Coca-Cola’s Bea Perez talks sustainability at Tech

Perez’s visit exemplifies the intersection of two initiatives: Conversations with Cabrera and SDG Action and Awareness Week. // Photo courtesy of The Coca-Cola company

The Institute’s trajectory is shaped by its partnerships, whether that be in the local Atlanta community or the corporate sector. One such important partnership is with The Coca-Cola Company, headquartered in Atlanta on the outskirts of Tech’s campus. Last week, President Ángel Cabrera met with Beatriz “Bea” Perez, the Executive Vice President and Global Chief Communications, Sustainability and Strategic Partnerships Officer at The Coca-Cola Company. 

This dialogue was part of the Conversations with Cabrera series, a video series focusing on “candid conversations between President Ángel Cabrera and thought leaders across Georgia Tech and beyond. Unearthing leadership’s thinking behind the big ideas taking shape across the Institute and the trends likely to define our future, these discussions focus on topics related to academics and research, as well as campus life and culture,” according to the series’ website. Previous guests include Rockefeller Foundation President Dr. Rajiv Shah, Microsoft Chairman and CEO Satya Nadella and President and CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education Greg Lukianoff.

The conversation between Cabrera and Perez focused on sustainability efforts at The Coca-Cola Company and occurred ahead of Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Action and Awareness Week (March 4-8) at the Institute. SDG Action and Awareness Week consists of programming highlighting the 17 goals outlined by the United Nations, which serve as the foundation for developments in sustainability, environmental well-being and human rights protections. To celebrate this week, programming at the Institute includes workshops, service projects, panels and more.

With this event preceding SDG Action and Awareness Week, President Cabrera wanted to emphasize the timeliness of this conversation and the importance of the partnership between the Institute and The Coca-Cola Company. 

“I’m also delighted because we are taping this conversation right ahead of SDG Week. And as many of you know, Georgia Tech was one of the co-founders of the University Global Coalition, [where] we partner with like-minded institutions to try to advance the sustainable development goals,” he said. “One key part of the Sustainable Development Goals is the notion of partnerships, that we’re not going to deal successfully with all the issues that we face, only from whether it’s government’s alone, or academia alone, that we need everybody, including very importantly, businesses. And in addition to being our neighbors, Coca-Cola has a long history of doing very interesting and impactful things in the broad area of sustainability.” 

Perez began by highlighting major sustainability efforts at The Coca-Cola Company. One of the measures she mentioned was the importance of creating fully integrated processes, so that if an individual leading an initiative leaves, the project can still continue and function. 

Additionally, Perez remarked on sustainability efforts related to the manufacturing of the plastic bottles that hold beverages. To reduce plastic use to combat plastic waste pollution, the company employed the use of light-weighting to reduce the overall weight of the bottle. However, light-weighting can mean that the bottles lose their structural integrity and can be easily crimped, especially stacked onto pallets for delivery. To solve this issue, Perez mentioned the work of Global Chief Technical & Innovation Officer Nancy Quan. 

“I think her scientist team found a glass liner that is literally one-thousandths of a strand of hair in size that you can line the bottle with so you could take out as much plastic as possible. You put this liner in, it’s fully recyclable, and then you actually have shelf stable bottles. It took our packaging on the shelf from about 12 weeks to almost six months [shelf-life], which is great, so [that it] can be out there longer. It also helped enable us to remove every single year 9,100 tons of plastic out of the marketplace in Europe alone,” Perez said. 

Cabrera then steered the conversation to highlight the importance of water for a beverage business like The Coca-Cola Company. 

“This is table stakes, we’re not purchasing brands that we don’t feel good about and that do damage to the environment. And so if you’re not building sustainability from day one into your business — but let me just give some practical examples. So think of Coke. If we’re not working on water, there’s no beverage business, you cannot produce a beverage without using water,” Perez said.

She went on to mention an anecdote from when The Coca-Cola Company opened new facilities in India in 2000. The presence of the corporation resulted in mass protests in the region, even though the company was not depleting the water supply of the community they were operating in, creating confusion about the reason for the protests. 

“Well, because also there’s an emotional piece for consumers. They saw the big red trucks driving by their communities. That direct community where the facility opened, was not in a drought. The one next door was, so the community next door would see our trucks go by and say, ‘How come there’s water for them and not water for us?’ And so we can’t actually open up our business, unless we’re thinking of water for people first. And as a lifeblood of every single community, and being mindful of our water use. And so today, we replenish 159% of the water we use,” Perez said. 

Lastly, Cabrera asked Perez about what advice she had for students wondering how to navigate which sector they should find a job in, whether that be going into the corporate world or doing work in the public sector. She expressed that both provide opportunities for students to engage with their local community.

“They’re not mutually exclusive. That’s what I’d say. I think the best leaders of the future are tri-sector leaders. So they’re the leaders who actually work in multiple sectors, so pick which ones you want, [whether that be] government, business, academic or NGOs. They’re getting a lens from community, from policy and from how business operates,” Perez said. “So for Coke, we like when students don’t have to come to business first. We like to recruit students who have different internships in different areas who understand policy and how it impacts people, who maybe have worked on some community initiatives, but also who are business-minded and recognize a business can help solve problems, because [a] business has resources.”