10 Minutes with Bea Perez, Coca-Cola
This column is about the "how" of sustainability business, featuring one significant change and how a leader (and team) made it happen. This time, it’s Bea Perez, SVP and chief communications, public affairs, sustainability and marketing assets officer, the Coca-Cola Company. We chatted about the World Without Waste, a bold, industry-first goal to collect and recycle the equivalent of every bottle or can it sells globally by 2030.
Bob Langert: Why do you want to focus our conversation on World Without Waste?
Bea Perez: This is going to be a game-changer and it's very current in terms of what the world thinks right now. There is a growing focus on how we manage waste, especially plastics, and we know that our company can play an important role in helping tackle these issues.
Langert: What is uniquely important about the collection part of recycling?
Perez: We set that goal because we know that the world has a packaging pollution problem. And it's something very visible in our ocean. We’re putting a strong focus on the collection part because we learned it’s key to helping solve this problem. We aren’t new to the recycling space — our company portfolio has been 87 percent recyclable for years. But we learned that if there’s no infrastructure in place to collect those packages and give them a second life, it doesn’t matter if the packages are recyclable. The focus on collection is a focus on helping create effective systems around the world.
In one hour, an estimated 900 metric tons of plastic waste enter our oceans. That’s the mass of nearly 600 mid-size sedans. And that’s just unacceptable. We want to do more to help avoid our packaging from getting into streams and the ocean. In some communities around the world, recycling is easy and embedded into everyday life. In others, it’s more complicated and may require having to travel some distance to find a recycling bin or facility. Because our company is in so many communities around the world, we can share our best practices with communities, governments, the private sector and NGOs to help develop more effective and locally adaptable systems.
Langert: World Without Waste is a big, audacious thing. How did you overcome internal fears?
Perez: As with any system-changing initiative, there were people who had concerns. We heard, "Well, there's no infrastructure in my local community so even if we set this goal, how are we going to get this done? And it's going to cost us billions of dollars to set this up. And we're the only ones doing it."
Part of it was showing that we've done it in other places already and, even if they weren't perfect, what could we learn from that and how could we make it better? And then, identifying areas where it was working really well and putting boots on the ground to see the work in action.
We know that many countries already have deposit schemes and taxes. For example, there are 30 countries today that regulate the use of plastic bags.
There are two ways of looking at it: we wanted to do the thing that is right for the environment and for our business, and we also know the reality is that we can make changes now, which we think is a smart thing to do — and the right thing to do — whether there is a regulatory initiative or not. So, we approached the business and talked about it this way.
We also used our work on water leadership as a benchmark. We set out to replenish 100 percent of our water that we use in our finished beverages, and there were people who were skeptical of this. We achieved that goal five years ahead of schedule in 2015.
Langert: What’s changed to allow for the acceleration of real progress?
Perez: When I came in to head sustainability in 2011, we had sustainability goals and commitments, but our progress against these was a little unclear. We developed ways to measure and track our goals to really be able to see where we’re making a difference. Our CEO at the time, Muhtar Kent, would ask, "How are the business units tracking against the scorecards?" And I would have to put the scorecard up there. No one wants to be in the red in front of the CEO.
What I found very quickly is the work accelerated. The funding started to become available, the business units got more involved. What was really interesting is scorecards still exist today. It's part of the routine.
Langert: Do you have a scorecard for World Without Waste?
Perez: Yes. At the time it was developed, our business was in transition and we had a new CEO. People asked, "Will the new CEO [James Quincey, named CEO in May 2017] still care about this? Will there still be a scorecard?" James convened the business unit presidents and at one of the executive leadership meetings, he had me present where we were headed on World Without Waste. The content was added to the internal company scorecard that doesn’t just go to him, but he began sending it to the board of directors as well.
This unlocked a higher purpose for the business unit president to understand, No. 1, sustainability was not going away. No. 2, it's core to the business.
James took the World Without Waste scorecard and he actually embedded it into the scorecard for the business side, as well. Before, they were separate: we had the sustainability scorecard and then we had the volume profit/ROI scorecard. James made it all one scorecard. So now, when they click on their business ventures, they see sustainability at the same exact time.
The really important part of the World Without Waste’s introduction was treating it as if it were a new product launch. It wasn't treated as, "Here's an optional thing on the side." Business units are required to do this. So, how are you going to do it? Coke Zero Sugar wasn't optional. Why should World Without Waste be?
Langert: What’s a key leadership lesson have you learned to pass on to others?
Perez: I'd say that I had to step outside of my subject matter expertise. I had to become more of a servant leader than I had been before and step into their business perspective and look at it from their side. Game-changing decisions come from all levels of leadership, not just the highest. Many of our most critical ideas come from the innovative middle that have direct access to what’s important for their local communities and associates.