Coca Cola’s General Manager, Jonathan Woods, on plastic, Brexit and sugar

November 2, 2019

A global audit named Coca-Cola the top plastic polluter in the world on the day I interviewed Jonathan Woods, the company’s general manager in the UK and Ireland. Of a total 476,423 pieces of plastic collected worldwide over the last year, Coke accounted for 11,732. I asked Woods what the findings said about the success of Coke’s efforts to lower its plastic footprint. Ever the marketer, he responded “the first thing it says is that Coke’s an incredibly recognizable brand.”

 

He wasn’t all jokes, though. Gesturing to the 500ml bottle of Coke Zero he was drinking, he explained that it’s the most frequently bought size, and it contains 19.9 grams of plastic. Five years ago, it contained 28 grams, and by the end of next year half of the bottle will be recyclable. He pre-emptively answered the obvious question – it’s not 100% renewable because there simply isn’t enough recyclable material in the UK to sustain that kind of production. 

 

“Plastic’s got a terrible reputation because we see it floating around in the ocean... and that’s not what I want to see.” But the real problem isn’t the plastic, though, said Woods: “actually the issue with plastic... is the fact that we use it once and throw it away.” In the UK, 74% of plastic in Coke bottles is returned. Though that’s higher than the US and most of Europe, it’s nowhere near the levels of return in Norway, for instance, where 98% of plastic is returned and reused. Three years ago, Coke was the first company to call for a deposit scheme, which they are working to implement in Scotland by 2021, with plans to expand to the rest of the UK.

 

Coca-Cola’s time in the spotlight hasn’t been limited to environment issues. I asked Woods about what Coke is doing to mitigate the sugar content of its drinks, and his view on the soft drinks tax which came into effect last year. Woods “argued quite passionately against” the soft drinks tax. The year before its introduction, the amount of sugar in British soft drinks declined by 17%, and they have continued to fall. 

 

Though reports seem to indicate that the tax has been effective, with a 28.8% reduction of sugar per 100ml and a shift to zero-sugar products, consumers are also voluntarily seeking out lower sugar alternatives in non-taxed sectors too, meaning the tax may be unnecessary. Woods claimed the tax unfairly targets a single sector and ignores other sugary products – though an expansion of the tax has been proposed.

 

I asked Woods about what exactly the role of Coke’s in UK General Manager entails. For one thing, he’s deeply involved in marketing. Coke has already started planning its Christmas campaign, which is a big time of year for the company – as Woods was all too happy to point out, “Santa’s in a red uniform because that’s what Coke thought was a good idea.” He also reviews the performance of new Coca-Cola Company products, like the Costa Coffee Ready-to-Drink cans. 

 

The morning before our interview he met with the Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) in his capacity as chair of the Brexit Committee for the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) to glean insight into the latest news on Brexit, which is “as of today, nobody’s quite sure.” 

 

As for the company’s official stance on Brexit – “pretty much every food and company has the same opinion, which is it’s pretty unhelpful... in the short term.” Coke is a social brand, for Woods, and “Brexit feels a little discordant with that.” In the long-term, though, Woods is certain that Coca-Cola will adapt to the changes.

 

Whether he’s right about that, and about Coca-Cola’s health and environmental initiatives, only time will tell. While it’s clear that the company is taking steps towards a more sustainable model, there is still a long way to go, as reports like the one mentioned above continue to demonstrate.

 

 

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