It’s a given that Earth Week brings added attention to sustainability. That’s the goal, after all. But for Bea Perez, chief sustainability officer for The Coca-Cola Company, the concept demands 365-days-a-year focus.

Perez joined Coca-Cola in 1996 as an associate brand manager and worked in brand management, field operations and integrated marketing (including responsibility for NASCAR and NBA projects) before becoming chief marketing officer for Coca-Cola North America in 2010. She has led the company’s sustainability efforts for nearly five years.

In advance of Earth Day (Friday, April 22), we spoke with Perez about accountability, corporate reputation, the unexpected benefits of composting, and what she learned when two large trees crushed her house. Here's an edited version of our conversation:

It seems like you have a very large job description. Could you boil it down to a 15-second elevator speech?

In a nutshell, I represent a lot of effort being done by teams around the world, out in the field and across our system. I view my role as keeping us organized and focused on things that matter to our business and that are relevant – areas where we can make a difference and where we can lead. For example, the climate issue involves things that are deeply intertwined in our business: packaging, refrigeration and trucks on the street. Our work can amount to a big difference in over 200 countries if we're all moving in the same direction, versus moving independently and in siloes.

It’s not all about the environment, either. It’s about value creation, societal impact and putting people at the center. It’s about leaving communities better than when we found them.

My role is simply to keep the trains on the tracks. It's the people in the operations in the communities who really make the difference and make this the success it is. My philosophy is that small actions can lead to big things.

Bea and Scotty

Bea Perez (right) with sugarcane farmer Scott Simpson on a North Queensland, Australia farm in October 2015. The facility tests sustainable agriculture techniques such as skip-row planting, which reduces pesticide and fertilizer per ton of sugarcane grown. 

Are you encouraged by the recent results? Coca-Cola now has more than 1.9 million hydrofluorocarbon-free coolers deployed across its global system. The company just announced it has helped economically empower more than 1.2 million women entrepreneurs through its 5by20 initiative. And the 100th EKOCENTER recently opened in Vietnam to offer clean water, basic medical services and Internet access.

There is a lot to celebrate, but that actually makes me really nervous. You think about those bold, audacious, aggressive goals – replenishing 100 percent of the water we use by 2020. To be tracking five years ahead of schedule on that goal, that's a really big deal. I get nervous because we might all celebrate that accomplishment and we could easily forget that we have to keep working hard to maintain it. A big part of my role is to remain constructively discontent.

The temptation is to take your foot off the gas, right?

That's correct. It has to be everyone's business, everyone's responsibility. For example, we set the goal to empower five million women by 2020. We just announced 1.2 million in 60 countries. That means we have 3.8 million left to go. So even though we've achieved significant milestones, there's still so much more to do. It's important to keep our business thriving and communities thriving.

Earth Day is a global event. Let’s personalize it a bit. What can an individual employee do to advance sustainable living?

Something that Coke has always understood is, we are about people first and making these connections very personal and real. It’s important that our associates understand the impact they’re having around the world, and what can they do as individuals.  

Earth Day actually has very interesting meaning to me, because two big poplar trees fell on my house on Earth Day two years ago. How ironic is that? I learned from that that nature can be extremely powerful, yet fragile. Those two trees were powerful enough to destroy an entire house, but they were also vulnerable to weather and erosion. That was a reminder to me that we need to step back and recognize that our planet is fragile and not take it for granted. We need to treat it like it’s precious. 

As individuals, we can take the time to recycle, or turn off the light when we leave a room. We do it in our own homes – we should do it in our business. Turning the water off when you’re putting soap on your hands can make a real difference. A faucet leaking just one drop per second wastes over 1,300 gallons of water per year. All of these things add up.

Bea Skipping Rope

Bea Perez visits a rural school in Hunan Province during a tour of the company’s sustainability initiatives in China in April 2015. Children at the school receive clean drinking water through the Clean Water Project, an initiative launched in 2012 under Project Hope. The project has benefitted 27 provinces, bringing clean drinking water to more than 116,000 students through 302 water purifiers installed in 283 rural schools. 'As a mom of two, this project hit close to home and reinforced my desire to help work toward a brighter, healthier future for all children,' Perez said.

How do you set a good example – to your family, your friends, your colleagues – without being preachy? What’s your approach to encouraging good behaviors?

I don't like to preach. I really believe people want to do the right things. I try to get my family to role model. Honestly, my kids are taking this and running with it – keeping me accountable! I know recycling can be a challenge sometimes. The main barriers to recycling are education – a lack of awareness around it – or inconvenience. So, if your shampoo bottles are upstairs but your recycling bin is downstairs, you have to separate your trash before bringing it downstairs. That’s a barrier. But if I don’t separate it, my kids will get on my case about it.

I've hosted a few parties in my neighborhood, and people laugh at me because I’ll have the blue bin for recycling next to the trash bin, which is next to the composting bin. I tell people they won't be invited back unless they follow the rules! They go along with it; they humor me. So now, you look around my neighborhood after some of my neighbors’ parties, and there are three separate bins laid out. It’s spreading.  

By the way, I didn't fully realize the benefits of composting, but it works. I just pulled carrots out of the ground! They grew all winter. In fairness, they are tiny carrots. 

In a global system, one of the main challenges is making sure great ideas are shared quickly. How do you ensure that happens?

I think we still have a lot more work to do in that space. I have a real desire to get that right.

There is so much great work being done around the world.

One thing I recognized when I came into this role is that I didn’t have to create something new. Getting people to replicate successes and “scale them up” is actually the most pressing task. Luckily, the worldwide system already had some mechanisms that can help do that. For example, the Eurasia Africa Group had already started a bottler sustainability award. By competing for sustainability awards, they were having to put together best practices, share them with each other, and go through a judging panel. Now, those best practices are documented for any bottler to use. And you get the competitive juices flowing, which is a very powerful incentive.

Our China team just implemented a similar bottler sustainability competition, and it’s great to see the interest and momentum. The competition got 61 applications from 28 bottlers, with an online public poll receiving 60,000 votes from inside and outside Coca-Cola. The winning projects were creative, able to go large-scale, and engaged both internal and external audiences. And of course, they had to have measureable positive impact on our business and the communities where we operate.

Having a world-class business and world-class sustainability are complementary. Becoming more water-efficient helped us save more than $1.6 billion over the last several years. That’s a pretty significant accomplishment. Why wouldn't you do that? There’s also a growth story: When we put Dasani into the PlantBottle, we saw noticeable growth in the brand. That tells you the interest and appetite is there.

Millennials are looking hard at the choices they make in life, who they work for and with. And that also translates into what they buy. Brands that embed sustainability into everything they do have a more compelling value proposition. This is where the consumer is going.

You’ve mentioned the 'aggressive' goals Coca-Cola has set for sustainability. How is the company held accountable for meeting those goals?

We’ve recognized we need a rewards and consequences framework. We need the carrot and the stick. Within our system, we know who‘s falling short when measured against the goals, and who needs to step it up. We treat sustainability like a business. We measure, track and report. We’re one of the top companies using EY to assure our data. We can stand behind our numbers and be very proud of our progress because we know it’s real.

If we didn’t have that discipline and structure, we wouldn’t really know when we need to accelerate our efforts. There’s real power in being transparent and rigorous with your data.