Green leading or greenwashing?
During a recent family day out to the coast, I happened upon a group of environmental campaigners who were stopping any members of the public that deigned to glance in their direction. They were promoting Greenpeace.
Now, they are of course entitled to their opinion but so are the rest of us, and a particular campaign of theirs has rankled me of late. And it’s not because I have any vested interest or loyalty towards the major brand in question, but because I consider the targeted campaign unfair and somewhat unwarranted.
‘Don’t let Coke choke our oceans’ says the promotional material, which illustrated sandy Coca-Cola-branded bottles scattered on beaches, and has been distributed in tandem with the installation a few months ago of a piece of art on Coca-Cola’s European HQ doorstep that highlighted ocean plastics pollution.
Greenpeace has specifically targeted Coca-Cola with its campaign, identifying the production of 100 billion throwaway plastics bottles every year as justification enough. It accuses Coca-Cola of using single-use plastics for 60 per cent of its drinks packaging and a miserly seven per cent of recycled content across its global bottle production.
The campaign group goes on to claim that Coca-Cola is drifting away from its 2020 goal to recover and recycle 75 per cent of its drinks containers. It then asks the public to email Coca-Cola’s chief executive in Europe and tell him to stop the company from choking the oceans, to embrace reusable packaging and to ditch throwaway plastics. And, rather tellingly, Greenpeace says: “There’s no excuse for its packaging not to be made from 100 per cent recycled content.”
And I use the term ‘tellingly’ intentionally here, because this single sound-bite, for me, sums up the ignorance of organisations such as Greenpeace and the potential damage that such uninformed campaigning can do to our industry when it comes to the mainstream press and public forums.
It is physically impossible to recycle 100 per cent of bottles because there will always be some material loss during the recycling process. A million recycled PET bottles will never produce one million new bottles.
First and foremost, PET bottles such as Coca-Cola’s, are desirable for recycling as they use clear resin and a small label. Secondly, Coca-Cola does use recycled content and indeed bio-PET, derived from renewable sources.
In fact, the company has been one of the most active brands in taking the bio-route, and tying up with recycling ventures; granted, the sheer size of the company probably makes this a corporate responsibility rather than a choice, but still.
Perhaps what we need here is greater transparency within the supply chain so that it’s easier to see where material goes when it is recycled. Recycled PET often ends up in clothing, something that our sales manager’s seven-year-old son was fascinated to learn recently when I was discussing his recent school project about plastics with him. What is stopping a major sports clothing brand such as Nike and Coca-Cola linking up to advertise how today’s PET bottle is tomorrow’s hiking jumper?
Greenpeace is missing the point here, in my opinion. Its campaigning would be better placed targeting those materials without another end market and that are therefore unrecyclable.
Another dangerous implication made by Greenpeace is the implied connection of drinks bottles and ocean waste. According to statistics I’ve seen, North America and Europe represent about a third of Coca-Cola’s global market but those regions contribute two per cent of land-sourced ocean plastics waste. If these figures are accurate, they serve to show that a well-developed waste collection system in those continents has greatly reduced the leakage of plastics into the environment.
And consumers themselves need to step up to the plate more and not only recycle but ensure that litter is placed in recycling bins or taken home, and not discarded carelessly.
When it comes to recycling initiatives, what role should a brand like Coca-Cola play? Whether it’s the market that decides, or local and national government, the role of brands is often to obey regulations and support initiatives. Maybe brands should be required to take a direct financial stake in collection and recycling infrastructure.
To be fair to Coca-Cola, it has continued to commit to rPET and bio-PET, regardless of the market dynamics and economics, and it has invested considerably in recycling. Sometimes those investments have resulted in large and very public failures, such as the URRC joint-venture recycling plant in South Carolina, USA, and with Eco Plastics in Lincolnshire, UK, but at least the company is trying.
Maybe Coca-Cola could commit a little more when it comes to utilising recycled plastics, but brands will tell you that it is an ongoing challenge to find sufficient quantities of rPET to meet their needs. There are of course some recycled bottles on the market that are 100 per cent rPET but these are generally for shorter runs and are geography-specific as the ability to achieve this presupposes a clean supply of rPET.
Perhaps Greenpeace’s targeted campaign is a response to Coca-Cola’s refusal to reveal the amount of post-consumer recyclate that it uses. Coca-Cola could take a more public leadership role when it comes to the environment, as it has the power to pull industry with it and to influence consumer behaviour.
What makes one bottle of water different to another, you ask, and why do consumers buy one brand over another? Actually, the premium and bottled market is a fascinating one, as research firm ZappiStore demonstrated with a recent study.
The study found that consumers looked mainly for terms such as ‘mineral water’ and ‘spring water’ in the UK and US respectively. From a personal perspective, if I’m buying bottled water for my three-year-old daughter then I opt for spring water because I consider it healthier for her body.
Claims such as ‘low sodium content’ and ‘naturally filtered’ score high for consumers, while ‘artesian’, ‘vapour distilled’ and ‘enriched with fulvic acid’ don’t have the same impact, and are more likely to leave drinkers confused.
Consumers are less likely to understand ‘pH-balanced’ on a label of PepsiCo Lifewtr than they are ‘naturally filtered’ on a Coca-Cola SmartWater bottle, claims the study.
As you’d expect, time in market is a key driver to purchase intent when it comes to bottled water, as is the ability to understand the marketing claims. But there is plenty of room for everyone in a $70 billion market.
It was a great honour to be named president of the International Packaging Press Organisation (IPPO) at the recent Interpack show, a role that I will occupy for the next three years. A friendly society of packaging journalists that has been active for more than 40 years, IPPO also serves a great purpose of developing close links with industry and society and promotes the ongoing value and importance of good quality journalism to the packaging supply chain.
Steven Pacitti – editor