasani water. Even though the bottles are recyclable, customers throw them out – and the company wears the environmental black eye.

Atlanta-based Coca-Cola has made sustainability a cornerstone of its growth strategy for several years; it began slowly under former chief executive officer Neville Isdell and is now the driving force for Muhtar Kent, chairman and CEO of the company.

One goal: reducing the amount of water used to make Coke. It takes 2.5 litres of water to make one litre of Coca-Cola – and as much as 250 litres once growing the sugar cane used in the drink is factored in. By 2010, Coca-Cola in Canada aims to cut its water usage by 10 per cent at its plants.

To get its green message across at the Olympics, Coca-Cola will likely feature marketing for the PlantBottle, which was unveiled last month, using the bottle for its Dasani water, promoting its green credentials on the bottle and in an ad campaign in stores and online.

The new bottle is 30 per cent sugar cane and molasses, blended as a component in the traditional petroleum-based plastic, and produces 25 per cent fewer carbon-dioxide emissions than standard plastic containers, according to a study by Imperial College London, which was commissioned by Coca-Cola. It will be launched late this year in the Pacific Northwest, and very likely will be sold and distributed in Canada ahead of the Olympics.

To showcase its efforts, the company also has a number of other plans for the Winter Games:

It aims to ensure that packaging of each of the 7.5 million beverages it plans to serve at the Games is recycled. And it will highlight its $80-million (U.S.) investment in six plastic-recycling plants around the globe, including the world's largest in Spartanburg, S.S.

When the Olympic Torch relay begins in late October, Coca-Cola (a co-sponsor of the relay along with the Royal Bank of Canada) plans a campaign to highlight the threat of global warming on polar bears – characters in some of the company's advertising.

Coca-Cola will also distribute 15,000 items of clothing such as T-shirts and insulation for ski jackets, manufactured from recycled plastic bottles.

Taking advantage of the Olympic spotlight to highlight the company's eco-friendly moves makes good sense, said Lindsay Meredith, a marketing professor at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C.

“Anything you can wrap in green is going to sell,” he said. “The Olympics is an ideal venue to play this card. The trick is to showcase something – just saying, ‘We're Coca-Cola' doesn't cut it.”

Mr. Kettlitz is acutely aware that the “show me” factor is crucial, particularly for Coca-Cola's young customers, who are skeptical and quick to spot green washing.

The PlantBottle is important to the company's green effort because for beverage makers, growth lies not in carbonated soft drinks, but rather in products such as juices, teas, and specialty waters – all drinks that come in plastic bottles.

The beverage industry has been working on better bottles for several years to reduce the amount of plastics in bottles, according to John Sicher, editor and publisher of Beverage Digest. For example, PepsiCo Inc. in March announced a 20-per-cent lighter bottle for Aquafina, the top bottled-water brand in the United States.

Coca-Cola has had to hustle to catch up to archrival Pepsi in the juice and bottled water market. In 2007, Coca-Cola made the biggest acquisition in its history, a $4.1-billion takeover of Energy Brands Inc., maker of Vitaminwater. Coca-Cola plans to sell that drink, along with Dasani, in PlantBottles.

Coca-Cola's greener efforts have been welcomed by several environmental groups; the World Wildlife Fund has joined with the company to work on water issues and the Vancouver-based David Suzuki Foundation is a consultant on Olympics-related efforts.

Still, some people say the progress doesn't really address the main packaging problem, given that the PlantBottle remains mostly plastic.

“Everybody's trying to put themselves out as green. It's a beginning, but it's not far enough. What's we're missing is the solution,” said Dean Bellefleur, whose consulting company, D-idea, advises companies about packaging. Like other critics, he questions the wisdom of bottled products in general: “There's no real reason to be carrying around these bottles.”

Coca-Cola is pragmatic, however. It insists consumers want the convenience of bottled beverages, so its aim is to supply greener products. “It's not altruism. It is simply self-interest,” said Sanjay Guha, president of Coca-Cola in Great Britain and Ireland, in a March speech.

“The skeptics are right that companies like ours have not overnight become charities. Our aim remains to sell more drinks. But if we intend to keep growing, this growth has to be achieved in a sustainable way.”