This month, the Earth Island Institute -- a nonprofit environmental group -- brought suit against Coca-Cola in D.C. Superior Court, alleging that the company falsely and deceptively represents itself as "a sustainable and environmentally friendly company, despite being one of the largest contributors of plastic pollution in the world."

Specifically, the complaint points to claims from a variety of sources -- including Coca-Cola's website, social media, Business & Sustainability reports, and statements from its CEO -- such as:

  • "We act in ways to create a more sustainable and better shared future. To make a difference in people's lives, communities, and our planet by doing business the right way";
  • "Scaling sustainability solutions and partnering with others is a focus of ours";
  • "Business and sustainability are not separate stories for The Coca-Cola Company - but different facets of the same story"; 
  • "We're using our leadership to achieve positive change in the world and build a more sustainable future for our communities and our planet"; and
  • "I'm reminded of the power of our people to make a difference, to serve our communities and to constantly work to shape a more sustainable business."

Notably, many of the claims challenged by the Earth Island Institute are those in which Coca-Cola makes forward-looking statements about its sustainability and environmental initiatives and goals it hopes to achieve in the future, including a section of Coca-Cola's website focused on "sustainable packaging design" where the company states that it will "make 100% of our packaging recyclable globally by 2025" and "use at least 50% recycled material in our packaging by 2030."

Earth Island Institute alleges that these representations violate the District of Columbia Consumer Protection Procedures Act (which, as the complaint states, allows public-interest organizations such as Earth Island Institute to bring an action on behalf of the interests of a consumer or class of consumers) by misleading consumers in presenting itself as a sustainable company when allegedly, Coca-Cola is the world's leading plastic waste producer.

In recent years, we've seen cases brought against companies alleging that the use of "sustainable" in advertising can take on a variety of meanings to consumers -- not only in the environmental space, but also in economic and social sectors. This most recent case also suggests that future-looking goal-oriented statements regarding sustainability can also be the subject of legal action.

Earth Island Institute v. The Coca-Cola Company, case number 2021CA001846B