Friday, October 28, 2011

In the News Today

Hold on to your hats, folks, I've got a great WTF!? post for you today. This week Coca-Cola announced a redesign of their cans to advertise their newest environmental campaign: $2 million will be donated to a project that seeks to protect polar bear habitat in arctic regions. So it comes as no surprise that the new cans will feature the iconic bear on a white background:

It saddens me that Coca-Cola has partnered with the World Wildlife Fund on this project; poor WWF must be pretty cash-strapped to choose to team up with a soft drink company for money. But that's not what's shocking about this story. Rather, it's the motivation behind the campaign, and how incongruous it is with Coke's modus operandi. Let me explain.

The polar bear is the focus of this project in part because the animal has been featured in Coke ads since 1922 and also because its population has been declining due primarily to warming arctic waters, i.e. climate change. Briefly, rising temperatures in the north cause sea ice to melt earlier in the summer. Without this ice, polar bears have a really hard time hunting seals, and they end up on dry land with less food and not enough fat to see them through the season. Many lose even more energy just trying to make it to the coast, now that there are greater distances to swim between ice floes. Tragically, pregnant female bears can't always build effective dens in thawing permafrost. There are many more threats to polar bears' survival that are related to climate change, and you can read about them here.

Red areas show the projected loss of optimal polar bear habitat over the next 40 years.

I have no issue at all with the efforts being made to protect these majestic bears. My beef is with Coca-Cola. How can they expect us to see this as anything besides greenwashing? They want to save the bears that are harmed by climate change... while contributing to climate change by making soft drinks... WTF!? I may not be a climate scientist, but if the company is responsible for over 1.6 billion servings of its various beverages every day, then I'm willing to bet that the carbon footprint of this worldwide production is not exactly negligible.

The syrup/concentrate alone accounts for much of this, since Coke is made with high fructose corn syrup. HFCS is really complicated to produce, starting with the monoculture farming of a variety of corn that is rich in starch and utterly devoid of nutrients. Vast amounts of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides (which, in and of themselves, require plenty of energy to produce) are applied to the corn, which must subsequently be milled into corn starch, processed into corn syrup, mixed with enzymes, purified, enriched, and evaporated to yield HFCS. Imagine just how much energy is required to make this happen... and how many greenhouse gases are emitted by the coal-fired power plants that feed the processing plants! All in the name of profit...

There are other issues related to the production of soft drinks, not the least of which is the depletion of groundwater in the areas surrounding Coca-Cola's bottling plants, notably in India. I don't need to tell you that messing with the water cycle has a serious impact on global climate. Another big factor is packaging: the production of single-use plastic bottles and aluminum cans only adds to the already enormous carbon footprint associated with making Coke. I don't need to go on. It's clear that making this beverage is as bad for the planet as consuming it is hazardous for human health. Spending $2 million on protecting polar bear habitat just doesn't make up for the damage that has already been done. Where is the accountability?

Photo of new Coca Cola can used under Creative Commons from José Roitberg (flickr).
Image of changes in polar bear habitat sourced from Wikimedia Commons.
Image of Coca Cola's impact in India sourced from Wikimedia Commons.


  1. WTF indeed. This seems relevant to something that's in the news today: our Conservative government's plans to re-work charitable giving rules. Harper et. al are keen on corporations and individuals doing more giving to "charity" and government doing less. One result: desperate organizations "team up" with corporations who, for a small price in donations, gain positive marketing opportunities related to environmental or social problems --problems that, as with this Coca Cola example --they are actually contributing to themselves.

  2. Big WTF! I actually posted a link to this yesterday. It just feels wrong-very wrong. I have so many issues with the Coca Cola company. It's difficult for me to look beyond those issues and see anything other than greenwashing. I agree-the damage has already been done. They need to start from within and make some fundamental changes before they move on.

  3. While I agree with you, I also feel that it's a good step that this money is going to a worthy cause.

    Do I think it justifies Coke's actions? No. But I'd rather that money go to saving polar bears rather than buying corporate execs more private jets, cars, and beach mansions.

  4. Melissa - That's terrible news! Most of the organizations doing great work are already pretty desperate, and that's while the government is still providing funding! I really don't want to see more of these superficial partnerships with dirty corporations trying to clean up their image.

  5. Lori - It's very wrong and it's going to fool many people. What really gets me is that the Coca-Cola company's revenue for 2010 was over $35 billion. What's $2 million to them? Pennies! Or more accurately, it's like someone with a $35K income donating $2 to a charity. It's almost insulting.

  6. Marc - Very true. It's $2 million less towards unnecessary consumption. But as I just pointed out in my reply to Lori's comment, it's so pitifully little compared to how much they make! This is a really hard pill to swallow for me.

  7. Thanks Andrea-- A strong clear post. Great info.

  8. Pam - You're very welcome. I felt compelled to write about this once I found out, as you can imagine.

    Just checked out your site. Love that you make organic, toxin-free pet toys!

  9. Sad thing is, most soda consumers won't see this as greenwashing, they'll buy into it as an easy, feel-good solution. Anyone who drinks soda or any other bottled beverage to begin with is causing environmental damage. And the fact one recycles their bottle really doesn't make much of a difference- there is a huge carbon footprint attached to the manufacturing of the packaging and beverage, distributing of the product, and again on the recycling of the bottle. If soda drinkers are so desperate for their sugar fix, why not dissolve some corn syrup into water and drink that. It won't taste much different and has a lower impact.

    Its a sad, sick world that companies can capitalize on the dying polar bears.

  10. Hahaha... that would be incredible! Corn syrup and water.

    You're right, Coke drinkers will probably pat themselves on the back for believing that they're indirectly contributing to this environmental campaign... and not realize that they're directly contributing to climate change which makes such a campaign necessary in the first place!

  11. Hi Andrea - all great points - so many angles to what Coca Cola's impact is. I saw this article at Green Living which gives a bit more background on the project:
    and I'm not sure if you saw the Ted X talk with Jason Clay explaining why WWF is working with big corporations? Here's a link to my post:
    and a direct link to the Ted X Talk:

    I hope that WWF is working with Coca Cola to address some of the other issues that you shared also!!

  12. Thanks for sharing these links. I just watched the Ted X talk and am a little more hopeful now, but still frowning about WWF's partnership with Coke. Clay talked about the importance of working with these companies to change the way they do their business, but the polar bear project has absolutely nothing to do with that! Let's see some work towards significantly lowering Coke's footprint.