Why are Coke drinkers smiling? Vending machines to be more eco-friendly

Coca-Cola (KO) is apparently getting into the Copenhagen spirit. As next week's United Nations summit on climate change approaches, the world's largest soft drink company -- and its bottling partners -- announced that 100% of their new vending machines and coolers will be hydrofluorocarbon-free (HFC-free) by 2015. When completed, this initiative to reduce global carbon emissions would be the same as taking 11 million cars off the road for a single year.

Coke made the announcement on Dec. 3 in conjunction with the environmental organization Greenpeace. "Greenpeace has played a critical role in raising our awareness about the need for natural refrigeration," says Muhtar Kent, Coca-Cola's chairman and CEO. "Our announcement today demonstrates a commitment to use our influence in the marketplace to drive innovation and help shape a low-carbon future."
The environmental advocacy group, unafraid of outrageous publicity stunts, has been able to coerce a growing number of big conglomerates to step up their eco games in the past year. Most recently Greenpeace convinced paper giant Kimberley-Clarke to stop chopping down old growth forests in Canada for pulp used in toilet paper.

More than any other environmental group, Greenpeace's mastery of the techniques of gorilla marketing in the Internet era -- complete with blanket YouTube coverage and entertaining confrontations with the likes of the Huggies Diapermobile -- has turned the venerable environmental non-profit into a PR powerhouse. But unlike Greenpeace's efforts of years past, the group now uses a carrot-and-stick approach. It offers to work with big corporations and educate them on issues, rather than only trying to bludgeon them with publicly humiliating tactics.

HFCs initially were brought in to replace ozone depleting refrigerants. But, following the law of unintended consequences, HFCs ended up being major contributors to global carbon emissions. To replace 10 million refrigeration units is no small task and for Coke, this will certainly be costly. But after the transition to HFC-free refrigeration is completed, Coke will have eliminated 99% of the direct greenhouse gas emissions by its refrigeration equipment.

Unlike many companies that have announced so-called "green" initiatives that did nothing more than trumpet existing plans or create fake green benefits from standard policies, Coke is putting its money where its green mouth is. Coke has already invested more than $50 million in R&D to advance the use of climate-friendly cooling technologies. And in 2010, Coca-Cola and its bottling partners will purchase a minimum of 150,000 units of HFC-free equipment. That will effectively double the current rate of purchase.

Coke has stated an ambitious interim goal to purchase 50% of all new coolers and vending machines without HFCs by 2012. Kudos to Coke for making a bold leap that will have a real global impact, rather than relying on piecemeal change and snappy PR to try to convince the public of its green cred.

Alex Salkever is Senior Writer at AOL Daily Finance covering technology and greentech.
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