Environmental concerns have climbed steadily up the agenda for soft drinks producers in recent years. However, Annette Farr writes, progress has been faster in the UK than in the US.

We are told that time is running out to reverse the dire consequences of climate change. It is no longer good enough for producers of soft drinks merely to encourage recycling of their packaging; the ethos of sustainability now goes much deeper. 

The British Soft Drink Association's (BSDA) Sustainability Strategy, launched in June 2008, identified four key areas on which to focus: climate change; waste and packaging; water; and transport. One year on much, it seems, is being accomplished, as Paul Moody, BSDA president, reported at this month's annual Industry Lunch.  

He was able to cite some encouraging developments, such as the possibility of 60% energy savings achieved by the installation of a wind turbine at AG Barr and that new HFC-free chillers at Britvic are leading to a 50% energy saving. In recycling, Volvic and Evian are set to go plastics-neutral with the UK's first 'closed loop' plastics recycling initiative, while GlaxoSmithKline brands, including Ribena and Lucozade, have moved to 100% recycled PET (rPET).       

Packaging has become lightweight. For example, the width of the body of Coca-Cola's 330 ml can has been reduced to 0.097mm (a 5% weight reduction), resulting in the saving of 78,000 tonnes of CO2 and 150,000 tonnes of aluminium across Europe each year. And companies are making progress towards the overall target of a 20% reduction in water usage by 2020. Nestlé's Waters UK reports that it has reduced water usage by over 50% in the last three years at its St Anne's well in Buxton, through increased efficiencies.

Britvic Soft Drinks has secured a 30.2% reduction in energy used in manufacturing and a 23.6% reduction in carbon emissions per tonne of product produced since 1997. Britvic has also saved 444,187 product miles since 2007 by working closely with hauliers and planning teams.

Another company with a strong environmental programme is smoothie maker Innocent. Co-founder Richard Reed launched his 'Sustainability Squad' in 2006 to measure Innocent's carbon footprint and since then the company has reduced the footprint of its 250ml smoothie by 21%. 

Innocent was also the first company worldwide to use 100% rPET and all its smoothies are now bottled in 100% rPET. The latest development is an 8% lighter carton used for its 1-litre smoothie. This carton is also fitted with a new no-ring pull closure, saving 20 tonnes of plastic and around 100 tonnes of carton board a year, representing some 250 tonnes of CO2 per year.

Clearly changing consumer opinion has been a catalyst for progress by UK companies. However, American consumers are not as environmentally aware, partly explaining why progress has been slower stateside.

In a 2008 Datamonitor survey across 15 different countries around the world, US consumers ranked 9th of the 15 for seeking out sustainable products. According to the survey, 42.6% of Americans said they "tend to agree" or "strongly agree" with the question: "To what extent do you agree or disagree that you actively seek out environmentally-friendly products?"

It was only in January this year that PepsiCo and the Carbon Trust announced a partnership to certify the carbon footprint of several PepsiCo products, beginning with Tropicana Pure Premium Orange Juice, the first consumer brand in North America to be independently certified by the UK's Carbon Trust.

At the time Neil Campbell, president of Tropicana Products North America, said: "We will use these findings to further target our efforts to reduce our carbon footprint and build on our sustainability programmes. Tropicana's initiatives to recycle waste - including turning discarded orange peels into cattle feed and to use more renewable energy - have already contributed to savings and decreased our impact on the environment."

Recently Coca-Cola announced it was "going green" in Washington, DC through a series of measures designed to reduce the environmental footprint at each step in manufacturing, distribution and marketing. These efforts include climate-friendly beverage coolers, hybrid electric delivery trucks and trailers, and a recycling programme for the National Mall and Memorial Parks.

Given their power and influence, having the two soft drinks giants competing with one another in sustainability initiatives would certainly have a positive impact on reducing environmental harm.

However, New York-based Tom Vierhile, director - Product Launch Analytics Datamonitor, does not see green issues being used as a major weapon in the Cola wars. "I don't see environmental issues even registering on the radar yet for this battle. The soft drink makers are more worried about anti-obesity legislation that may tax non-diet soft drinks than they seem to be worried about green issues."

That said, Vierhile acknowledges that there has been some action in lightweighting, especially in bottled water. The Coca-Cola Company has unveiled a plastic bottle called the PlantBottle, made partially from plants, which is fully recyclable, has a lower reliance on a non-renewable resource, and reduces carbon emissions when compared with petroleum-based PET plastic bottles.

PepsiCo has launched the Eco-Fina Bottle for Aquafina, its leading US bottled water. Weighing 10.9g, this is made with 50% less plastic than the 500ml Aquafina bottles produced in 2002, eliminating an estimated 75m pounds of plastic annually.
 
"Lightweighting drinks packaging is probably the biggest area right now," says Vierhile. However, he notes: "This could all change in the next year or two, though, as Wal-Mart launched a packaging scorecard in February this year that will reportedly be a factor in making decisions on which brands to stock."

It appears that the sustainability trend in beverages is on the cusp of taking off in the US. Looking at product launches to date in 2009, Datamonitor records an increase (95 SKUs to 10 June 2009 compared with 70 SKUs for all of 2008)  in the number of non-alcoholic drinks launched - the majority being teas - that are described with the words 'sustainable', 'environmentally-friendly' or 'eco-friendly'.