Consumers increasingly view climate change as an existential threat and expect companies to take action leading to a low-carbon future. As a result, sustainability is climbing up the corporate agenda. Consumer brands try to limit their environmental impact by conserving resources, like water, and reducing waste, like plastic.

According to Darden Professor June West, an expert on organizational communication, what’s equally important is how brands talk about their sustainability actions and their corporate environmental performance. “How you communicate that narrative, how transparent you are, can make or break your brand,” says West. “That requires thinking strategically about communication and addressing multiple stakeholder interests.”

West explored the challenges of developing a successful communication strategy around climate action at the recent ClimateCAP: The Global MBA Summit on Climate, Capital & Business, held at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business in Charlottesville, Virginia. Here’s her conversation with Joanna Price, Sr. Vice President, Public Affairs and Communications, at Coca-Cola.

West: How does your company intersect with climate change?  

Price: Coca-Cola is almost everywhere in the world, and because of our size and footprint, and the nature of our business, we deal with climate change every day. We look at our impact, but also at how climate change impacts our business — whether it’s our consumers, retailers or our supply chains. The key thing for companies is to look at their business and understand where the biggest impacts are in their supply chain, where they have direct control, and then down through to their consumers. What can they really influence that will have the biggest impact?

West: All communicators are sensitive to the issue of over-promising in terms of sustainability. How do you manage this challenge, and how do you strike the right balance with your stakeholders?

Price: We use the concept of “think, do, say” to drive a lot of what we do. The “say” comes last, which is really important. The “think” component is where our stakeholders become critical. Our stakeholder base is huge: investors, customers who distribute our products, the NGOs we interact with, and consumers. We do a lot of work upfront, thinking and engaging, and most importantly listening and learning from our stakeholders as they share both positive and negative feedback on what we need to be doing. We also engage internally, asking: What can we do? How bold can we be? How safe are we being? Can we push ourselves?

Then we start implementing some of those things. We experiment a lot to get the proof points but also the learnings. And we can go back to the key NGOs and say, we’ve tried this, this is what we’ve learned, this isn’t getting us where we need to go. How do we iterate? How do we learn from this and how do we scale it to other markets? That’s where the transparency is really important. Once we’ve gone through those stages and assessed our learnings, we share what we’ve done with the media.

For example, we made a commitment in 2010 to be water-neutral by 2020 by balancing all of the water we use to make and produce our beverages and returning it to nature and communities. When we set that target we had no idea how to achieve it. But we delivered on that target five years ahead of schedule.

West: As you mentioned, Coca-Cola has a wide array of stakeholders. Which ones are important to you?

Price: Our most important stakeholder is the consumer. But we interact with many different constituent groups. Our retailers, for example, are important, too. They’ve got their own sustainability footprints and goals. Really, everyone’s in this space and we all have to talk to each other all the time. When you’re in the public affairs role, you’re often on the front line, but one of the most powerful things that we do is get our senior executives talking to the stakeholders. They want to talk to the person who’s actually going to make the business decision, in terms of what they will be supporting financially.

Investor relations are also really important, and we’re talking to a lot of investors about how to put sustainability into their models so that they can start to evaluate sustainability on the impact it has on a company’s stock price.

West: Five years from now, what does success look like in Coca-Cola’s efforts to mitigate climate change?

Price: We have a clear target, and it has to do with packaging. We and our competitors have set ambitious goals around making all packaging 100 percent recyclable by 2025. Coca-Cola has also set its own global goal to collect the equivalent of a bottle or can for every one we sell and make our bottles with 50 percent recycled material by 2030. We have a huge job to do in packaging, and not just our company, but broadly in the U.S. I’d love to see the U.S. get to the levels of Europe, not only in understanding how important it is to be responsible for our packaging waste, but also that we have the systems in place that allow people to return their packaging to the manufacturer to be reused.

ClimateCAP: The Global MBA Summit on Climate, Capital & Business, at which this conversation took place, is a part of a multiyear Business Innovation and Climate Change Initiative, led by UVA Darden's Batten Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. Recognizing that climate change poses one of the most significant challenges of the 21st century, the Batten Institute launched the initiative in May 2017 to inform the dialogue across a diverse set of stakeholders, representing business, nonprofit, government and academia, on the role of innovation in achieving a low-carbon economy.

This article was developed with the support of Darden’s Batten Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, at which Gosia Glinska is associate director of research impact.

Women's Leadership Program
Create opportunities to leverage your strengths and lead confidently at all levels in this course with June West
About the Expert

June West

Marjorie R. Sands Associate Professor of Business Administration

West is an expert on organizational communication, particularly during times of change.

West was instrumental in the 2003 inception of the Darden/Curry Partnership for Leaders in Education (PLE) to strategically combine the most innovative thinking in business and education to provide education leaders with skills necessary for managing schools. West served as the academic director and continues to be active in the PLE’s School Turnaround Specialist Program, now the most established turnaround program in the country.

She is the university faculty liaison to the FBI National Academy in Quantico, Virginia. West also directs a Darden faculty team that teaches in the summer orientation program for the Secretary of Defense Corporate Fellows program that places active-duty military officers in corporations for a one-year fellowship.

West has consulted for many organizations, including the Louisiana Department of Education and Mississippi State University Colleges of Business and Education.

B.S.Ed., The University of Tennessee, Knoxville; M.Ed., Kent State University; Ed.D., Lehigh University