I’ve spent some time with polar bears. I went to Churchill, Manitoba, on the marge of the ice-covered Hudson Bay. This wasn’t a trip to the zoo. The giant white bears were not on my turf, I was on theirs, and there were no bars between us. I have few illusions about the largest land carnivore on the planet. I kept thinking, “These things want to have me for breakfast.”
Nevertheless, my house is sprinkled with polar bear effigies. There is a ceramic mother bear with a cub on the mantle, there is the assortment of stuffed toy polar bears (for the grandchildren, of course), coffee table books of photographs of the great beasts and a lots of literature telling survivor stories of harrowing encounters with polar bears. There are lots of images. But to be completely honest, my favorite image is the one in my mind. It is the image created by Coca-Cola.
I love those bears. They are harmless and cuddly, there on the screen. They seem to have feelings. They love their children, and they drink Coca-Cola from bottles while sliding down snowdrifts, just for the fun of it. They smile a lot. They are not the 10-foot-tall, 1,200-pound, blood-smeared beasts I’ve seen in person, from a distance of 10 feet. And the Coca-Cola polar bears are not on the endangered species list.
This puts Coca-Cola in a strange position. Coke’s iconic polar bears are on the endangered species list because their habitat is disappearing. The government says humans are changing the climate by burning too much fossil fuel. Coca-Cola uses a lot of fossil fuel to make its products and ship them all over the world.
So, to protect its image and the image of its image, it has dedicated a portion of its sales to the protection of the polar bear. That kind of thing is common in the world of corporate branding. But how can any company protect nature while doing things that threaten to destroy nature? Coke has figured that out, too. And by so doing, may open a dialogue between industrialists and environmentalists. Coca-Cola has figured out how to conserve water, conserve energy and pollute less while making more money in the process.
The Eagan project
The incubator for Coca-Cola’s new energy-efficiency model is here in Minnesota. The Eagan operation has cut its electricity usage in the plant, warehouse and offices by installing high efficiency lighting. The buildings use motion-detector on-and-off switches so no electricity is wasted. The Eagan team has purchased high-efficiency refrigeration equipment. It bought 10 hybrid delivery trucks to cut down on oil consumption. It has found a way to save water in impressive amounts.
Kevin Morris is a vice president with Coca-Cola’s Eagan operation. He says, “We have a passion for the environment and for sound business practices. All of us out here.”
Morris tells the story of counting the number of semis pulling into the plant every day carrying empty plastic bottles to be filled in Eagan. It occurred to the executives that if the plant had its own bottle maker, it could cut down on the number of trucks hauling empty bottles from Illinois. They bought the bottle maker, and the result was the removal of 14 semi trucks from the road, every day. That’s a lot of diesel fuel exhaust.
The Eagan team found a way to save or reuse 17 million gallons of water each year. It has its own water-capture and reprocessing room. Saving water saves money. Its plastic recycling program is even more impressive. In 2005 it was recycling 250,000 pounds of plastics. By 2010 it was more than a million pounds. It has recycled more than 1,500 tons of plastics in just five years. Plastics come from oil. One ton of recycled plastic is the equivalent of about 16 barrels of oil. Eagan’s plastic recycling program has saved nearly 25,000 barrels of oil.
Kevin won’t take all the credit. Worldwide, the Coca-Cola Company has dedicated itself to recovering 36 percent of all the plastic and aluminum it puts into market. Since 2004, globally, Coca Cola has improved its water-use efficiency by 13 percent.
It has invested, through the Agency for International Development, more than $12 million on watershed management, sanitation and conservation in countries around the world. It has cut absolute emissions from its manufacturing operations by more than 8 percent in the last few years. It currently has 366 hybrid trucks, the largest such fleet in the world.
Has Coca-Cola become a great steward of the earth? In many ways it has, but that alone won’t carry the day with businesses out to make money for investors. Coca-Cola gets the attention of the industrial world when it announces that all of these efficiencies have made, or will make in the future, higher profits for the company. Coca-Cola says the economic, environmental and social implications of business are more important than ever. “We understand that sustainability is core to our business,” the company says in a statement. Coke’s new in-house motto is “Live Positively.”
It seems to be a trend. The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, often at odds with environmentalists, has its own program for recycling and reducing energy consumption. It employs a band of energy-efficiency experts who advise member businesses on how to save money — that is to say, make more money by using less energy.
Mark Blaiser, executive director of the Chamber’s “Waste Wise” program, said: “Sustainability is smart business. Saving energy is smart business. Environmental sustainability is not going away, it is not a fad. There are great economic opportunities for businesses that adopt a sustainability model. Those are the businesses that will lead the way to the future.”
It is rare to see such a point of convergence. Environmentalists and businesses can both get what they want, for completely different reasons, resulting in a more sustainable world. The Eagan, Minnesota bottling plant is leading the discussion and has a bottom-line to prove it works.
And to think not long ago, Coca-Cola just wanted to teach the world to sing.