When Coca-Cola announced plans earlier this year to recycle the equivalent of 100 percent of its packaging by 2030, the company touted the effort as part of its success with sustainable water use. In a 2016 full-page ad in The New York Times, the company proclaimed, “For every drop we use, we give you one back,” bragging on its website that it was “the first Fortune 500 company to hit a target. so aggressive. " But a year of reporting on Coca-Cola's water program shows that the company is grossly overstating its water record, suggesting that its new 'World Without Waste' recycling plan should also be viewed with skepticism.
Coca-Cola was criticized for its water practices in the mid-2000s. (The company did not answer specific questions, but did issue a lengthy statement for this article.) Coca-Cola keeps distribution costs low by drawing on local water sources, a practice that has continued since the company's initial success in Atlanta-area soda fountains. In the late 1800s, however, local populations in some of the world's increasingly water-stressed regions looked more critically at large water users, and Coca-Cola became a target of the public anger. In 2007, US college students took up the cause and called for a national boycott in support of Indian farmers who accused the company of stealing their water and their livelihoods. It was an international public relations nightmare that threatened Coca-Cola's brand image and global business strategy.
This article was reported in association with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.
E. Neville Isdell, CEO of Coke at the time, paid attention.
“Today,” he said from a podium at a 2007 World Wildlife Fund conference in Beijing, “The Coca-Cola Company is committed to replacing every drop of water we use in our beverages and their production to achieve balance in communities and in nature with the water we use ”. The idea was to make Coke's operations "water neutral". That year, the company committed to achieving this goal by 2020.
From the beginning, everything depended on how "each drop" and "neutral water" would be defined. The expression “water neutrality” first appeared at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002, the brainchild of South African businessman Pancho Ndebele. Like a carbon offset program, it offered delegates a way to offset water use by purchasing credits to invest in water efficiency initiatives and expand access to clean water. After the summit, Ndebele established the Water Neutral Foundation to advance the concept, but struggled to gain credibility with the scientific community, which criticized "water neutrality" as a misleading term that lacked a rigorous method for evaluating water use. and compensation and suggested that the world's water problems could be solved with some charitable contributions.
A method of accounting for water use came that same year when the Dutch scientist Arjen Hoekstra created the Water Footprint, a method of adding the water that enters everything we consume. Their Water Footprint counted not only the water used in the factory, but also what it takes to grow the raw materials, create the packaging, and everything else that goes into each product. The Water Footprint assessments captured the world's attention by advertising the mind-boggling amounts of water needed to meet even our humblest daily needs. Take a single t-shirt - it takes 712 gallons of water to produce, mainly due to the water it takes to grow cotton. A quarter pound hamburger requires 462 gallons of water when the water required to grow livestock feed is taken into account. Countries and companies can calculate their own Water Footprints. People Can Too: In the United States, we have a per capita Water Footprint of 2,060 gallons per day.
The Water Footprint challenged people and businesses to think more critically about their water use. The "neutrality" of water expanded water ambitions beyond the environmental mantra of reduce, reuse, recycle. The two concepts seemed to go hand in hand, and Hoekstra began work on a Water Neutrality Calculator for the Ndebele foundation. By linking water neutrality to Hoekstra's methodology for accurately measuring Water Footprints, Hoekstra and Ndebele hoped that individuals and businesses would use the calculator to invest in nature conservation projects that could, in theory at least, restore water. that cannot be reduced or recycled.
Greg Koch, then a Coca-Cola executive in charge of global water management, contacted Hoekstra. Two weeks after Isdell's speech in Beijing, Koch and Hoekstra met at a café in Amsterdam.
"It was exciting for me," recalled Hoekstra, who had taken a train from Enschede, a city 100 miles east of Amsterdam on the Dutch German border, where he works as a professor and researcher at the University of Twente.
Hoekstra was delighted with the idea of helping Coca-Cola evaluate and reduce water consumption in every part of its supply chain, not just the water used in its bottling plants, but also the amount it took to grow the sugar. and other ingredients, and produce every plastic and aluminum bottle can. Currently, the World Health Organization reports that half of the world's population will live in water-scarce areas by 2025; By 2030, the United Nations predicts that water stress will give way to water scarcity for almost half of the people on the planet. As early as 2007, Hoekstra and other experts were already sounding the alarm. Hoekstra thought that Coca-Cola was ready to face reality. But Coke would follow a different plan.
At first, the idea seemed to be gaining momentum. In Beijing, Isdell had said that the company would not start with the water used in its supply chain, but would address it eventually. “We recognize that becoming 'water neutral' in our operations does not address the issue of embedded water in our agricultural ingredients and packaging materials. Working with WWF, we will look for opportunities to reduce water use in our supply chain, starting with sugar, "Isdell told the audience. He went on to say, "Our ultimate goal is to establish a truly sustainable business in water on a global scale." The company's next moves suggested it was considering an even more transformative overhaul of its operations, including its supply chain.
