Coca-Cola Sued for False Advertising Over Sustainability Claims

The company is the number one plastic waste generator in the world, yet markets itself as green, suit alleges.

Coca-Cola paints a sunny picture of its environmental footprint, touting its investment in sustainable packaging, batting about the tagline “a world without waste,” and proclaiming that “our planet matters.” But according to a new lawsuit, that’s all this is: a sunny — and misleading — picture.

Coca-Cola generates an estimated 2.9 metric tons of plastic waste each year. Photo by COSCUP.

In a complaint filed against the company on Friday, Earth Island Institute, which publishes the Journal, alleges that Coca-Cola’s sustainability-focused statements amounts to greenwashing, or in legal terms, false and deceptive advertising. It points out that despite heavy marketing of its so-called green image, the company is the number one plastic waste generator in the world. Coca-Cola has also been named the number one corporate polluter for three years in a row by the nonprofit Break Free from Plastic’s Global Cleanup and Brand Audit report, which assesses plastic waste collected across dozens of countries.

The lawsuit, which was filed in District of Columbia Superior Court under DC’s Consumer Protection Procedures Act, does not seek damages, but rather aims to put a stop to the beverage giant’s deceptive practices. “With this lawsuit we are simply asking that Coca-Cola be honest with consumers about its plastic use so that consumers can make informed purchasing decisions,” says Sumona Majumdar, general counsel for Earth Island Institute.

In addition to its general sustainability-minded statements, Coca-Cola advertises its recycling initiatives online and is one of hundreds of companies that have signed the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, pledging to help with the plastic pollution crisis and aiming for 100 percent reusable, recyclable, or compostable plastic by 2025. But this pledge, too, falls flat. According to Break Free from Plastic, the company has made little headway towards addressing plastic waste since signing the pledge in 2018. And in fact, the lawsuit alleges, Coca-Cola has actively opposed legislation that would bolster recycling in the US.

As the complaint puts it: “Contrary to Coca-Cola’s representations, the company remains a major plastic polluter, has made no significant effort to transition to a ‘circular economy’ or otherwise operate as a ‘sustainable’ enterprise, and has a long history of consistently breaking its public promises on sustainability goals.”

Ideally, advocates say, Coca-Cola and other beverage companies would green their operations by increasing use of reusable and refillable packaging. They would rely less heavily on producing recyclable packaging and promoting consumer recycling, tactics which have so far proven fairly ineffective at addressing the plastic pollution crisis and which justify continued plastic production.

“We want the Coca-Cola company to stop the greenwashing and false claims, be transparent about the plastic they use, and be a leader in investing in deposit and refill programs for the health of humans, animals, waterways, the ocean, and our environment,” Julia Cohen, co-founder and managing director at Plastic Pollution Coalition, an Earth Island project, says in a statement.

Greenwashing is nothing new. And it isn’t limited to Big Plastic. As consumer attention increasingly pivots to environmental issues, companies are trying more than ever to portray responsible environmental ethics. This tactic is particularly visible in the fossil fuel industry, which has begun increasingly using climate-friendly buzzwords like “net zero” and “carbon neutral” to describe itself while doing little to actually address its enormous climate impact.

Like Big Plastic, Big Oil has been called out for these claims. In 2019, the nonprofit environmental law group ClientEarth sued BP, alleging that the company’s advertising touted low-carbon technologies while nearly all of its spending went towards oil and gas. BP withdrew its ads.

More recently, several environmental nonprofits, including Earthworks, Global Witness, and Greenpeace USA, filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission over similar practices by another oil and gas company, Chevron. The complaint, filed in March, alleges that Chevron engaged in deceptive advertising by overstating its commitment to reducing fossil fuel pollution and its investments in renewable energy. In April, the city of New York sued Exxon, Shell, BP, and the American Petroleum Institute, similarly alleging greenwashing. Also in April, ClientEarth released a large investigation comparing the advertisements released by ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell, and several other oil and gas companies, with their overall climate impact and their progress towards reducing that impact. The group found, unsurprisingly, that the two did not align.

“We’re currently witnessing a great deception, where the companies most responsible for catastrophically heating the planet are spending millions on advertising campaigns about how their business plans are focused on sustainability,” Johnny White, one of ClientEarth’s lawyers, told The Guardian.

Perhaps lawsuits like those against BP and now Coca-Cola will help end these great deceptions. At the very least, they will hopefully inform consumers about the true nature of the products they are purchasing.

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