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Coke and dagger — Coca-Cola named sponsor for COP27

- Petronell Kruger and Sameera Mahomedy

The beverage company has a questionable record not only when it comes to planetary health — its record on human health is abysmal.

A farce is a form of comedy that uses a patently ridiculous situation to entertain an audience. This one, regrettably, is not intentionally farcical: COP27 — arguably the most important climate conference on the international calendar — is being sponsored by Coca-Cola, the world’s foremost producer of plastic waste. Instead of being entertained, the world seems alarmed. Rightly so.

The Coca-Cola Company

From 6 to 18 November, world leaders will head to Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt to attend COP27, the 27th Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The UNFCCC is an important international convention that launched the issue of climate change on the global agenda and enabled ground-breaking agreements like the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement to reduce and limit greenhouse-gas emissions.

The World Health Organization Council on the Economics of Health for All issued a statement on October 13 asserting that COP27 is our last chance to achieve a healthy future for humanity, and a key theme of the conference thus focuses on the urgency of delivering for people and the planet. 

World leaders attending previous COP meetings have also noted that planetary health and human health are indivisible. The Paris Agreement has been called the most important public health agreement of the century, given the links between planetary and human health. The aggravating contribution of climate change to communicable and non-communicable diseases was noted in a special report emanating from COP24, held in Poland in 2018. The World Health Organization collaborates with the UNFCCC in monitoring the cross-over between policies impacting health and climate.

Mass polluter, water user and contributor to human ill health

Coca-Cola has been the world’s top plastic producer for four years running (sharing this dubious honour with PepsiCo). Coca-Cola produces more than 120 billion single-use plastic bottles every year and in 2019, it admitted to using 3 million tonnes of plastic packaging in a year. Coca-Cola is defending the sponsorship by claiming it is working to reduce its environmental impact — a claim that holds no water considering that its year-on-year carbon emissions actually increased from 2020 to 2021.

Speaking of things that hold water, Coca-Cola uses more than 300 billion litres of water annually on its products, with 35 litres of water needed to make every half-litre of Coke. Water is an ingredient in Coca-Cola products, and is used at many points in the beverage supply chain. The agricultural-ingredient supply chain accounts for 80% of the company’s water use, which would include, for example, the water needed to grow sugarcane and sugar beet. To ensure it can access this massive quantity of water, Coca-Cola taps into local water sources. For example, in India Coca-Cola operated 58 water-intensive bottling plants, while at one time,  thirsty local residents were forced to rely on trucked-in water supply from the government. One local source said that in India, “[d]rinking Coke is like drinking farmer’s blood”. At the same time, a local NGO reported that Coca-Cola was offloading cadmium-laden waste in the southern state of Kerala and producing beverages tested in Delhi that contained high levels of four different pesticides

Coca-Cola also pledged to be water neutral — a term coined locally at the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg. However, in 2015, Coca-Cola only managed to offset a mere 2 billion litres — less than 1% of its total water footprint. Coincidentally, 2 billion is the same number of human beings that live in water-stressed countries, which are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of water-intense industries.

Coca-Cola has a questionable record not only when it comes to planetary health — its record on human health is abysmal. Research has shown that the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages is a significant contributor to overweight and obesity, which in turn leads to non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as cancer, type-2 diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. NCDs are the leading cause of death in South Africa (51%), and worldwide (74%). To quote Katie Dain, CEO of the NCD Alliance, in Health Policy Watch, in response to the announcement of the COP27 sponsorship she said, “Coca-Cola is already a de facto sponsor of the global obesity epidemic”. 

We are not surprised. 

Coca-Cola’s sponsorship of COP27 is a form of greenwashing (a deceptive form of advertising where false or exaggerated claims are made in relation to the positive impact that a company, brand or product is making towards the environment) that has already been condemned for this in at least English-language media. 

It is not the first time they have done this. A previous sponsorship that exemplified a similar level of green-washing, given Coke’s exorbitant water usage to make their products, was seen in Coca-Cola’s 2006 sponsorship of the World Water Forum in Mexico. This sponsorship aged poorly given that several cities in Mexico have now reached their day zero (which South Africans recently learned meant that the water supply has run out completely) while Coca-Cola manages to continue production using private wells.

Various other companies’ marketing campaigns have used this type of strategy and others such as rainbow-washing (co-opting LGBTQI+ friendly dialogues) and blue-washing (using social-good narratives in their marketing). 

What is needed

There is a bigger discussion to be had by policymakers as well as the broader population on the space we allow these corporate behemoths to occupy, and how we more forcefully call out behaviour that is killing us and our planet. 

While greenwashing seems to be a common enough trend to make it unsurprising, we still need to fight against this type of unethical corporate behaviour, which undermines efforts such as COP27 that have the potential to save our planet and our health. 

South Africa’s Minister of the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and Environment (DFFE), Barbara Creecy, has been a major voice at previous COP conferences and one assumes she will lead the South African delegation to Egypt this year. It is imperative that Minister Creecy calls out this blatantly unethical conduct by Coca-Cola at an international level, especially given South Africa’s own status as a water-scarce country and the continuous fight against plastic pollution, where we see 14 million tonnes of plastic ending up in the marine ecosystem annually. This is and should be a global concern for everyone living on this planet. If action is not taken, the consequences will be dire. DM/MC

Petronell Kruger is a public health lawyer at the SAMRC/Wits Centre for Health Economics and Decision Science. She is interested in all aspects of health promotion.

Dr Sameera Mahomedy is a researcher in law and policy at the SAMRC/Wits Centre for Health Economics and Decision Science. Her areas of interest include health promotion and constitutional law.

This article was first published in the Daily Maverick.