After the first meeting between Koch and Hoekstra, Coca-Cola commissioned three Water Footprint assessments at a plant in the Netherlands from the Hoekstra research team. The meeting in Amsterdam also led to a series of meetings called the Water Neutrality Working Group. The first meeting was attended by Hoekstra, Ndebele and executives from Coke, World Wildlife Fund and various international agencies. Representatives from Nestlé, Ikea, the beverage maker SABMiller and other companies, along with The Nature Conservancy, appeared at subsequent meetings in Europe and the US.
"" For every drop we use, we return one ".
“We started by reviewing the concept of the water footprint and discussing how this relates to business, assuming this will provide the basis for water neutrality calculations” with the aim of seeing what “could develop in the next 6-12 months in a credible and open process, "according to the minutes of the first meeting of the Water Neutralization Working Group in September 2007. Around the same time, water neutrality and the Water Footprint led international business conferences ; JPMorgan presented the Water Footprint in a 2008 report on corporate water risk; and companies began commissioning water footprint assessments.
"There was quite a stir," said Derk Kuiper, a Dutch conservationist and former member of the World Wide Fund for Nature who chaired the Water Neutral Working Group.
But according to Ndebele and Kuiper, the executives in the room were resisting massive water use in one area: corporate supply chains, which Ndebele remembered as "the elephant in the room." From the first conversation, Hoekstra recalled, Coca-Cola executives recognized the water needs of their agricultural ingredients; Agriculture, Hoekstra said, can contribute to more than 90 percent of water use in some places. (The Verge asked Coca-Cola why the company excluded its supply chain from its original plan to replenish all the water needed to make its products, but the company did not respond.)
"There was reluctance among the executives in the room to deal with the enormous consumption of water in one area: corporate supply chains."
“Particularly in the food and beverage sectors, they understood that, at the end of the day, the biggest user of water is agriculture. And inevitably their water footprint was going to be much bigger because of that particular segment, "said Ndebele. "But I think at the beginning it was a challenge, people were happy ... not actually attending to it." Ndebele had previously worked as a sustainable development manager for SABMiller, the London-based multinational brewery and beverage company that was one of Coola's largest bottling partners. (SABMiller is now part of a new company called Newbelco).
Kuiper recalled the growing doubts among the group's corporate executives. "A lot of organizations started doing these initial calculations, and they found that ... for the Water Footprints supply chain, if you're a company with an agricultural supply chain, these are huge, these water footprints," he said. “There is not enough water for everyone,” which means that there are not enough viable offset projects to truly balance corporate agricultural water footprints.
Take the water footprint assessments that Hoekstra and his team conducted for Coca-Cola beginning in 2008. When Coca-Cola publicly released the report in September 2010, it revealed that 35 liters of water are needed to prepare every half liter of Coca Cola in Holland. Most of that water (28 liters) was used primarily to grow sugar beets to sweeten the drink. It took another seven liters to make the PET plastic bottle, plus a total of 0.4 liters of "operational water," which is the water used in their bottling plants to make every half liter of product. "[T] he operational water footprint associated with production turned out to be a very small percentage of the total water footprint," according to the report.
"" There is not enough water for everyone. "
Coca-Cola told The Verge that the company's “ultimate goal is to source 100% of our key agricultural ingredients more sustainably” and that it works with its suppliers to improve. "We believe that we have come a long way in this area, but we recognize that it is a journey," the company wrote in its statement for this article.
As the enormity of the task the company had set itself, Coca-Cola and other members of the task force pressured Hoekstra to allow them to participate in an act of sleight of hand that would reduce nearly half of the water footprint for each medium. liter of Coca-Cola, according to people in the meetings.
In one move, adopting the use of “net green” water instead of completely “green” water use could have eliminated 43 percent of the Dutch Coke's water footprint. A water footprint using “green net” would subtract the amount of water that natural vegetation might need if, say, a sugar plantation had not replaced it. In cases where pre-existing natural vegetation absorbed more water than the crop that replaced it, “net green” offered the potential to reduce a company's overall water footprint despite the links of industrial agriculture to water pollution. and other water sustainability problems. The Verge asked Coca-Cola to request that the calculations be based on "net green" for water use, but the company did not respond.
“There was a general push from beverage companies towards 'net green', and the problem also came up specifically when we were doing our report,” said Hoekstra, referring to the water footprint assessments created for the company. "It felt like a victory when Coke finally accepted our report despite the general pressure within the [beverage] industry and Coca itself to go net green."
After Hoekstra rejected Coca-Cola's request to substitute “green green” for its Water Footprint methodology, the company never moved forward with a Global Business Water Footprint of The Coca-Cola Company, limiting its attention to only water that goes into each bottle. According to Koch, speaking on behalf of the company two years ago, there was no need as Hoekstra's work had already confirmed his "intuition" about the amount of water incorporated into its supply chain.
By Christine MacDonald
Illustrations by James O'Brien
To be continue…