Flop of the month: Coca-Cola chooses profit over responsibility with plastic bottles

When Bea Perez, Coca-Cola's head of sustainability, took to the stage at the jamboree of world leaders, senior business people and NGOs at Davos this month, it was to proffer a message about how it could be part of the solution to plastic waste, rather than its biggest problem.

Coca-Cola has demonstrated a deficit of moral leadership over plastic bottles (©keith morris/Alamy)
Coca-Cola has demonstrated a deficit of moral leadership over plastic bottles (©keith morris/Alamy)
But a sugary message about how Coca-Cola – one of the world’s biggest producers of plastic waste, creating three million tonnes of packaging each year – could create a circular economy for its bottles, increase the content of recycled material in plastic bottles, and improve global collection - ended on a sour note.   
 
The reason? Perez said it will not drop the use of plastic bottles for its products because customers like them due to the fact that they are lightweight and can be resealed. 

It’s true that Coca-Cola’s message was, in fact, a little more nuanced: it wants to swap shrink-wrap packaging for card, it claims plastic bottles have a lower carbon footprint – in a circular economy model – than aluminium cans or glass bottles, and it wants to introduce a deposit return scheme in the UK.

But the fact remains that this was a spectacular comms bungle by the multinational company, not least because it failed to convince a trusted media outlet, in this case the BBC, of its good intentions, consequently generating negative rather than positive headlines, as well as predictable social media opprobrium.

However, the main reason that Coca-Cola's statements reek of a corporate comms failure – not to mention moral bankruptcy - is because they betray an abject lack of leadership at the top of the firm. 

An innovative and brave company would not settle for giving customers what they want; it would tell people they need to change their consumption habits for the common good - and swallow the cost.  

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