Doing business the right way to advance sustainable development

Ahead of the annual European Development Days, Bea Perez, senior vice president and chief public affairs, communications and sustainability officer at The Coca-Cola Company outlines the critical role she believes business can play in positively contributing to communities and the planet, and the importance of partnerships in achieving progress.

Why will you be attending the European Development Days this year?

It’s going to be an honor to participate. We consistently see that the greatest impact is achieved through partnerships across what we call the golden triangle of government, private sector, and civil society. Organizations from each of these areas bring unique capabilities, connections, and expertise when they come together and work towards common goals. Forums such as the European Development Days are essential to that process in fostering debate, creating new connections, setting clear action plans for future collaboration, and openly sharing what we can learn from both successes and setbacks.

What role does sustainability play for The Coca-Cola Company?

Supporting communities is in our DNA. It’s simply the right thing to do, and it also makes good business sense. We know that our business can only ever be as strong as the communities we serve. Profitability is important for any business, but not at any cost — people matter, our planet matters — and we believe it’s essential we do business the right way, which isn’t always the easy way. Water scarcity, packaging waste, economic empowerment, and other mega-trends can have a dramatic impact on any business. Yet, get it right, and we create a virtuous circle of a strong, prosperous business succeeding in a strong, prosperous society. For me, and for our leadership team, business success and a commitment to sustainability are inseparable and a core part of our past, our present, and future.

How do you prioritize your areas of focus and the interventions you support?

It’s a combination of identifying the connection between where there’s a community need and where we are uniquely placed to make a meaningful contribution. Water stewardship is a great example of this. Not only is water essential to life, but also to the long-term success of our business and our communities. As the first ingredient in most of our recipes, we take water leadership seriously because it’s the earth’s most valuable finite resource. In 2010, we set an industry-leading goal to replenish 100 percent of the water we use in our drinks for communities and nature — and we achieved that goal five years early. Over the last decade, we have devoted time and resources by applying our expertise in this area to improve water access for communities and nature, as well as enhancing water efficiency in our own operations. Through programs, such as the Replenish Africa Initiative (RAIN), our partnerships have helped bring a sustainable supply of clean water to more than two million people across the African continent for the first time, and we’re now working to expand this further to reach 6 million people by 2020.

How important is this year’s EDD focus on women and girls within the development discussion?

Women’s economic enablement is an area that is very close to our heart. Women are the backbone of our business around the world, and pillars of the communities we serve. And we know from experience that when women are empowered, it can transform communities, societies, and economies. Over the past few years, more than 2.4 million women have participated in our 5by20 economic enablement programs in more than 70 countries. This is thanks to strong partnerships with organizations such as U.N. Women, Mercy Corps, USAID, who lead where we follow. I’m looking forward to sharing some of our experiences in this area during a panel discussion at the EDDs.

Beyond water, what other environment areas are you actively addressing?

We are extremely focused on our efforts to help tackle the world’s packaging waste problem. None of us like seeing litter or waste on beaches, streets, or in our waterways. We recently set a vision for a World Without Waste, which will see us collect and recycle an equivalent of 100 percent of the packaging we sell globally by 2030. Here, in Western Europe, the Company and our bottling partners, Coca-Cola European Partners, launched “This is Forward” — an action plan aimed at making all packaging 100 percent recyclable, doubling the amount of recycled plastic in our PET plastic bottles by 2025, and launching a consumer engagement campaign designed to inspire more people to recycle. We’re investing in our planet and in our packaging, and looking to partner with other like-minded organizations as we have in the past with Ellen MacArthur Foundation. This is a key focus for us moving forward, and while we’re at the start of the journey we’ve been encouraged by the response and the enthusiasm to drive these actions.

What role do you think business can play in supporting the European External Investment Plan (EIP?)

The European Union makes such an important contribution to Africa through development aid, and last year’s unveiling of the plan was great demonstration of the strength of the relationship between Africa and the EU. The question is how we can — together — continue to ensure development aid is put to best use. The EIP is clearly another step forward by taking an integrated approach to boost and mobilize public and private investments, while staying focused on creating opportunities for decent jobs for women and young people in countries with the greatest need. As this is the first EDDs since the EIP was introduced, we are looking forward to exploring where there may be further opportunities for partnership and collaboration.

What are you most looking forward to at the EDDs?

I’m looking forward to building on some of the partnerships we have with the likes of Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, U.N. Women and The Global Fund to drive further scale in our actions, and defining new plans that can help ensure communities meet the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals. It’s very important our conversations this week lead to activity, progress, and results. The new EU External Investment Plan is encouraging for all who are deeply passionate about development, and, as a company that operates across Africa, we want to be a strong partner for the EU and member countries. The EDDs has rightly earned its position at the forefront of sustainable development, and having been honored to visit Switzerland earlier this year, I am very excited to now be attending what is renowned as the “Davos of Development”!

As first appeared in Politico, May 2018