Cola

In this guide we investigate, score and rank the ethical and environmental record of 16 cola brands.

We also look at sugar and sweeteners, shine a spotlight on the ethics of The Coca-Cola Company and give our recommended buys.

About Ethical Consumer

This is a product guide from Ethical Consumer, the UK's leading alternative consumer organisation. Since 1989 we've been researching and recording the social and environmental records of companies, and making the results available to you in a simple format.

What to buy

What to look for when buying cola:

  • Is it Fairtrade? From the cola nut itself to the sugar and sweeteners used, many of the agricultural ingredients in cola come with serious workers rights issues. Looking for a Fairtrade cola will ensure that the person growing these ingredients will receive a fair wage and working conditions.

  • Is it organic? Made from petroleum, chemical pesticides threaten bee populations, contaminate water sources, and cause large-scale destruction of habitats. Look for organic cola to avoid ingredients grown with these chemicals. 

Best Buys

Our Best Buys are all organic [O] and / or Fairtrade [F] colas from:

Recommended buys

Whole Earth organic is more easily available and scores well against our rating system.

What not to buy

What to avoid when buying cola:

  • Is it in a plastic bottle? The plastic in our oceans could circle the planet 400 times. It is threatening marine ecosystems and contributing to climate change. Look for cans or glass bottles to cut down on waste and resources used.

  • Profits over people? This industry includes some companies that are notorious for the human rights abuses in their supply chains - from accusations of murdering unionists to siphoning water from drought-ridden communities. Look for a Fairtrade cola instead.

Companies to avoid

We would recommend avoiding the most famous brand in this guide: The Coca-Cola Company. The multinational has been accused of marketing its drinks to children under 12 and lobbying against regulation of sugar content. 

  • Coca-Cola

Score table

Updated live from our research database

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Brand Score(out of 20)

Gusto Organic Real Cola [F] [O]

Company Profile: Gusto Organic Ltd
17

Karma Cola [O, F]

Company Profile: Karma Cola UK Limited
17

Gusto Naturally Slim Cola [F]

Company Profile: Gusto Organic Ltd
16

Ubuntu Cola [F]

Company Profile: Natural Beverage Company Ltd
16

Karma Cola Sugar Free

Company Profile: Karma Cola UK Limited
15

Barr cola

Company Profile: AG Barr plc
11.5

Fentimans Curiosity Cola

Company Profile: Fentimans Ltd
11.5

Fever-tree Madagascan Cola

Company Profile: FEVERTREE LTD
11.5

Free & Easy Cola [O]

Company Profile: Healthy Food Brands Ltd
11.5

KA Karibbean Kola

Company Profile: AG Barr plc
11.5

Franklin and Sons Cola

Company Profile: Global Brands (GBL) Holdings Limited
10.5

Whole Earth Cola [O]

Company Profile: Whole Earth Foods Ltd
10.5

Co-op cola

Company Profile: Co-operative Group Ltd
5

Marks and Spencer cola

Company Profile: Marks & Spencer Group plc
5

Pepsi

Company Profile: PepsiCo Inc
5

Waitrose cola

Company Profile: Waitrose Limited
3.5

Sainsbury's cola

Company Profile: J Sainsbury plc
2.5

Coca-Cola

Company Profile: Coca-Cola Company, The
2

Morrisons cola

Company Profile: Wm Morrison Supermarkets plc
2

Tesco cola

Company Profile: Tesco plc
1

Asda cola

Company Profile: Asda Group Ltd
0

What is most important to you?

Animals
Environment
People
Politics
Product sustainability

Our Analysis

Society’s sweet tooth supported the rise and dominance of sugary fizzy drinks in the 1850s and now poses a national health risk.

One in three children in the UK leave primary school overweight and one in 20 adults suffer from diabetes.

The fizzy drinks industry has tried to brush aside these health criticisms by offering smaller can and bottle sizes, in addition to using sweeteners instead of sugar.

Cola-flavoured drinks have a whole market of their own, accounting for 59% of fizzy drinks consumed in 2016.[1] We have a separate guide for Soft Drinks and Energy Drinks

Sugar Content

Soft drinks are the single biggest source of added sugar for children in the UK – around 30% – and the second largest source for adults. Their consumption has long been linked to an obesity epidemic. The number of obese children and adolescents has risen tenfold in the last 40 years.

