Brand Watch: Things go badly with Coke, as activists attack COP27 sponsor over plastics waste

Coca-Cola bottles are pictured in Lagos, Nigeria November 5, 2019. REUTERS/Temilade Adelaja

November 1 - The United Nations’ annual 12-day climate summit, soon to kick off in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheik, is pitched as an opportunity for heads of state to take stock of climate progress and (hopefully) accelerate action.

But these meetings of the Conference of the Parties, or COPs, are also increasingly a gathering point for many of the world’s largest corporations, raising concerns about corporate influence on political decision-making.

Even before delegates arrive for this latest COP (number 27), a spat has kicked off around Coca-Cola’s sponsorship of the event. Canadian writer and activist Naomi Klein tweeted sarcastically that it was “Super fun to have a climate summit in a police state sponsored by Coca-Cola”, while the environmental campaign group Greenpeace said it was baffling for COP27 to choose the “world’s biggest plastic polluter” as a sponsor, given that “99% of plastics are made from fossil fuels”.

An online petition calling for the U.N. to drop the U.S. beverage brand has so far gathered more than 230,000 signatures.

This week’s progress report showing how corporate signatories to the Ellen Macarthur Foundation's' Global Commitment to end plastic pollution are faring against their 2025 targets will provide ammunition to critics, showing Coca-Cola’s use of virgin plastic, by volume, has increased by 3% in the past two years.

By way of comparison, among the biggest 10 fast-moving consumer goods companies by revenue, PepsiCo (5%) and Mars (11%) have also increased their use of virgin plastics, while Nestle (-8%), Unilever (-18%) and L’Oreal (-5%) have reduced their virgin plastic use. There’s no data for JBS and Tyson Foods, which aren’t signatories to the Global Commitment.

Over recent years, pressure has been building from consumer groups and environmental campaigners for a global treaty to eliminate plastic waste and pollution.

A plastic bottle washed up by the sea is seen at the Ao Phrao Beach, on the island of Ko Samet, Thailand June 10, 2018. REUTERS/Jorge Silva

That call passed an important milestone in March, when delegates at the United Nations Environment Assembly adopted a resolution calling for tighter rules on plastic waste.

According to the U.N Environment Programme (UNEP) 7 billion of the 9.2 billion tons of plastic produced from 1950-2017 ended up in landfills or was dumped.

With plastic production set to double between now and 2040 (from its current level of 400 million tons per year), the problem is only set to grow.

The question is, what should a global treaty include and how should it be framed? The U.N.’s resolution merely kickstarts a negotiating process, which is scheduled to conclude in 2024.

The executive director of the UNEP, Inger Andersen, has already endorsed her preference for the treaty to have a wide scope, stating on record that it will “envision actions from source to sea”.

Despite the fact that legislation could see brands having to radically up-end their manufacturing and packaging processes, the idea for a treaty has garnered strong support from across industry.

Indeed, during the recent Climate Action Week in New York, a group of 21 financial institutions, 14 plastic producers and recyclers, and 25 retailers and brands featured in an 85-strong business coalition that came out in favour of the proposed treaty.

Among the brands participating in the coalition, which will be coordinated by the charities WWF and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, are high-profile names such as Unilever, IKEA, Walmart, Aldi, Nestle, Mars, PepsiCo, Danone and COP27’s lead sponsor, Coca-Cola.

In its shared vision statement, the coalition calls for clarity around the timeline for phasing-out “problematic plastics”, and agreement on methods for collecting and treating plastic waste.

It also sets out its hopes for robust implementation mechanisms. These include the creation of a scientific body to understand the full-life impact of plastics and funding for the development and implementation of national plastics legislation.

Also on the list is a desire to see harmonised disclosure obligation and reporting standards, together with common rules on data and information-sharing across the plastics value chain.

The last two suggestions have the strong support of the transparency specialist CDP, which next year will be piloting an expansion of its annual questionnaire to corporations to include metrics on plastic use and related risks.

“Given the scale and impact of the plastic pollution crisis, it’s surprising and disappointing that we still lack clear, comprehensive, comparable data on the production, use and disposal of plastics across the global economy,” says Cate Lamb, CDP’s global director for water security. Read more

Egyptian volunteers arrange sacks with plastic wastes to build a Plastic Pyramid for The VeryNile NGO as part of a project to erect the largest plastic pyramid in the world, weighing 7,500 kg and made of plastic bottles collected by fishermen and volunteers from the Nile River, in Giza, Egypt, September 17, 2022. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

CDP’s questionnaire is completed by nearly 19,000 companies, which collectively represent around half of global market capitalization. Lamb argues that full transparency is “essential” to harnessing investors’ power to drive change.

Assisting CDP’s pilot, which will initially focus on 7,000 companies in high-impact sectors such as food retailing, fossil fuel production and fashion, is the non-profit Minderoo Foundation.

In its recent report, The Price of Plastic Pollution, Minderoo flagged a “leadership opportunity” for corporations to join with regulators and others to both disclose the size of the plastic waste problem to date and to set aside resources to address it going forward.

The report’s co-author, Dominic Charles, says not only do regulatory bodies have the power to mandate corporate plastic footprint reporting at a national and regional level, but moves are already afoot.

He points to the European Union’s current work around corporate sustainability reporting norms. “Draft versions of these standards cover reporting on plastic use, the share of recycled materials used, micro-plastic releases and substances of concern.”

Minderoo’s report also warns of plastic litigation. This is likely to take different forms in different jurisdictions, from damages claims in the U.S. to public interest litigation in Europe. In the UK and Australia, Minderoo suggests, companies could be subject to both.

Companies with high exposure to plastics should be on “high alert”, warns Rosa Pritchard, a plastics lawyer at the environmental law charity ClientEarth. She cites the recent decision by a Louisiana court to deny air permits to Formosa Plastics, stalling the company’s plans for a $9 billion plastic and petrochemical facility.

“Plastic-related lawsuits are ... also brought by a wide pool of different claimants, reflecting just how many groups are impacted by the plastics crisis,” she adds.

After COP27 draws to a close, delegates will gather on 28 November in Punta del Este, Uruguay, for the first meeting of the Intergovernmental Negotiation Committee to commence discussions about the proposed treaty. Under U.N. rules, drafts of the text are open to “consultation with stakeholders”, a group that consists both of vulnerable communities and corporate entities, including plastic and packaging producers.

Opinions expressed are those of the author. They do not reflect the views of Reuters News, which, under the Trust Principles, is committed to integrity, independence, and freedom from bias. Sustainable Business Review, a part of Reuters Professional, is owned by Thomson Reuters and operates independently of Reuters News.

Oliver Balch is an independent journalist and writer, specialising on business’s role in society. He has been a regular contributor to The Ethical Corporation since 2004. He also writes for a range of UK and international media. Oliver holds a PhD in Anthropology / Latin American Studies from Cambridge University.