In the 1970s, Coca-Cola started using bottles made of polyethylene terephthalate. Commonly known as PET, this plastic is far lighter than glass, and the introduction of it in bottles significantly lowered distribution costs.
Though the PET bottles could also be recycled, the company’s marketing team realized that consumers didn’t view the material as natural the same way they did glass. Another sustainable material might be more appealing to Coke drinkers.
Rather than come up with a whole new material, one of the company’s chemists pointed out that they could change the ingredients of the plastic they were already using: They could replace one of the fossil-fuel-based polymers with a plant-based source.
Not only was the new material fully recyclable, using a plant-based polymer took carbon out of the air, another plus for the planet. Further, Coca-Cola partnered with other major companies to create a circular economy for the plastic. On top of that, using the plant-based ingredients allowed for better cost predictability and management.
By finding the right point of innovation, Coca-Cola improved its environmental performance for the planet as well as its own processes, without disturbing the rest of its value chain.
The preceding is adapted from Darden Professor James Rubin and Brian Moriarty’s article “Coca-Cola’s Disruptive Technology? It’s Inside the Bottle.” which appeared in the 17 April 2016 issue of The Washington Post as part of the Darden School of Business/Washington Post “Case in Point” series.