Coca-Cola sponsors COP27: Buying its way into ESG or a chance for real change?

SOUNDING BOARD: By cashing in on Coca-Cola's cheque, is COP27 inviting conversation and giving an opportunity for reflection or is the climate change summit becoming a part of the greenwashing problem?

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

A sponsorship deal between this year’s UN climate conference, COP27, and Coca-Cola, which has been described as the “world’s top polluter” by an environmental group, has invited widespread criticism and branded as “greenwashing” by campaigners.

To be held in the Egyptian coastal resort of Sharm el-Sheikh from 6-18 November, the largest climate event of the year will provide a platform for leading governments, businesses and environmental organisations to address the climate crisis—the Paris Agreement was signed at a similar event in 2015. However, since Paris, the momentum has dwindled, especially as the Trump government showed little interest in the environment, and then the global pandemic and the Ukraine war started.

This year, as the world is eyeing solutions to wean off Russian gas and heavyweights like US, UK and France are putting environment at the forefront of their infrastructure efforts, there’s a realistic prospect that this COP could actually be a success. But if the Coca-Cola move is any indication, environmentalists believe it just undermines the whole effort.

Emma Priestland, a coordinator for Break Free From Plastic, a global alliance of organisations and individuals, went on the record to slam the beverage giant calling it “pure greenwash”. Coca-Cola is one of the world’s biggest users of plastic.

John Hocevar, Greenpeace USA Oceans campaign director, calls the move as “baffling” and says the partnership defeats the very objective of the event.

Earlier this year, Coca-Cola announced it will aim for 25% of its packaging globally to be reusable by 2030, a boost from the current 16% but environmentalists question if this is a little too less, a bit too late. What makes the issue even more damning is an independent report which came out in June this year highlighting “a litany of misleading claims” from Coca-Cola.

While Coke defends its sponsorship decision, the flipside to the negative sentiment is that global summits such as COP27 cost a lot of money to put together, and brands like Coke should be made to fund events that have the actual ability to create change.

Campaign Asia-Pacific opened the conversation to industry experts to gauge their reaction to the news and grasp their candid views on this catch-22 situation.

The big question we’re asking is: Is COP27’s decision to partner with Coca-Cola a slap in the face of environmental efforts or a golden opportunity for the biggest plastic polluter to be held accountable for its sustainability goals, answerable for the use of biofuel all while allocating dollars for a platform where concrete action can happen?

Belinda Noble
Founder, Comms Declare

It’s gobsmacking to me that the organisers of COP didn’t take this opportunity to partner with a sustainable brand. The responsibility here rests solely with COP organisers who haven’t vetted their partnerships properly and have therefore become part of the problem of greenwashing. If a polluting company wants to support sustainability events, they should certainly do so, but they shouldn’t then be allowed to use that support as a marketing tool that perpetuates their polluting business model.

This sponsorship is an epic greenwashing exercise for Coca-Cola and a brand disaster for COP, which is struggling to maintain its relevance. The UN needs to reconsider taking corporate sponsorships for climate talks at all. Other sponsors have included Facebook, for example, which allows the spread of climate disinformation with devastating consequences.

Partnering with COP gives problematic companies reputational cover to continue damaging activities. Of course, we need large multi-nationals to reduce emissions and be part of the solution – but until companies’ operations are in line with the need for us to remain around 1.5 degrees warming, they shouldn’t be promoted by the UN.

David Ketchum
Founder and CEO, Current Asia

Coca-Cola is an entirely legal business, selling its product in legally allowed containers. Coke and the other products they make are very popular, and consumers buy them in huge quantities. They have not been boycotted or legislated out of business for their packaging, so clearly the forces of consumer opinion and government regulation don’t feel their environmental track record is so bad that drastic action is required.  In the vast majority of cases, consumers dispose of the empty containers in the proper way that their local authorities provide – for either recycling or to go into landfill, not litter. A lot of this packaging ends up in the environment, and that consequence is a shared responsibility of Coke, the consumer and society.

For every business, and indeed our whole planet, achieving environmental sustainability goals is a process and a journey. It took centuries to get into this mess, and it will take at least decades to get out of it, or to at a minimum address the underlying causes including fossil fuel energy, meat production and more. Coke says it is not doing nothing: they have set a goal to help to collect and recycle a bottle or can for every one sold by 2030, regardless of where it comes from, and they support United Nations efforts to adopt a global circular economy treaty.

On COP27’s side of the equation, they are entirely free to select whomever they like as sponsors, and in the past COP has said yes to Unilever, IrnBru, Sainsbury and other companies that have throw-away packaging and/or use non-renewable energy sources. They were not coerced into making a decision unless perhaps the lure of $ 250 million dollars warped their judgement.

So, got all that. That being said: “What were they both thinking?!” COP27 should only have taken on Coke as a sponsor if the company used the platform to announce a major shift in business practices. And in practical terms, why would Coke paint a target on their backs and march into the green firing range? I’m baffled.

Ria Parikh
Associate director, brand operations, Imergey

It all trickles down to two things; not meeting consumer needs and disconnected brand communication.

