Ecocentric

Why Coke Is Going White for Polar Bears

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The 125-year-old Coca-Cola Company doesn’t like to mess with its brand image. That’s in part because it’s so valuable—according to Interbrand Coke has the best brand in the world—but also because previous efforts to tweak its image haven’t always worked out so well, and sometimes lead to things like this.

So perhaps it’s a measure of the company’s dedication to the environment that Coca-Cola has decided to change the color of its iconic cans for the holiday season—white, to draw attention to the plight of the polar bear. Coke and the environmental group World Wildlife Fund (WWF) have joined together to promote the Arctic Home project, which will involve turning 1.4 billion Coke cans white, emblazoned with the image of a mother polar bear and her cubs pawing through the Arctic. There will also be white bottle caps on other Coke branded drinks, all running from the beginning of November to February. “In 125 years we’ve never changed the color of the Coke can,” says Katie Bayne, president and GM of Coca-Cola Sparking Beverages. “We really see this as a bold gesture.”

Bold gestures are exactly what the polar bears needs. There’s a reason the planet’s largest land carnivores have emerged as the symbols of climate change—perhaps no species is more directly impacted by warming temperatures than the polar bear. They depend on Arctic sea ice as a major habitat and hunting ground, but sea ice is vanishing rapidly, shrinking to its second-lowest level on record this past summer. As the ice melts, polar bears are forced to swim further and further for food—and some, especially young cubs, simply won’t make it. “We’re watching the ice shrink in front of our eyes, and if there is no ice, there are no bears,” says Carter Roberts, the president and CEO of WWF. “The polar bears need our help.”

One way to help them, of course, is to reduce carbon emissions and blunt the worst effects of global warming. That’s…not really happening all that quickly. So that leaves adaptation, which for polar bears means locating the areas of Arctic sea ice that might be less vulnerable to warming. That’s exactly what WWF is trying to do, identifying the Last Ice area that may remain solid long after other areas of the Arctic have melted. The group is working with Canadian government and the local Inuit community to create a kind of climate refuge in the Last Ice capable of supporting polar bears for decades into the future. “We aren’t creating the Last Ice area—climate change is,” says Geoff York, the WWF’s polar bear expert. “We just want to make sure that the conditions are there to support the polar bears and the people who will be living with them.”

That’s going to take a lot of research—York points out that the high Arctic area is “one of the least understood places on Earth”—and that research is going to cost money, potentially as much as $10 million. (It’s not cheap operating in the remote ice.) That’s where Coke comes in. The company—which has used polar bears in its holiday ads for decades—is donating $2 million to WWF, and will match consumer donations through March 15 up to $1 million. Individuals will be able to text donations at a dollar apiece to 357357, or donate online at Arctichome.com. “Coke has made a kind of foundational commitment that has never before been seen in our history,” says Roberts. “They’re taking their biggest promotional season and dedicating it to this cause.”

It’ll take a lot more than soda to save the polar bears, which are already listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. But a little highly carbonated holiday cheer won’t hurt.

Bryan Walsh is a senior writer at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bryanrwalsh. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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