I spent the first 18 years of my life on a peach farm in rural Georgia. It’s usually surprising to most who see me since I’m more likely to be spotted in a suit and tie rather than jeans or overalls  – even though I’d rather be wearing blue jeans almost any day. And actually, I’m from a long line of farmers. My granddad started a farm after college (middle of the depression) and excelled at running one. In recognition of his farming expertise, he was offered the amazing opportunity to travel to Russia in the early 1960's, during a time when it was almost unheard of for an American citizen to travel there. In 1970, Georgia Farmer Magazine named him “Farmer of the Year.” To this day, whenever I visit a farm, I can’t help but think of my father and grandfather, who both taught me a lot about farming.

Ben's dad and granddad circa 1980

Ben's dad and granddad circa 1980

Beyond learning a little bit about agriculture, growing up on a farm taught me many other “life lessons,” like how to treat people, how to work together and how to always give a little more than someone asked for (or paid for!). It also taught me about the critical relationship between agriculture and the environment. I remember countless nights in the spring when by father and grandfather were up all hours watching the temperature, worried that a late frost could destroy our annual peach crop. Later in the summer, drought had its impacts.

When the time came to leave for college, my roots followed me, as I took an interest in learning more about inter-relationships between man and the natural environment.  Eventually, this life experience, schooling and passion led me to what I do. Today, at The Coca-Cola Company, I lead our sustainable agriculture efforts and work with our suppliers to ensure sustainability is part of every step in the supply chain process.

Ben harvesting tea in Japan

Ben harvests tea in Japan.

So how do we do this? It starts with understanding the impacts and opportunities in our agricultural supply chain. In the last few years, I’ve been fortunate to travel to the sugar cane fields of southern China, the corn fields in the upper Midwest (U.S.) and northeastern China, tea plantations in China and Japan, and coffee farms in Brazil to experience this first-hand.  Through the Coca-Cola system, we know we can influence and improve livelihoods for hundreds of thousands – if not millions – of farmers by more active engagement at the farm level. We sometimes do this directly but often it’s through our suppliers and processors, who buy directly from farmers.

A global trend in business is accountability for sustainability along the entire length of the supply chain, from planting and harvesting of commodities to production of products for the store shelf.

tea plantation

Tea plantation in Japan

Integrating sustainability into our supply chain involves engaging with our business partners on a supplier-by-supplier basis, as well as across ingredient and spend category streams. We partner with Suppliers on sustainability initiatives that are relevant to the specific materials each supplier is, well, supplying, to our system.

Suppliers are informed about what materials are permissible or non-permissible for our supply chain. In addition, we adhere to our global Supplier Guiding Principles, which contain basic expectations and rules in order to do business with Coca-Cola. We have also recently developed a set of principles for our agricultural ingredient suppliers to address sustainability challenges specific to agriculture (Sustainable Agriculture Guiding Principles). And the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), which explains suppliers’ risks and opportunities in terms of climate protection, helps our Company understand our overall “end-to-end” carbon footprint, the opportunities that exist to reduce it and the best practices that may already be in place in our supply chain.

Our system prioritizes three “upstream” areas that have the biggest impact on our business:  agriculture, packaging and cold-drink equipment. Packaging efforts over the years have included lightweighting (using less material to make our packages lighter), use of recycled content materials, and more recently, supplier collaboration to accelerate PlantBottle™ packaging. Cold-drink equipment efforts have focused on ways to increase energy efficiency and decrease climate impacts associated with our vending machines, coolers and fountain dispensers. And In July 2013, together with World Wildlife Fund, our Company announced our new 2020 environmental goals which focus on sustainable management of water, energy, packaging use as well as sustainable sourcing of agricultural ingredients through 2020 .

Coca-Cola crew on the tea plantation

Coca-Cola crew on the tea plantation.

Yet, agriculture still remains the greatest opportunity for us. Approximately half of what we buy as a global business, including sugar, juice, coffee and tea, is grown on a farm.  And since we depend on these ingredients to drive our business growth, we need to ensure that farms and sourcing methods are operating as sustainably as possible. After all, agriculture has more than its fair share of impacts in terms of water scarcity and use, carbon emissions and human, workplace and land rights related issues. We can play a leadership role by influencing our business partners to minimize these impacts, and we are working to do this through the efforts I have described.

Where sustainability meets innovation is also very important to Coca-Cola. Our business has been built by innovation – innovation in our products and packaging. And collaboration with business partners and suppliers will be crucial to helping us continue to innovate.   As we engage more actively upstream and downstream in our supply chain, we will be driving innovation in areas that are tangential to our business.

Earlier this year, we invited more than 100 of our largest global suppliers to spend the day with us thinking through how we might create these innovations.  We challenged them to help us meet our 2020 Vision goals on agriculture, packaging and well-being. But we didn’t stop there. We challenged them to push our Company to find new ways of unlocking shared value – shared value for us, for them and for society. We continue to work through those ideas to integrate the best ones into our business relationships.

Ensuring sustainability is a value that’s embraced across our supply chain is a way we can make an impact beyond our own operations to improve the environment, livelihoods and society.

Ben Jordan

Ben Jordan is the Director of Supplier Sustainability at The Coca-Cola Company in Atlanta, Georgia.