The Meandering Social Worker

wandering : wondering : learning

The Coca Cola Conundrum

It seems hardly possible that some businesses have budgets larger than some countries, such as Wal-Mart, whose revenues in 2009, exceeded the respective GDPs of 174 countries.  And what seems hardly possible can be easily overlooked, while the significance of the changes brought about by the growth of the super-business can be easily missed.

The returnable glass bottle is just one example of this.  Younger generations, particularly in the UK and US, may never have seen one.  Older generations may remember them with a little fondness but assume they could never make a comeback.

Yet throughout Central and South America they still exist, mainly in the many small shops and cafés that abound in these countries.  Only in some of the larger chains, and those promoting a ‘modern’ image, has the plastic bottle taken over completely.

Why this international difference and does it matter?

Even if you do not subscribe to the view that the planet is in immediate danger of collapse due to global warming, there is some logic in the view that the world’s resources are finite in the face of an ever growing population in many parts of the world.  Enough people believe this to ensure that scientific advances are being made in the development of alternative power sources, such as wind farms which have sprung up on land and at sea all around the world, instead of continuing dependence on fossil fuels.

The use and recycling of plastics remain the subject of much debate, not least due to the difficulties involved while websites such as ‘My Plastic Free Life’ have growing followings.

Cynics might (reasonably) see governments’ promotion of the “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” message as pandering to the whims of the electorate, yet it indicates that the conservation movement has sufficient following for those dependent on elections to sit up and take notice.

But this doesn’t answer the question as to why the international difference?  The answer to that question is much more important and just one small indicator of the root of many of the ills of modern society.

The role of big business.

Some of the largest businesses in the world are linked to the manufacture and distribution of food and drinks.  Kraft, Tesco, Walmart, Coca-Cola, Costco, are among the best known, although often under several names so the extent of their operations are not always immediately realised.  In most cases they are seen as positive, at worse a necessary evil.

In the so called advanced economies people have grown used to supermarkets dominating our High Streets and our shopping malls.  On the positive side, larger businesses are usually able to command bulk purchase discounts and introduce economies of scale that result in cheaper shopping for the average person.  For many years shoppers have been able to go to just one store or shopping mall and find everything they need, and more, in that one place.  It has meant convenience, easy parking, less hassle.  It has suited those with busier lifestyles, often travelling to work further from home or working longer or more irregular hours, trying to fit in children’s social commitments alongside greater expectations to visit aging parents who increasingly live alone.

Sometimes older generations might pause to think about all the small traders who used to provide haberdashery services, tailoring, butchery, greengrocery services, as well as a host of other trades.  Now they are hard pushed to find an independent butcher in the High Street, or a greengrocer who knows their produce.  Occasionally they might find small independent stores providing up-market jewellery, or art, or occasionally fashions, but these are few and far between.  Apart from products such as gourmet teas or handmade sweets these rarely include everyday goods and foodstuffs.

Yet this is not the case everywhere.  In Eastern Russia, the capitals of Kazakhstan and Mongolia and much of Central and South America we found most supermarkets were often no larger than the supermarkets of England in the 1960’s, maybe 10,000 square feet.  There are a few exceptions of course but most are tiny by comparison to modern superstores.   Elsewhere small ‘corner stores’ abound, selling everything the big supermarkets sell but in smaller quantities.  Here large packets can be opened and you can buy your cigarettes, sanitary towels and even painkillers and chewing gum, one at a time.  In garages all sized bottles of car oil can be opened so you can buy the amount you need, not the amount that is deemed the right size by the manufacturer.

Coca Cola delivery lorries are a common sight in Central America

Coca Cola delivery lorries are a common sight in Central America

In Mexico, Central and South America another notable difference is evident, as Coca-Cola delivery vehicles collect empty glass bottles at the same time as delivering the refilled bottles for resale.  It hardly seems likely that Central and South Americans have banded together to demand this ecologically friends service from Coca-Cola, when other nations have not been able to achieve this.

More likely it is the infrastructure of a vast network of small shops and café’s selling small quantities of products spread out over a relatively small geographical area where road conditions favour the use of smaller delivery vehicles, makes this still a commercially viable option for Coca-Cola.

By comparison, the vast wastelands of Kazakhstan, Mongolia and Siberia have also seen the demise of the recyclable glass bottle.  A cynical view might be that the huge distances between shops, café’s and even towns, would significantly increase fuel consumption if the delivery vehicles collected the empty glass bottles for returning to a depot and refilling, making plastic much more economically viable.

In small shops, finding somewhere to store empty returnable bottles is not difficult, they take up the space vacated by the sold products until the next collection and delivery is made.  In the vast superstores and supermarkets that predominate in the UK and the US, every inch of space is carefully calculated to be turned over to profit.  Here, the storage of returnable glass bottles would take up precious space.  In the UK and US, where huge trucks or lorries are on a tight delivery schedule, collecting the empties would add to the time and therefore the costs.  The additional weight of the glass bottles being carried over long distances between vast warehouses and delivery points would add to fuel costs.  All these additional costs would then undoubtedly have to be passed on to the consumer, something many would not want to accept.

None of this fits well with the cut-throat supermarket industry, where profit margins have been historically tiny, reducing the incentives of other large corporations, such as Coca-Cola in the case of the returnable glass bottle, to offer the customer a genuine choice.

Conclusion: None of this is of itself bad.  It is, however, unfortunate, when we, the public, take on board the messages of big business and assume they have our best interests (and that of the planet) at heart.

The assertion of this article is that this may not always be the case and it is our duty as consumers to question, discuss, analyse and respond to big business to hold even them accountable.

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