It is arguably one of the great paradoxes of the age. Modernity has brought significant benefits to humanity – rising aggregate wealth, improving health and nutrition, the end of dreadful diseases, and rising overall standards of living.

Yet, around the world, wealth disparity is rising – within communities and nations, and between them. The consequences are profound, and may not be entirely understood until well into the future.

In a speech this week at the Acropolis Museum in Athens, Muhtar Kent, chairman and CEO of The Coca-Cola Company, said multinational businesses such as Coca-Cola can and must help bridge the wealth gap.

Speaking at a site recognized as a historic birthplace of democracy, Kent offered a sturdy defense of the private sector’s ability and responsibility to do good in the world by bridging the wealth divide.

“I know we in global business can do more, particularly for those in the toughest of circumstances: the impoverished, the infirm, the unemployed and under-employed, the exploited and the hopeless,” Kent told a group of business and civic leaders who gathered to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the Ethymiadis Agrotechnology Group. “Large businesses can help bring light to their darkness.”

With the Acropolis as a backdrop, Kent said large businesses can help lift up the downtrodden and desperate on four fronts: through growth and value creation, through sustainability efforts, in partnerships with government and civil society, and by sharing their values and enduring commitment to workers.

Muhtar Kent

Coca-Cola Chairman and CEO Muhtar Kent

Value Engines

“First and foremost, we can help alleviate economic distress as engines of growth and value creation,” Kent said. “Businesses create value for our shareowners, our employees and our business partners. This has always been true. Now, however, we must expand the set of stakeholders for whom we create value.”

That expanded vision should include the markets and communities companies serve, governments and NGO partners and the public at-large.

'I know we in global business can do more, particularly for those in the toughest of circumstances: the impoverished, the infirm, the unemployed and under-employed, the exploited and the hopeless. Large businesses can help bring light to their darkness.'  

“This is not a new idea,” Kent admitted. “But today’s multinationals must pursue it with more passion if we are to keep growing in an increasingly interconnected world.”

A fundamental part of that effort is to be a local business to the greatest extent possible. Coca-Cola’s business model, which relies on local bottling partners and local people, helps the company create more value in the localities in which it operates, Kent said.

Coca-Cola has operated in Greece since 1969, and the system today employs more than 1,800 people and supports another 20,000 jobs there. Coca-Cola works with 4,000 Greek suppliers and 130,000 customer outlets in Greece; 96 percent of the drinks it sells in Greece are produced locally.

Creating Community Value

Kent said large businesses can make a real difference by choosing to create greater community value than ever before. Coca-Cola, for example, is focused on the “Three Ws” of Women, Water and Wellbeing.

The company is striving to help enable 5 million women entrepreneurs globally by 2020 through the 5by20 initiative, scaling up the most effective approaches and reaching women entrepreneurs with business training, mentoring and improved access to capital.

In water-stressed nations such as Greece, Coca-Cola is trying to do its part, Kent said. The company made a public commitment in 2007 to become water neutral by 2020—returning to nature and communities every liter used in its beverages and their production. Earlier this week, the company announced the goal had been met in 2015—five years ahead of schedule.

In Greece, the Mission Water initiative focuses on water-stressed islands, using water harvesting systems across 29 Greek islands to give back more than 200 million liters of water a year and improve the lives of 49,000 people.

'We can help alleviate economic distress as engines of growth and value creation. Businesses create value for our shareowners, our employees and our business partners. This has always been true. Now, however, we must expand the set of stakeholders for whom we create value.'

In the third focus area of wellbeing, Coca-Cola recognizes that obesity and the diseases that go with it are of central importance to the company, Kent said.

“We know we must be part of the solution,” he said. “We’re working to meet the needs of tomorrow’s consumers with smaller packs of full-calorie drinks, more availability and marketing of zero- and reduced-calorie drinks, and more innovation on natural sweeteners and new, great-tasting drinks with fewer calories.”

In Greece, Coca-Cola has reduced soft drink calories by 20 percent, and offers no- or low-calorie variants of each of its sparkling brands.

The Golden Triangle and the Golden Rule

Kent has been a longtime proponent of what he calls “Golden Triangle” partnerships between businesses, governments and civil society organizations such as NGOs and universities. That helps break the roadblock that each type of organization has limited ideas, limited expertise and limited resources. Partnering together means “the opportunities are truly limitless,” Kent said. “Each sector brings something distinctive and powerful to the table.”

In Greece, Coca-Cola is working with local partners to support youth employment and entrepreneurship. The company is teaming up with the Global Shapers Athens Hub (a project of the World Economic Forum), The Hellenic Initiative and more than 65 companies in Greece on the ReGeneration project, an effort to provide graduates with six-month paid traineeships. More than 200 scholars have taken part so far, with 85 percent finding full-time work at the program’s end.

'When we do business the right way, everyone wins. We have the power to unleash the human spirit in ways that enrich all humanity. And I believe we have a duty to do so.'

Lastly, Kent said, international companies can make a real difference for low- and middle-income people through the way they conduct business. Global business can spread high standards by treating people with dignity and respect, championing human rights and workers’ rights, and making sure no one is exploited across their value chains.

In short, Kent said, by abiding by the Golden Rule: treating other people as you’d want to be treated yourself.

“When we do business the right way, everyone wins,” Kent concluded. “We have the power to unleash the human spirit in ways that enrich all humanity. And I believe we have a duty to do so. Now, more than ever.”