The backlash from consumers is a result of years of no transparency, real action and accountability. Brands need to communicate more responsibly and show that they are actively working towards change than presenting propaganda to cover their lobbying ploy. All in all, it was a big branding opportunity loss for Coca-Cola that had the center stage to make a bold commitment to change and action in line.

As for COP27, I am curious about the thoughts behind this collaboration for brand sponsorship apart from the monetary value large corporations like Coca-Cola bring to the table.

While it’s not ideal, in some sense, it does make brands more responsible when they sponsor such events. Hope going forward, Coca-Cola will make strides in rectifying the public uproar caused from this, focusing more into displaying acts of conscious-sustainability practices within their ecosystems.

Marta Sousa Bigio
Senior director, sustainability, Redhill

What worries me the most about this controversy is that it shifts the focus away from the fundamental climate-related topics we should all be discussing. We saw it last year and here we are again. People are already confused about what COP means, its outcomes and how it affects them. If we add a cloud of discredit on top, aren’t we hindering one of the last hopes of rallying the public for climate change efforts and bringing them closer to the climate agendas of their countries? Whilst a conference of this magnitude comes with significant costs, there are many multilateral meetings that don’t require commercial backing. When considering what is at stake, it’s time to consider whether COP should be one of them. 

Amy Williams
Founder and CEO, Good-Loop

It is brilliant that Coca-Cola is at COP27, but they shouldn't be sponsoring it. As one of the top plastic polluters in the world, Coca-Cola absolutely must be engaged in COP27, as well as every other global gathering of experts, nonprofits, governments and organisations working to support the radical change our planet urgently needs.

The impact of the decisions their leaders can make in those rooms is potentially world-changing. By switching to recycled plastic they are creating significant global demand for non-virgin plastic (rPET) - driving down prices and increasing accessibility and scale for brilliant organisations such as The Plastic Bank. If they do achieve their stated goal of becoming 'plastic neutral' by 2030, they will be pulling 100 billion plastic bottles out of our oceans and lands every year - that is nothing to be sniffed at.

However, Coca-Cola has not achieved these goals yet. Until there's a clear, honest solution for the single-use plastic their business, and profit margins rely on, it's potentially dangerous and misleading to use COP27 as a sponsorship opportunity. Sponsoring the event implies a level of action, authority and expertise which has not yet been earned.

Dr. Simon Schillebeeckx
Founder and chief strategy officer, Handprint and Mathias Boissonot

One the one hand, COP is an important discussion forum which requires external sponsorship so it's good that companies are willing to sponsor. On the other hand, the question is whether Coca-Cola could invest that budget in a more meaningful way. 

We believe they could. While Coca-Cola has committed to collecting and recycling a bottle for every bottle they sell by 2030, moving up that timeline should be the priority. Investing in alternatives to throw-away plastic that is suffocating life in the ocean seems more important. A company with such a large plastic footprint should contribute to cleaning the plastic that is already littered around natural ecosystems, especially the oceans because of its adverse effects on biodiversity.

When there is more communication than action, it is fair to define this as greenwashing. We regret that this support to COP27 doesn't come with tangible and verifiable action to help damaged ecosystems regenerate. If for every sponsorship dollar they would finance the removal of 1kg of plastic from the ocean and announce a plan to massively invest in ocean plastic cleanup going forward, at least they would have a consistent message. 

Chris J. Reed
Founder and CEO, Black Marketing 

This is classic greenwashing in action and clearly the event organisers risk reputation damage and credibility damage by associating themselves with companies like Coca-Cola. Even Singapore's CEO for Coca Cola is getting in on the action resharing this post on LinkedIn talking about how they are only "aiming" to recycle a bottle or can for each one sold by only 2030!

Why does it take them so long if they mean it? What have they been doing up to now? Also, they announced that they are only 'working' on ensuring that their bottles have 50% of recycled plastic by 2030. That means 50% aren't. Again, why does it take them so long? They've known about this for decades.

Association is not the same as action. 'Aiming' and 'working on it' sounds like something you say at school when it comes to exams or when a spouse promises to be a better partner, 'I'm working on it!' No concrete goals, no legal repercussions for not hitting wishy washy targets.

June Cheung, 
Head, JAPAC, Scope3

My initial thought when I heard the news that Coca-Cola was sponsoring COP27 was one of surprise. The world’s largest plastic polluter for three years in a row sponsoring an event focus on reducing greenhouse gas emission doesn't seem like a natural fit.

At Scope3, one of our core values is that with great power comes great responsibility. COP27 is an important event to discuss global solutions to climate change. Sponsors of the event, Coca-Cola or any other business that contributes heavily to the detriment of our planet, should be obliged to provide reasons upfront on why they believe this alignment will benefit the agenda of COP27. 

The optimist in me, hopes that Coca-Cola will use this platform to highlight the immediate action they will take to cease production of plastics and end ties with fossil fuel petrochemicals, where increase in plastics demand is the fossil fuel industry’s Plan B. 

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