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Taking the fizz out of Coca-Cola’s water replenishment claims

Richard Phillips

Coca-Cola claims it is the first Fortune 500 Company to become “water neutral”, returning as much water to the Earth as they take. The company say it has achieved this goal five years ahead of schedule.

So, what is behind Coca-Cola’s new claims to sustainable water? Are its achievements actually as soft as its drinks?

First of all, let’s start with the good. Coca-Cola’s efforts in achieving water neutrality are commendable. Coke returned an estimated 191.9 billion litres of water to the Earth, equivalent to 115% of the water used in the company’s beverages last year. Impressive.

It also suggests the company is making a contribution towards the achievement of a number of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In this instance, Coca-Cola is changing its pattern of consumption and production to use natural resources more responsibly (SDG 12). This is helping to improve access to safe and affordable water (SDG 6) through effective partnerships (SDG 17).

Coca-Cola’s touted achievements evoke a radically different image of a company that has long been criticised for its water practices in developing countries.  A 2007 campaign launched by the anti-poverty group War On Want infamously said the beverage giant was “drinking the world dry”. Even as recently as 2014, a Coca-Cola plant in India was forced to close by anti-pollution authorities following protests.

In light of its recent announcement, has Coca-Cola really overturned past water woes to become a true global leader in water sustainability?

Well – here are three reasons to hold our applause.

First is that the alleged success has largely been made possible through the company’s work with 248 community water projects across 71 countries. Effective partnerships they may be, but improvements to Coke’s own water efficiency they are not. This is an important distinction as it means the company is largely offsetting its water impacts.

This is not to say that Coca-Cola has not made some gains in efficiency.

The company and its bottling partners say they have improved water use efficiency by 2.5 percent from 2014 to 2015, adding to a cumulative 27 percent improvement since 2004. Whilst this is notable given the company’s size, it is not significantly different from rival company PepsiCo, which has cut operational water use by 26 per cent since 2006.

The second issue with Coca-Cola’s claim is the uneven distribution of the water Coca-Cola returns. Speaking to CNN, Chief Sustainability Officer of Coke, Bea Perez, said only half the water replenished is done so directly at the source used by the company. The other half is returned through partnerships “where the need is greatest”.

The Centre for Research on Globalization highlights the problems of taking water from one area and adding it to another. Water issues are mostly localised in their impact. “Replenishing” water hundreds of miles away from where it was taken has major consequences for local communities who depend on nearby sources. When Coca-Cola takes water from an aquifer in India and returns it in Mexico, this isn’t all that good.

Thirdly, Coca-Cola’s achievements can be criticised for failing to include the water used to grow agricultural ingredients in its statistics. Irrigation uses nearly 70% of all freshwater used by humans. It forms the majority of Coca-Cola’s water footprint. Estimates indicate 442 litres of water are needed to make one litre of Coca-Cola using cane sugar.

Admittedly, it is immensely difficult for a company of Coca-Cola’s size to calculate the exact volume of water used in irrigation across its supply chain. However, ignoring the figures entirely calls into question Coke’s overall “water neutrality”. Indeed, the Centre for Research on Globalization believes the numbers used for Coca-Cola’s claims are about 200 times less than the actual water footprint of their products.

So where does this leave us?

CEO of the company Muhtar Kent expressed that the announcement “marks a moment of pride for Coca-Cola and our partners”.

Let’s keep a lid on our congratulations – the claim is not as bubbly as it seems.

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