Coca-Cola, Ocado Leaders Discuss Divergent Business Roles

GreenBiz.com, 10 September 2008 - Speaking at a Tokyo seminar, Coca-Cola Chairman Neville Isdell said consumers are looking to companies, not government, to solve issues like pollution, climate change and water and food shortages. Supporting sustainability is now crucial for business profitability, Isdell said, according to The Japan Times.

Jason Gissing, co-founder and CFO of online supermarket Ocado , which delivers groceries to customers' homes, gave a different view to The Times Online, saying that government needs to create an environmental framework for businesses to work within, outlining the important issues businesses should focus on.

In their discussions, though, both business leaders acknowledged the changing business climate that is making sustainability a core issue in almost all companies.

Isdell argued that businesses need to be worried about the sustainability of the communities in which they are operating, and to stay profitable they need to take up and expand sustainability efforts. However, he said, businesses need to choose strategic, not personal or pet project, issues and provide continual support.

"If we're only doing them because they are nice, they should be cut in the first place," he said, pointing out that shareholders and boards will give little support to sustainability efforts that are irrelevant to a company's operations. As an example, Coca-Cola, which consumes large amounts of water in making its products, is working to provide access to public drinking water in areas it operates by reducing its own water use, recycling water used in manufacturing and harvesting rainwater.

Gissing, though, said the impetus should be on government to tackle the large social responsibility and regulation issues, giving businesses a jumping off point for what issues to focus on. Although he said the ongoing debates on plastic bags use are good because they bring up the issue of individual impact, he said discussions on things like plastic bags can detract from debates on other issues like electricity and nuclear energy.

"There's a very strong case that we should stop worrying about plastic bags and we should start focusing on where our electricity generation comes from in this country," he said. "And we should have a nuclear debate rather than worrying about whether a retailer is charging 5 pence or 10 pence for a plastic bag."

But he and Isdell agreed again when it comes to reasons for sustainability initiatives. "Clearly for economic policy, business policy and environmental policy to be aligned in any way, there has to be an opportunity for businesses to profit from doing stuff that's greener, that's more responsible, and to be able to pass on those benefits to consumers," Gissing said.

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