Coca-Cola Goes Completely Green at Olympics

When the Vancouver Olympic Games kick off on Feb. 12, visitors will find café furniture made from pine-beetle-salvaged wood, drink out of bottles made from 30% plant-based materials, and their beverages will be delivered via hybrid vehicles and electric cart. All are elements of Coca-Cola’s first zero-waste, carbon-neutral sponsorship.

he effort has been years in the making, beginning with a relatively simple recycling effort for the Athens Olympic Games in 2000. Since then the company has layered in additional elements, like environmentally friendly coolers and shirts made out of plastic bottles.

“The world is evolving. The focus of the consumer is also changing,” said Thierry Borra, Coca-Cola’s director-Olympic Games management. “One thing that we know from the research is that sustainability is important to all of our customers and consumers. It has an impact on how consumers are perceiving our brand.”

While corporate sponsors and event producers have been incorporating more eco-friendly elements in the last couple of years, Coca-Cola is one of the first major marketers to embark on a zero-waste, carbon-neutral sponsorship of an event as complex as the Olympic Games.

“It’s aggressive for them to do it today and not set it as some future mission,” said Andrew Winston, a sustainability consultant working on the U.S. bid for the World Cup and author of two books on green business. “The standard for what is expected of a sponsor or partner at a big event is rising pretty fast. This will definitely raise the bar.”

Other corporate sponsors should take note. Mr. Winston believes it won’t be long before conversations between events or organizations and sponsors evolve to include sustainability. “It won’t purely be about who’s going to pay the millions for [the sponsorship], but what is the sustainability package that they bring to the table,” he said.

William Chipps, senior editor of the IEG Sponsorship Report, said that the trend toward more-sustainable sponsorships has been gaining momentum in the last couple of years, though much of that has been “low-hanging fruit,” including recycling and waste-management efforts. “Consumers are looking for these types of programs,” he said. “It’s getting to the point where they’re expecting them.”

It’s not always easy to meet consumer expectations, however.

Coca-Cola dreamed big when it began planning its Vancouver sponsorship in 2006, Mr. Borra said, but some of the things that sounded good in theory proved difficult to execute. For example, all of the uniforms worn by Coca-Cola’s Olympic Torch Relay staff and Olympic Games staff are made completely of recycled bottles. But, in Vancouver, average low temperatures in January and February hover at around 32 degrees, with anywhere from 5 to 6 inches of precipitation. Mr. Borra said it was challenging to find a supplier that had the technology to produce a jacket that could stand up to a Vancouver winter.

Similarly, the team made plans to deliver all beverages to the Olympic Games sites in hybrid heavy-duty vehicles. Those turned out to be hard to come by and had to be brought in specifically for the games. Coca-Cola also had to work with Vancouver city officials to develop a new waste stream for its compostable coffee cups and lids. “Some of it seemed easy on paper,” Mr. Borra said. “But we have to work with suppliers to make sure there is the technology.”

For its part, Mr. Borra said Coca-Cola has been sharing its plans with other top Olympic partners. He is also scheduled to speak at an upcoming SportAccord conference about Coca-Cola’s sustainable sponsorship efforts.

In general, the Olympics have been at the forefront of the environmental movement, said Benjamin Seeley, head of marketing communications for the International Olympic Committee. The Vancouver Organizing Committee was the first to incorporate sustainability into its mission statement and fully embed sustainability into its operations, he added. VANOC also created an award, the “Sustainability Star” to recognize partners for their efforts. Coca-Cola was one of the first corporate sponsors to receive the award.

Sustainability chops
Of course, its program isn’t without risk. Taking such a major step could open Coca-Cola up to increased scrutiny and criticism if it doesn’t reach its goals and, like any company that greenwashes, Coca-Cola could be skewered if it doesn’t deliver. But that seems unlikely, according to Ryan Schuchard, manager-research and innovation at Business for Social Responsibility, a global business network and consultancy focused on sustainability. He said sustainability is an area where Coca-Cola has the chops, both with its messaging and public policy positions.

“Coca-Cola has definitely said some of the most progressive things about policy, and they’ve been creative with messaging,” he said. “Global companies, on sustainability issues, are going to attract a lot of interest and criticism. There’s a small risk but a bigger opportunity comes with that. And Coke does have some credibility on these issues.”

Coke’s Mr. Borra said the company is confident it can reach its goals, but if it doesn’t, it will try to understand why and improve. Hence the outside auditor to monitor its efforts in Vancouver: “We believe that all of our stakeholders, including consumers and NGO partners, will understand that progress on this front will not always be a straight-line improvement, especially given that often we are pioneering new process or technologies,” he said.

Coca-Cola started laying out its plans for the sponsorship in October 2006. The final plan was created in consultation with the World Wildlife Fund-Canada and the David Suzuki Foundation, a Canadian environmental organization. An outside agency was also brought in to determine the company’s carbon footprint, so that carbon offsets could be purchased. And an outside auditor will evaluate the sponsorship following the games.

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