We all know that business today should be sustainable; it’s just not always clear what that actually means. Does it mean a company should be carbon neutral, look after its workers, manage its environmental impact, act ethically, have a good corporate social responsibility (CSR) programme or all of the above?

I had a chance recently to meet Liz Lowe, Corporate Responsibility & Sustainability Manager at Coca-Cola Great Britain, who understands the "sustainability definition challenge" better than anyone. She’s been at the heart of Coke UK’s sustainability journey for many years, starting in brand public relations and moving to what Coke then called a Citizenship role in 2007.

Coca-Cola has a long history of supporting grassroots, community sport and physical activity, as well as investing in local communities. Sport, and the importance of building community, has been at the heart of Coke’s brand DNA for decades, and their global marketing partnerships span from sponsoring the Olympics since 1928 to the FIFA World Cup since the 1970s. So it seemed a natural extension for the company to look at giving back to sport at a local level. 

Lowe says, “Coca-Cola GB had been doing this sort of thing for a long time but we never really made a big point of promoting it. A lot of the things we did would fall under the CSR banner today, although there wasn’t as clearly a defined strategy as now back then. We’ve got a long history of partnership with sports and working with charities to give back, especially working locally and with young people.” Supporting programmes to promote active lifestyles and well-being remain at the heart of the company’s plans but as we talk it becomes clear that the approach has evolved considerably. 

Talking to Lowe it’s obvious that she’s a firm believer that sport is an exceptional vehicle to bring people together of all backgrounds, ages and persuasions. And what sport does best is to break down barriers between people and build self-esteem, friendships and camaraderie that can be truly life-changing. This is especially true when thinking about people from more isolated or disadvantaged communities that charity partners such as Special Olympics GB or StreetGames work with.

Coca-Cola was one of the founding partners of the Special Olympics in 1978 and, in the UK, support for sport included such football programmes as the Coca-Cola Cup and Coca-Cola 7’s (which ran for ten years in Scotland) as well as supporting gymnastics and swimming programmes. Lowe says central to the company’s initiatives has been encouraging employees to get involved, whether in volunteering or fundraising. As Lowe points out, Coca-Cola has been giving back to the community for years, behind the scenes, as it understood the importance of a company being part of the society it serves.

Athletes from Special Olympics Great Britain enjoying a special reception at the U.S. Embassy in London, before flying out to Los Angeles for 2015 Special Olympics World Summer Games.

Over the years, as the notion of ‘sustainability’ has developed, along with the idea that a company has a wider role to play within the society in which it operates, the early day’s concept of ‘good citizenship’ has expanded.  It’s not simply about sport and local activity any more, Lowe explains, but the role that a company has to play in society and industry overall and about bringing people together to effect positive change.

When Lowe first moved into her role, she was understandably focused on sport and managing relationships with local charities and rights owners. Lowe says, “It was all about our business being a good corporate citizen, being an excellent partner for our suppliers and our customers.” When she took the role the job was fairly undefined, but her excitement was clear as she said, “one of the best things about working for Coke in this role is that while I’ve had objectives I’ve also been able to carve out a role and define it over the years.” 

One of the areas that increased in visibility in the last decade was growing understanding of the importance of the role of packaging, and how waste and materials are managed. A decade ago though, Lowe tells me, awareness was fledgling for consumers and mixed up with pretty demotivating messages about climate change. That was something that the team at Coca-Cola GB felt that they could help address.

Coca-Cola’s overall packaging strategy at the time was based on reducing waste and use of virgin materials, while also recognising the importance of getting back the used packaging materials from the waste stream. While Coca-Cola Enterprises (CCE), the manufacturing arm of Coke, had been diligently working on this in the background, there was no consumer facing edge. So Coca-Cola GB started developing and refining consumer communications and programmes to encourage more recycling.

What Coca-Cola GB did was raise the level of problem recognition by disruptive communications. It commissioned artists to create sculptures out of recycled drinks cans, showcasing the possibility of a second life for cans and the value of their material. Working with WRAP to support its Recycling Week, Coca-Cola GB wanted to make an external attempt to change people’s perception of ‘waste’. Possibly its most innovative programme around this time was ‘Talent from Trash’.

