Greenwashing at its finest

Oh, Coke. You’re trying so hard.

This billboard is Coke’s attempt to do the right thing and remove some pollution from the air. It’s made of plants, you see, so it will absorb carbon dioxide and other harmful things, giving the citizens of the Philippines cleaner air to breathe.

Here’s the thing, Coke. You don’t save the planet by putting up billboards. On the original GOOD post where I saw this, an astute commenter did some math based on data from Coke’s own website. People buy 1.6 billion bottles and cans of Coke per day. According to this commenter, each bottle has a production footprint of 0.5 lbs CO2, which doesn’t count distribution. Meanwhile, this billboard can absorb 46,800 pounds of carbon dioxide per year, which is less than one day’s worth of Coke’s carbon footprint from production alone. To offset their production footprint, they would need 5.8 million billboards.

I haven’t checked this guy’s math, and I’m not going to because it doesn’t matter. The numbers on the billboard’s own absorption are from Coke, and even if my anonymous commenter is completely overstating the carbon footprint of making a Coke bottle, the underlying point is still completely valid. Sexy green billboards aren’t going to save the world. They’re not going to make a dent. They’re absolutely useless when it comes to actually changing anything.

Which would all be fine, except for the fact that Coke is using this to play up their green street cred. So in case anyone thinks for a moment that Coca-Cola is a company which cares about people or the planet, I’d like to set the record straight. Coke has been repeatedly accused of taking over water supplies in developing countries, particularly India, and pumping them dry, leaving local people with no access to water. In 2001, Coke’s bottler in Colombia was accused of hiring paramilitary death squads to intimidate, torture and kill union leaders and organizers at their plant (these accusations were verified by an independent, US-based research team). Similar accusations have surfaced more recently in Guatemala.

Even without the water rights and death squads, there’s a more mundane problem with Coke. Their product is sold in disposable containers, which are sometimes re-used (glass bottles in many developing countries) or recycled (in developed countries), but often thrown away. Growing the corn needed to make Coke is incredibly environmentally destructive and pesticide-intensive. The life cycle of a Coke beverage, from cradle to grave, releases tons of carbon dioxide and other pollutants, creates a large amount of waste and contributes seriously to poor health, diabetes and obesity. As far as I can tell, the only benefit of the entire company appears to be that it provides jobs to people (no word on how well those jobs pay) and a lot of money to a very select few.

Coke is not a green company, and it never has been. There is no amount of “offsetting” Coke can do that will make up for the environmental damage it’s caused. If Coke is truly concerned about the health of our planet, the best thing they could do would be to go out of business.

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