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Coca-Cola's Latest Environmental Scam

Under fire for its mismanagement of water resources in India, Coke has gone all out to create an image of itself as a leader in water conservation.
 
 
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The Coca-Cola Co. is up to its old tricks again. The company, which is under fire for its mismanagement of water resources in India, has gone all out to manufacture an image of itself as a global leader in water conservation. Sections of Coca-Cola's Web site, for example, read like a proposal that a nongovernmental organization working on water issues might write.

Now, in an attempt to position itself as "aggressively" tackling the world's water problems, the company has come up with a new corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiative -- water neutrality. The company has already announced that it will become water neutral in India by the end of 2009 and that it has plans to do so in its global operations as well. Sure, it all sounds good, and who could object to water-conservation measures in an increasingly water-scarce world? But just what does becoming water neutral mean?

In a concept paper on water neutrality developed in November 2007 by the Coca-Cola Co., the World Business Council on Sustainable Development, World Wildlife Fund and others,  it reads: "In a strict sense, the term 'water neutral' is troublesome and even may be misleading. It is often possible to reduce a water footprint, but it is generally impossible to bring it down to zero."

I see. Troublesome and misleading.

The concept paper also notes: "After having done everything that was technically possible and economically feasible, individuals, communities and businesses will always have a residual water footprint. In that sense, they can never become water neutral."

In other words, becoming water neutral is impossible.

And finally, the concept paper on water neutrality offers this: "Alternative names to 'water neutral' that have been suggested include water offset, water stewardship and water-use reduction and reuse. However none of these other terms seem to have the same gravity or resonance (inspiration) with the media, officials or NGOs as the term neutrality. For pragmatic reasons it may therefore be attractive to use the term 'water neutral,' but there is a definite need to be clear about precisely what it entails if reduction of water use to zero is not possible."

Just to be clear, we want to summarize what the concept paper on water neutrality has to say on the use of the term water neutrality. It is pragmatic to use a troublesome and misleading (but attractive) term like water neutrality -- which is impossible to achieve -- because it resonates well with the media, officials and NGOs. Welcome to Coca-Cola's world.

It doesn't really matter what the facts and reality may be. As long as it sounds good, no matter how misleading or troublesome the concept, they will market it to forge public opinion with the use of their mighty public relations apparatus. Coca-Cola announced its "water neutrality" goals in London and in San Francisco last week.

Little Drops of Misery

The International Campaign to Hold Coca-Cola Accountable for its abuses in India has been frustrated with Coca-Cola's increased public relations, under the guise of corporate social responsibility, to respond to the crisis that Coca-Cola has created in India. Communities living around some of Coca-Cola's bottling plants in India are experiencing severe water shortages -- due to Coca-Cola's extraction of water from the groundwater resource, as well as pollution by the company's plants.

Located primarily in rural areas, the hardest hit have been farmers who have seen significant declines in crop production, as well as women who now have to walk farther to access potable water. A study funded by Coca-Cola -- which the campaign forced it to agree to -- confirmed that Coca-Cola is a significant contributor to the water crises, and one of its key recommendations is that Coca-Cola shut down its bottling plant -- in Kala Dera in the state of Rajasthan -- where the community has been campaigning against Coca-Cola.

The study -- a damning indictment of Coca-Cola's water management practices in India -- concluded that the Coca-Cola Co. had sited its bottling plants in India from strictly a "business continuity" perspective that has not taken the wider context into perspective. It also warned Coca-Cola of worsening water conditions around its bottling plants, found an alarming increase in pollution as one got closer to Coca-Cola bottling plants and faulted the company on pollution-prevention measures, among others.

In typical fashion, Coca-Cola has chosen to ignore the findings of the study -- which it paid for and even participated in -- and is now insisting that shutting down the Kala Dera plant and leaving is not an option because the responsible thing to do is to stay and solve the problem because they are "problem solvers!"

