Coca-Cola's Lies About Sustainability Have Gone Too Far
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.
Initially, Coca-Cola blamed the lack of rainfall in the area for the water shortages. The area does indeed receive low rainfall (less than 600 mm annually) which begs the question as to why the company built a bottling plant in a low-rain, drought prone, desert area in the first place. Nine of the last twenty six years have been drought years in Kala Dera and just a little bit of common sense would suggest that this would be the last place on earth to build a water guzzling Coca-Cola bottling plant.
Kala Dera is in the midst of a drought right now, perhaps the most intense in the last 40 years, and groundwater levels have dropped 5.83 meters (19 feet) in just one year between May 2007 and May 2008, an unprecedented drop anywhere. When blaming the rainfall argument failed to contain the growing community opposition, Coca-Cola decided it was going to use the same rains to solve the problem -- by harvesting rainwater.
That's a fine idea. First blame the lack of rains for the increased water shortages, and when that doesn't work, lets put the failed rains to use, by harvesting the rainwater. In a claim that should find mention in the Guinness Book of World Records but won't because it doesn't add up, the company has announced that the groundwater levels are rising in the area because of its rainwater harvesting initiatives and that the company already recharges six times the amount of water it takes from the ground in Kala Dera.
Coca-Cola's claims are so preposterous that we are not sure just who they think they are trying to fool. Coca-Cola's claims of rising groundwater levels fall flat in the face of government data which show that groundwater levels have dropped by more than 19 meters (62 feet) in the first eight years of Coca-Cola's operations in the area, and such precipitous drops had never been witnessed before. Coca-Cola's claims of recharging six times the amount of water it extracts in Kala Dera is also a candidate for a world record but it too doesn't pass muster.
When asked how they measure how much water is recharged in coming up with the six times recharge figure, Coca-Cola says they do not have any measuring mechanisms. In other words, they just made it up. Without measuring, without actually knowing how much water they recharged. And the amount of water they claim to recharge is astronomical, particularly in a low-rainfall area.
Coca-Cola is claiming to recharge about 1.3 billion liters of water annually -- just in Kala Dera alone -- a fantastical number by any measure. It is enough water to meet the basic drinking water needs for a million people -- for an entire year! If Coca-Cola's recharge claims in Kala Dera were true, there would be no water shortages in the area. But there are, and they are getting rapidly worse.
If we were part of Coca-Cola's public relations team, we would suggest a tagline to reflect what they are suggesting: Got Drought? Build a Coca-Cola bottling plant! And then wait to see how many offers come clamoring in.
Communities in India facing an assault on their water resources and livelihoods because of Coca-Cola's bottling operations have issued a challenge to Coca-Cola. If Coca-Cola is so confident about its rainwater harvesting programs to replenish the water they use, why doesn't Coca-Cola just use the harvested rainwater to meet all its production needs?
It's a simple solution, really, and its based on Coca-Cola's logic. But Coca-Cola won't accept the challenge. Why? Because it doesn't work. So much for becoming water neutral.