I haven’t been able to get a few statistics about waste out of my mind lately. At a talk by Jeff Foote at the Georgia Tech Scheller College of Business on November 18, I learned the following:
- Every day, the average American creates a total of about 4 to 4.5 pounds of municipal solid waste, including food waste, paper, plastic, and more.
- One in eight Georgians is food insecure, yet 40% of the world’s food supply goes to waste.
- While two billion people do not have access to clean drinking water, The Coca-Cola Company creates more wastewater than Coke.
With the above facts, Foote began his talk, “Climate Change Impacts on Coffee and Juice Supply Chains,” an installment in the Business, Environment, and Society Speaker Series, which is sponsored by the Ray C. Anderson Center for Sustainable Business. Foote recently joined Southface Institute as a principal of special projects, providing sustainability support to the Costa Coffee Brand for The Coca-Cola Company. He has over 33 years of experience working on a wide range of issues including the circular economy, clean-tech investments, corporate sustainability strategy, refrigeration, and water stewardship.
While at Georgia Tech, I have learned about Atlanta-based Southface and its mission to be a leader in driving sustainability-based change in businesses large and small. I attended Foote’s talk because I was particularly interested in learning how Coca-Cola is approaching sustainability from a supply chain lens. Coca-Cola is a major consumer goods company—and a large portion of its consumer byproducts end up in landfills. I wanted to hear what changes the company is making to reduce its environmental impact. During his presentation, Foote gave an honest portrayal of how food waste impacts the environment and people, of how emerging businesses are increasingly focused on doing good, and of the way that companies like Coca-Cola are integrating sustainability practices.
To give you a little glimpse into my background, I am currently a dual degree student pursuing an MBA and a Master of Industrial Design. I am also a 2019-20 Scheller College Graduate Sustainability Fellow. My parents taught me to make mindful, sustainable choices in my everyday life, so these values were ingrained in me from my childhood. That mindset translated directly into my work in manufacturing and supply chain/operations after I graduated with a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Georgia Tech. I was able to work in areas where sustainability was driven by efficiency—whether it was helping to create jet engines that were lighter and more fuel efficient at GE Aviation, or contributing to the implementation of better truck-loading and routing practices that would reduce miles traveled and thus overall emissions at Home Depot.
In the past few years, sustainability-focused supply chain initiatives have become more publicly and prominently adopted. Many companies even build them into their core strategy, mainly because these initiatives decrease operating costs and create more benefits in the long term. Consumer interest is also driving companies to rethink sustainability in their products and supply chain. From Foote’s presentation, I was hoping to gain perspective on how to think about waste and sustainability both as a business and as a conscious consumer.
There were a few key takeaways in regard to the business perspective. One was that the future is promising. More and more new companies either are built with sustainability as a core principle or are actively moving towards it, such as those that are classified as “B Corps.” Whereas a normal business’s purpose is to provide shareholder value, B Corps also benefit employees, customers, and the environment. There are about 15 B Corps in Georgia and a little over 3000 in the world. Recently, Coca Cola’s Innocent brand achieved B Corp status and has been working to continue to improve in accordance with B Corp values.
Another business takeaway was that it is crucial that everyone in a corporation must understand where its products come from and the process by which its products get to the consumer. Coca-Cola’s Costa Coffee is starting to foster this practice among its employees. Foote noted that as he was speaking, the Costa CEO was in Colombia at a coffee farm in order to get a better understanding of the product along all levels of the supply chain. Foote emphasized that a sustainable vision must be developed from within a company itself.
As for the consumer perspective: Foote asked the audience to stop and think about the waste that has been created in producing a product before we buy it. Also, he encouraged us to consider how we, as consumers, might also be contributing to waste when purchasing an item.
Foote also reminded us of the importance of making informed decisions when we recycle. After all, “wishcycling” (that is, putting something in the recycling bin that we want to be recycled—even if our municipality does not accept that item) can contaminate a collection and cause it all to be sent to the landfill. A little bit of individual effort can go a long way in helping the environment. At the same time, Foote emphasized how beverage companies can contribute (positively or negatively) to consumers’ recycling behavior. Some products, for instance, provide unclear or incorrect information, which sets consumers up for recycling errors. In his work for Costa Coffee and Southface, Foote aims to bridge the communication gap between producer and consumer.
Ultimately, environmental responsibility involves two-way engagement between consumers and corporations. As we move towards a better future, it’s important to initiate conversations around sustainability and to create awareness in the corporations and industries in which we work. Also, as individual consumers, it’s important to live by sustainability principles as well and to be mindful of the environmental impacts of what and how we buy.
Shrinka Roy, who is enrolled in Georgia Tech’s Dual Degree Program, is a first-year student in the Full-time MBA program and a second-year Master of Industrial Design student.