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Coca-Cola's Lies About Sustainability Have Gone Too Far

They've gone from greenwashing to outright lying.

In 2007, facing growing opposition to its water management practices, particularly in India, Coca-Cola's CEO, Neville Isdell came up with a brilliant idea. The Coca-Cola company, he announced, will become water neutral, replenishing every drop of water they use, and therefore, as the suggestion went, Coca-Cola would have no impact of water resources around the world.

Voila! Problem solved, a company using 300 billion liters of water annually would have no impact on water resources. Sustainability doesn't get any better than that. The only problem was that Coca-Cola knew that water neutrality was impossible to achieve.

In a concept paper on water neutrality that Coca-Cola developed with others, it clearly stated that, "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."

But minor details such as "misleading," "troublesome" and "impossible" did not stop Coca-Cola from using the term liberally and widely. And in India, where they have faced the most intense opposition (two bottling plants have been shut down), Coca-Cola went on a fast track, announcing that they will become water neutral by the end of 2009. It took a challenge by the India Resource Center and our allies during in December 2008 to get Coca-Cola to change its tune and to admit two months later that water neutrality is controversial and they will not use it.

"Please note that the terminology "water offset," like "water neutrality" is controversial ... Until a better terminology is identified and accepted by the broader water community, we are using the term offset." -- From Coca-Cola's "Achieving Water Balance through Community Partnership," February 2009.

But the marketing appeal of a concept like water neutrality, however impossible it may be to achieve, is simply to great for a publicity driven Coca-Cola to pass by. Sharing the opening plenary of the Clinton Global Initiative with Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and Walmart two days ago, Muhtar Kent, Coca-Cola's new CEO, blurted out that Coca-Cola will become water neutral by 2020.

Wait a minute. Is there something new from the "broader water community" since February this year that has enabled water neutrality to be possible and not controversial? No, there isn't, and trust me, we would know if there was because we keep a close watch on Coca-Cola and its shenanigans. Muhtar Kent's blurt is truly indicative of how Coca-Cola has approached its "water stewardship" initiatives.

The company is more interested in seeking publicity -- manufacturing a green image of itself, in this case, than it is about doing the work on sustainability. There is a serious disconnect between the rhetoric and the ground reality. Muhtar Kent should have used the term "water offset," as the company had decided just a few months ago. But the term "water offset" does not "have the same gravity or resonance (inspiration) with the media, officials or NGO's as the term neutrality," according to Coca-Cola's own concept paper on water neutrality.

It was not a slip of the tongue, mind you. You don't slip tongues when Obama and Clinton are on the same stage. It was too great a public relations opportunity to let pass by, no matter how misleading and troublesome it may be. Coca-Cola simply could not exercise restraint and use the corrected term.

Someone Forgot to Tell the Indians

Even though the Coca-Cola company announced it would not use the controversial term "water neutral" in February this year, Coca-Cola India officials have not only continued using the term, they have even one-upped the concept -- water positive! Coca-Cola faces significant community opposition in Kala Dera in north India and a Coca-Cola funded study has recommended the plant's closure because of water shortages in the area.

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