Chemistry, Materials & Packaging
Coca-Cola's PlantBottle Rollout Signals Brands Taking Sustainability in China Seriously

When Coca-Cola first rolled out its PlantBottle in fall 2009 in Copenhagen, the beverage giant sent a signal to the entire food and beverage industry that it had had to take sustainable packaging more seriously. Additional companies, including Heinz, later rolled out plastic bottles using the same technology. According to Coca-Cola, the move to the 30 percent plant-based bottle has two critical benefits: reducing the company's dependence on petroleum as a feedstock for recycling, and maintaining its bottles’ performance and recyclability.

Now the plant bottle’s reach is expanding further into emerging markets. Coca-Cola has now introduced the PlantBottle in China with the ambition to use them for all of its plastic bottling needs by 2020. Coke, Sprite and Fanta are amongst the brands Chinese consumers can purchase in the “greener” plastic bottles. As is the case in the other dozen markets in which Coca-Cola sells these bottles, the PlantBottle can be recycled with conventional PET. The company touts the PlantBottle as yet another example of the company’s innovation, dating back to its introduction of PET in the last 1970s and bottles made from recycled PET in 1991. But Coca-Cola is also breaking new ground with ramping up both its sustainability and social responsiblity efforts in China, the world’s second largest economy.

Coca-Cola realizes it must do more than simply expand recycling efforts in China. Much of the country already suffers from water stress and the growing popularity of soft drinks and bottled water, due to Chinese consumers’ growing affluence, will only add to China’s increasing water scarcity. To that end, Coca-Cola has partnered with the Chinese government and the United Nations to work with farmers in drought-stricken areas on a wide array of issues from more modern irrigation methods to water recycling.

Brands touting themselves as sustainability-driven have a huge opportunity in China’s $7.3 trillion economy. The foundation for greener consumption in China already exists, with the actions of non-profits such as JUCCCE that work to provide consumers with alternatives to the ravenous consumption habits in the West. For beverage companies including Coca-Cola, along with other food & beverage and consumer packaged goods (CPG) firms, the opportunities to take the lead on recycling and sustainability offer a chance to increase brand awareness and reputation in one of the world’s most dynamic economies.

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Coca-Cola’s competitors are not far behind with their corporate social responsibility programs. PepsiCo, for example, touts its work on green building initiatives. The company’s commitment to LEED construction standards in China has led to huge reductions in both energy and water consumption. And conscious of the fact that China is evolving from a mostly export-driven economy to one that will consume much of what is made within the country, PepsiCo has taken steps to shore up its supply chain. With over $30 million invested in sustainable farming initiatives, the company’s agricultural experts have taught more innovative water conservation and modern agricultural methods to farmers, which in turn helps it secure more stable crops for the snacks side of its business.

Wahaha, China’s largest beverage company by far with over $11 billion in revenues, has launched its own nascent corporate social responsibility and sustainability efforts. With its 60,000 employees spread across 60 manufacturing sites and 150 subsidiaries, Wahaha in recent years has focused more on social sustainability than environmental issues. The company claims it has had a role in helping citizens affected by the Three Gorges Dam project, provided a safe and progressive environment in which to work and has been proactive on food safety issues — the source of much controversy throughout China.

The projects Coco-Cola, PepsiCo and Wahaha have launched send important signals to other companies investing or expanding business in China: brands that show they are taking action on environment and social issues have opportunities to entrench themselves in consumers’ trust and pocketbooks. As a recent study by the public relations firm Edelman demonstrates, China is one market where the emerging middle class is ready to show it can make a difference through choices made at the check out counter. In fact, more than any other emerging economy, the evidence suggests as much as 80 percent of Chinese consumers are even willing to pay a premium to companies who take the lead on sustainability and social responsibility.

So if Coca-Cola succeeds in scaling its PlantBottle throughout China, look for similar innovations to unfold in the country, where new innovations can make wide impacts. From Wrigley turning plastic jars into furniture to HBSC offering free personal finance education programs, brands representing all industries have opportunities to boost sustainable consumption and more responsible business practices throughout China. If they all can proliferate at the rate Coca-Cola promises the PlantBottle will scale, the nexus of brands and sustainability in China will teach the rest of the world plenty of constructive lessons.

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