Cola king takes UN stage in green drive

E Neville Isdell has come a long way from delivery boy in apartheid South Africa to chief executive of the world’s largest drinks group, The Coca-Cola Company , and now, United Nations champion of environmental protection.

Isdell, who took the top job at Coke in 2004 and is widely credited with turning it around, took the stage alongside UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon this week, leading the call for companies to do more to protect the environment.

“I’m an optimist by nature and a realist by experience,” Isdell said, rattling the pulpit before government and business leaders who met in Geneva to review progress on the UN’s Global Compact on corporate responsibility.

“We need more companies to get involved.”

The Global Compact was created in 2000 as a counterweight to anti-globalisation protests, such as those that disrupted the 1999 World Trade Organisation meeting in Seattle.

Isdell as champion of the environment sits well with Coke’s optimistic marketing image—an image largely styled by Isdell in an effort to reverse a malaise that had inflicted the US drinks group before his arrival.

Born in Ireland, Isdell was educated in apartheid-era South Africa and licensed as a social worker before climbing the ladder at Coke.

Isdell, who was an outspoken opponent of apartheid at the time, said he had a lot of explaining to do with his friends, family and several professors after he left social work and chose the corporate path—and that he assured them he would stick to his ideals.

As such, Isdell has made social engagement a byword of corporate policy, offering, for example, Coke’s HIV-positive African employees access to antiretroviral drugs and pledging to uphold workplace quality standards globally.

Isdell has also led Coke’s efforts to recycle and reduce packaging, cut energy use and establish closer ties to local communities in emerging markets, and has been an outspoken advocate of the UN’s Compact, signed by Coke in 2006.

“In the 21st century, you’ve going to have to be seen as a steward of the planet,” the 40-year Coke veteran told Reuters in an interview alongside the UN meetings.

The 64-year-old family father Isdell, who never studied business and is reputed to drink six to seven cans of Coke Zero per day, wore his ideology on his sleeve in Geneva, railing against his fellow executives to stand up and do more to protect the environment—particularly drinkable water.

Water zero

Coke as environmental champion may be hard to swallow for anti-globalisation protestors or groups in India who have accused the group of depleting ground water, polluting or selling contaminated soft drinks—charges contested by Coke.

But civil society critics such as the United Kingdom-based Institute of Social and Ethical AccountAbility say Coke’s role in forging ties between business, government and civil society is a positive one.

“The CEO of Coca-Cola sharing the stage with the UN secretary general, Amnesty International and the International Trade Union Confederation? That would not have happened a couple of years ago,” said Alex MacGillivray, head of research at AccountAbility.

Isdell says businesses like Coke have a lot to offer non-profit organisations and civil society groups—mainly lessons in how to get things done efficiently.

Non-governmental organisations and protest groups that once demonised global giants like Coke now sometimes look to businesses as “enablers of change,” he said.

But he draws the line at Coke harnessing its legendary distribution network to deliver humanitarian material in Africa—a suggestion put forward by some aid agencies—where it is easier to find a can of Coke than, for example, anti-malarial mosquito nets.

“We can’t do that,” he told Reuters. “At the end of the day we are a commercial enterprise and we can’t do what governments do or fail to do.” - Reuters

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