Lies and Half-Truths: Coca-Cola's CSR

Last month, the Coca-Cola Co. released its 2007/2008 sustainability review, and surprisingly, critical issues facing the company's operations in India do not find mention in the review. Needless to say, the company gives itself high marks in its sustainability report. We can understand that mentioning the company's atrocious record in India would not look good for a company that is on a fast track toward manufacturing a green image of itself. But surely a company cannot just choose to ignore the fiercest battleground it faces when it comes to measuring Coca-Cola's sustainability?

Evidently, if you are Coca-Cola, you can conveniently choose to omit the most critical issues facing the company's use -- or abuse -- of water. The sustainability report must look good, and facts do not matter. One of Coca-Cola's champion projects in India to deflect attention away from the water crises it causes is rainwater harvesting, a traditional Indian practice.

Although the company started operations in India in 1993, it only had four rainwater-harvesting structures in 2001 -- definitely not a priority for the company. As the community-led campaigns against Coca-Cola's water abuses spread around India, so did Coca-Cola's championing of rainwater harvesting.

Today, the company claims to have over 200 rainwater-harvesting structures. Along with the massive publicity of their rainwater-harvesting structures (which, incidentally, the Coca-Cola funded study found to be in "dilapidated" condition), Coca-Cola also started making fantastical claims.

In Kala Dera, for example, the company claims to recharge (through rainwater harvesting) five times the water they use from the groundwater resource. In other words, they claim that they put back fives times as much water they use back into the groundwater resource. Forget water neutral, this would be water positive!

Yet, while they make this claim in a letter to the University of Michigan, they also note that they do not have any metering mechanisms in place to measure how much water is being recharged. If you don't have measuring devices in place to measure the recharge, how can one claim that they recharge five times the amount of water they use? If you are Coca-Cola, you just make it up. And the University of Michigan officials never even bothered to clarify this point. It sure resonates well with the media, officials and NGOs. And evidently, it seems to work.

Last month, the Coca-Cola Co. extended its partnership with the World Wildlife Fund to conserve freshwater river basins around the world, except India. Announced originally with much fanfare in Beijing in July 2007 as part of their Olympics presence, the partnership with the WWF is yet another attempt to deflect attention away from the real crises that the company creates in India.

Coca-Cola regularly highlights the partnership when responding to the issues in India. While we welcome any initiatives on water conservation, it makes no difference to the communities in India that are reeling from water shortages -- courtesy Coca-Cola. Conserving freshwater river basins in China and Guatemala do absolutely nothing to impact the depleted groundwater in Kala Dera and other Coca-Cola bottling plants in India. Water issues are local issues.

The list of Coca-Cola's initiatives to mislead the public is long and is well documented by the India Resource Center. The company has repeatedly publicized the Golden Peacock Awards that it has received for "environmental excellence" in India, for example. What the company does not tell you is that Coca-Cola is the primary sponsor of the organization that gives out the awards.

Water Neutrality -- A Scam

The Coca-Cola Co. is now embarking on its latest initiative to mislead the public -- announcing its water neutrality goals. Becoming water neutral is impossible, and Coca-Cola is very well aware of this. But matters like that have never stopped the company from making preposterous claims, however misleading and troublesome they may be. What is surprising, however, is the complete lack of scrutiny that Coca-Cola is subject to by the corporate social responsibility community and the media.

Allowing Coca-Cola to get away with such a disingenuous plan significantly weakens the core aims of corporate social responsibility, as well as objective reporting, and makes CSR nothing more than an extension of public relations for companies. If the Coca-Cola Co. were serious about being a good corporate citizen, it is well advised to begin by meeting the key recommendations of the study it paid for, and shutting down its plant in Kala Dera would be a positive first step.

Coming up with misleading and absurd terms like water neutrality is not going to make the difficulties of the communities in India go away. We need genuine changes in the manner in which Coca-Cola does business in India, not public relations initiatives like water neutrality. 

Amit Srivastava is the coordinator of India Resource Center, an international campaigning organization in San Francisco.
 
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