This way of changing people’s behaviour was inventive. At the time of Coca-Cola’s title sponsorship of The Football League, this partnership with local authorities and Football League clubs offered football fans and their families rewards (such as money for their football club’s youth programme) for increasing levels of local recycling. With 13 clubs involved, fans pledged to recycle more and Coca-Cola worked with local authorities to measure the uplift in recycling in those regions – after three months the programme saw an average uplift of 5 per cent across the board.

What made the success of the programme so exciting was that, Lowe says, “it heralded a shift from operating quietly in the background to taking a consumer facing stance on sustainability.” It gave licence to members of the team to think creatively about how to communicate the company’s goals. That then resulted in a number of different partnerships and programmes being established. Perhaps one of the most inspiring is the development of Coke’s focus on water.

One of the recycling lorries in Accrington, Lancashire, promoting Coca-Cola’s ‘Talent From Trash’ programme in 2007.

Water is a critical element for the company’s operations but one that most consumers don’t think much about. It’s the heart of all its products, and the growth of other materials, like sugar, can have a major impact on water quality.  Coca-Cola has globally recognised that it needs to act on managing its water supply, especially if it’s going to be a good corporate citizen. In fact, the company recently announced that globally it’s on track to meet its 2020 water replenishment target this year. In 2014 it replenished 94 per cent of the water it used in making its products.

Few people think of the UK as water stressed, but it is, especially in the South East. In the UK, Coca-Cola has a couple of its factories in South East England, and its suppliers grow sugar beets in East Anglia for some of its drinks. Sugar beet farming, while much less water intensive than sugar cane, does mean the use of fertilisers and if careful measures are not taken, can result in river pollution from run-offs from the fields. When Lowe talked me through some of Coca-Cola’s work in the UK, however, what struck me was how much wider the impact of its work is than simply the replenishment of its surrounding environment.

The Coca-Cola Company formed a global partnership with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in 2007, focused on water replenishment in seven major water basins (including the Danube, Yangtze, Amazon and Mekong Deltas). While there were no major rivers in the UK earmarked initially for conservation in the global partnership programme, WWF in the UK came to Coca-Cola GB to convince the team that this country is also home to some unique and precious water habitats, namely chalkstream rivers. Out of 212 chalkstreams worldwide, 200 of them are in the UK.  Three quarters of them are in poor ecological health, with such poor water quality and quantity that habitats and sustainable use of the rivers are threatened.

The WWF-UK and Coca-Cola Great Britain team at the River Nar in East Anglia.

After much discussion, a three year partnership was agreed in 2012 between Coca-Cola and WWF looking to restore local chalkstreams and replenish water supplies in the River Nar in East Anglia – sugar beet territory – and the River Nar in Sidcup, Kent. Part of the river ran in a gully behind one of Coke’s factories and had been urbanised and stripped of natural habitats for wildlife.

At both locations and working with local rivers trusts, the partnership brought together over 2000 local volunteers and Coca-Cola employees in a varied programme to rebuild the habitats, shift sands and gravels, lay plants, restore sections of flood plain and transform stretches of the river. The programme proved such a success that Coca-Cola GB now has the green light for an extension of the partnership for another three years, to improve sustainable agriculture and river replenishment across an even wider catchment in East Anglia.

At its heart, what’s clear from listening to Lowe is that the programme remained true to the company’s core values: bringing communities together to do good things. She says, “it’s about finding practical and scalable solutions that can really make a difference, as local actions can move back up the chain.” The success of the chalkstream partnership with WWF UK has been such that it opened doors for a similar partnership to start in France, and there is now a water conservation programme running in the Camargue. 

ParkLives instructors from activeNewham delivering a rounders session in London.

Sport remains a central part of the UK approach of course – another practical programme includes ParkLives, Coca-Cola GB’s initiative to encourage Brits back into their parks and open spaces by running free community activities from informal, fun sports and games to conservation activities in partnership with local authorities

The terminology may have changed from brand PR, to Citizenship, to Sustainability but the priorities for Coca-Cola remain the same: the health & wellbeing of consumers and communities, reducing energy use, water protection, sustainable packaging and fulfilled, successful employees. People like Liz Lowe, who have been part of the journey, play a vital role in strengthening relationships and managing partnerships which enable communities to be more sustainable. As brand owners, Coca-Cola GB can help influence the way that consumers see the world and, when that’s done right, can help us move together towards a more sustainable future. 

Download Coca-Cola GB's Sustainability Report 2014/15