The third section of this year’s Sustainability in Soft Drinks management briefing looks at soft drinks companies’ support for and involvement in sustainability research.
Whether it is companies adapting business practices, governments framing new policies or the public altering their consumption habits, changing to a more sustainable way of life is dependent on increasing the sum of knowledge across a multitude of areas from climatology and engineering to social psychology and anthropology. Rather than just acting upon the huge amount of research now available to shape their sustainability strategies, companies are also partnering with academic institutions and research organisations to expand both their own and the general knowledge base.
Notable collaborations between major soft drinks companies and academic institutions are PepsiCo‘s support of the Columbia Water Center (CWC) at Columbia University in the US and Coca-Cola’s partnership with the Yangtze River Delta Research Institute of the Circular Economy in China. The Yangtze River Delta Research Institute project concerns the development of technologies to convert agricultural waste into plant material that can be used in the production of bio-plastic packaging such as the company’s PlantBottle.
The research being conducted in China not only serves to assist Coca-Cola in its ambitious sustainable packaging aims, but also offers significant benefits for China, both in terms of agricultural development and lowering carbon emissions. Increasing the use of renewable material in bottle manufacture will not only reduce the carbon impact of polyester production – China is the largest global supplier of polyester both for fibres and for polyethylene terephthalate (PET) resin primarily used in beverage containers – but also help to increase farmers’ incomes and improve local air quality by reducing agricultural waste burning. The partnership has been endorsed by both the US and Chinese Governments, becoming one of six additional programmes to be incorporated into their EcoPartnership programme in 2013.
A Coca-Cola spokesperson also cites the company’s collaboration in the Keystone Center’s ‘Field to Market’ programme as a notable interface with academic research institutions, which are one of the stakeholder groups included in the programme. The focus of the programme, in which Coca-Cola is a founding partner, is on “promoting, defining and measuring” the sustainability of food, fibre and fuel production. “We see the Field to Market concepts and tools as critical to helping us meet our global sustainable agriculture commitments in the US market,” the spokesperson says.
PepsiCo, meanwhile, has been supporting the Columbia Water Center (CWC) at Columbia University since its foundation in 2008. Over that time, CWC/PepsiCo partnership projects have included
- developing plans to deliver municipal water in rural Brazil that have helped provide fresh water to more than 4m people
- the development of low-cost tensiometers to help farmers save irrigation water in Punjab, India
- working with local government to change incentives and save both energy and water in Gujarat, India, and
- helping farmers use water more efficiently to improve health and incomes in Mali.
Bringing practical experience to bear
While funding research may often be viewed as part of a company’s mission to be a responsible and valued corporate citizen, this is by no means simply a philanthropic endeavour. Not only are there clear benefits for the companies themselves, but also companies have much to contribute to research projects on a practical level. In particular, the experience and know-how of company personnel across all business functions, along with technical and engineering capabilities and data resources that companies have at their disposal in areas such as manufacturing technology and consumer behaviour are likely to be extremely useful.
One of the most recent partnerships between academia and the soft drinks sector, a six-month study launched in March by Cranfield University and Coca-Cola Enterprises entitled Sustainable Manufacturing for the Future, is a case to point. The study examines the current “sustainability landscape” across the supply chain, looking specifically at areas such as resource security, the circular economy, sustainable technologies and waste management. In addition, it will present a vision of what the researchers believe a sustainable factory will look like in 2050.
Mark Jolly, professor of sustainable manufacturing at Cranfield University’s School of Aerospace, Transport & Manufacturing, who is leading the project, says Coca-Cola Enterprises staff “are fully engaged in contributing to the process”, adding that “this engagement will continue as the research programme continues throughout the Summer”.
The collaboration with Cranfield University follows a study that CCE commissioned from the University of Exeter into consumer recycling habits in 2013, which resulted in a report entitled ‘Unpacking the Household: exploring the dynamics of household recycling’. The University of Exeter’s Dr Stewart Barr, one of the report’s authors, says that while he and his fellow researchers “led on the research and methodology side of the project”, they “consulted and received feedback continuously from CCE”. This helped to shape the scope and issues for the research, Barr explains, by identifying “the key problems faced and the likely audiences for the research”. Collaborating with CCE meant the project “could have tangible impacts outside of the academic community”, a particularly important benefit given the increasing emphasis now being placed on research impact.
Tapping into the company’s expertise was “a major benefit to our research because it does help academic researchers to clarify what the major issues and challenges are in the commercial world,” Barr adds. “In this way, we can be much more specific about research questions and the types of participants that would be relevant to our studies. More broadly, many of the people we interacted with at CCE also had original research-based insights from their roles, or indeed training, which helped the research process. I can definitely say that the whole experience was very positive and constructive.”
In general terms, Barr says collaborating with a company can “add an important critical edge to our work, because people in such organisations can often ask questions and bring insights that are much more directed and specific. To this end, you might say that such a collaboration provides an important ‘reality check’.”
Retaining objectivity and credibility
Corporate patronage of academic research has at times been a controversial issue, particularly when the research concerns issues of public interest in which companies are considered to hold vested interests. Universities have become increasingly open to corporate funding in recent times, not least due to pressures on public funding, which has arguably boosted the potential for the kind of constructive partnerships being seen with the soft drinks sector.
While some may still remain sceptical of the closer relationships now being seen between universities and companies, both Barr and Jolly feel corporate sponsorship has not affected the objectivity or independence of their projects.
“Cranfield as a university is obviously set up to be objective and independent and CCE would like an objectively-focused research project, but one that also puts it in context for CCE,” Jolly says. Barr says the collaboration between the University of Exeter and CCE “was one based on a clear understanding of roles and it was, from the outset, to the benefit of both parties that the research remained strictly independent as a piece of rigorous academic scholarship”. In fact, he says “probably the most important challenge” was finding a “common language” to describe the issues that both the company personnel and academic researchers identified as significant. “As academic researchers, we tend to rely on broad theoretical ideas that inform our work and can too easily slip into the so-called ‘jargon’ surrounding these ideas,” Barr says. “Likewise, commercial organisations can often express their ideas in ways that largely seem applicable to a business model. Our experience of working with CCE was that ideas expressed differently are often describing an essential and shared concept, and we worked hard together to agree on a common terminology for the final report.”
There are also likely to be occasions where close practical collaboration may be less appropriate and could impact on credibility. For example, Coca-Cola stresses that the lifecycle assessment of its PlantBottle programme that it recently commissioned from Imperial College, London was conducted independently of the company. “The only information we provided was access to our PlantBottle supply chain partners,” a spokesperson for sustainability at Coca-Cola tells just-drinks. “ICL collected the data used for LCI (life cycle inventory) and LCA independently.”
The company also points out that the studies have been peer reviewed by academics at Michigan State University, the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research in Heidelberg, Germany and the University of Campinas in Brazil.
Jolly believes that while the final white paper of the Cranfield study will be “written with a CCE focus”, it will be “substantive and robust enough to be able to be re-engineered after the research to produce peer-reviewed publications”. He adds that other stakeholders will be invited to review the research at various draft stages before publication.
By Ben Cooper