There are almost 9 teaspoons of sugar in a glass of Coca-Cola. Read more about the issue of sugar and the sugar tax in our guide to Soft Drinks

Artificial sweeteners

The soft drinks industry is far from drying up, with companies and consumers just moving to Low/No/Reduced varieties. Low-sugar drinks often rely on artificial sweeteners, such as aspartame, cyclamates, saccharin, sucralose, and the new sweetener stevia.

New research does suggests, however, that zero-calorie sweeteners may, in fact, cause weight gain overall. The sweet taste may prompt cravings that just make us eat more. Some scientists also suggest that the sweet flavour may trick the body into releasing too much insulin, leading to weight gain in the long run or sweeteners might alter the gut microbiome, which would affect the body’s use of fat.2

Campaign group Action on Sugar think that the answer to obesity and the diseases that follow in its wake is to reduce our liking for sweetness. They want to see the gradual reduction of the amount of sugar in our drinks and our food and snacks without the use of sweeteners.

Soft drinks companies have been criticised for distorting facts about sweeteners. In 2016, the campaign group US Right to Know called Coca-Cola out for claims that ‘diet’ varieties assisted weight loss compared to not drinking soft drinks at all, rather than compared to consuming full-sugar varieties. The group requested that the FDA ban such claims.

Manu of our companies had a no artificial sweeteners policy for their drinks: Wayfairer (who make Karma), Gusto, Fever-Tree, Franklin and Sons, Free & Easy.

Company profile

The Coca-Cola Company owns four out of five of the world’s top-selling soft drinks. In 2016, it introduced more than 500 new products worldwide! On top of its own trademark beverages, it licenses and produces brands like Schweppes and Dr Pepper in the UK. Coca-Cola also shares ownership of This Juicy Water with Refresco, via the not-so-innocent Innocent brand which it also owns.

As usual, Coca-Cola has a whole host of sins to answer for. In March 2017, Channel Four ran a Dispatches documentary based on a cache of leaked emails and documents from the company. The leaks exposed Coca-Cola’s anti-regulation efforts, including working with Conservative MPs against the sugar tax. Other hacked emails showed the company lobbying against EU regulations restricting marketing to children. And those from a senior Coca-Cola executive discussed contacting a journalist, who was planning on writing a negative report, stating, “we will … build her brain around our strategy”.

Coca-Cola has also received criticism for its aggressive marketing strategy. The company spends the most of any in the industry on the advertising of its drinks brands – nearly £10 million on Coca-Cola Zero Sugar in 2016 alone![1] In 2015, it sparked outrage for plans to drive its Christmas truck through several UK towns with amongst the highest rates of childhood obesity.

A 2016 report by the Centre for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) accused the company of skirting its own policy not to advertise to under 12s, through its choice of TV sponsorship and its child-friendly characters. “Whatever Coke may promise, its obvious goal is to implant its products deep into kid culture and its brand onto the developing brains of children,” said CSPI president Michael F. Jacobson, the author of the report.

“In the case of Coke, we’re talking about a product that puts children on a glide path toward life-threatening diseases.” The company lost marks under the Political Activity and Irresponsible Marketing categories for these criticisms.

Greenpeace have also launched a campaign against Coca-Cola and its environmentally disastrous packaging. Coca-Cola is responsible for the sale of 3000 plastic bottles every second.

Earlier this year, Coca-Cola announced that it would up the recycled content of its bottles from 40 to 50%. However, Greenpeace says that the company is green-washing: Coca-Cola maintains that having 100% recycled bottles is impossible, despite several other big brands (including Ribena and 7UP) managing it over 5 years ago. Greenpeace’s campaign has already forced Coca-Cola to stop lobbying against deposit return schemes. 

Want to see more?

See detailed company information, ethical ratings and issues for all companies mentioned in this guide, by clicking on a brand name in the Score table.  

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References

  1. Mintel, Carbonated Soft Drinks market report, June 2017, viewed 9 November 2017