How Coca-Cola Is Working to Cure the World’s Water Headaches

In its early iteration, Coca-Cola was marketed as a way to cure ailments and inspire social dialogue.

“Dr. Pemberton created Coke as a headache tonic,” tells Bea Perez, Coca-Cola’s new Chief Sustainability Officer.

Today, the Coca-Cola Company is trying to address a larger infirmity: the world’s water supply.

“Water is a business essential for Coca Cola,” Jeff Seabright, VP, Environment and Water Resources, Coca-Cola, explained at the World Climate Summit. “We are increasingly seeing a water stressed world, and projections show a 40% world shortage by 2050. We care out of self-interest and shared value.”

Today, over one billion people lack access to safe drinking water and water shortages threaten thousands of animals and habitats. Climate change will further impact the water cycle and related agriculture.

Over the past decade, Coca-Cola has worked towards a water sustainable business. Their strategy addresses 900 bottling plants in their global system and watershed protection. Their mission is to fully water balance their operations by 2020. This means the company intends to replenish approximately 78 billion gallons of water, the quantity it uses in production each year. The company will do this by actively restoring watersheds and, possibly, through water credits.

World Wildlife Fund, a leading global environmental NGO is working closely with Coca-Cola to direct and oversee its water strategy. WWF concedes that true water balancing may or may not be attainable by Coca-Cola or any other company. Yet they see great benefit in the company’s intent.

“Coca-Cola’s leadership on water conservation within the beverage industry is second to none, “ says Chris Williams, Director, Freshwater Conservation, World Wildlife Fund. “First, they’ve worked with us to better understand how much water their operations use. From there, we’ve identified ways to effectively reduce and recycle this volume through conservation work in watersheds.”

Much of the work happens at a local level around the world. Since 2005, the company has worked with over 320 communities on water projects. Last year, 64 new projects were initiated. The projects included watershed protection, expanding community drinking water and sanitation, and water for productive uses such as agriculture.

Bea Perez speaks to ways in which Coca-Cola can further raise the bar: “We want to lead a drive change. Our water initiatives are self-imposed limits, not legislation driven. We want to be prepared for what’s coming. We also want to exert influence on industry peers.”

WWF agrees. The NGO sees great opportunity to leverage Coke’s water leadership. The team is highly focused on taking the model and translating it into other projects.

“If we could get this kind of river basin involvement from a wider range of private-sector actors, the results could be considerable,” shares Chris Williams. “We expect Coke to push its limits and its partners to develop action plans for further reductions.”

Heather King

Heather is President of kingconsulting, a leading strategy consulting practice focused on sustainability, clean tech, and green tech. Heather has over 30 years experience working with pioneering technology, consumer, B2B companies and international non-profits - including Apple, Microsoft, Disney. Oracle, Ogilvy, Waste Management, Stanford Center for Social Innovation, Day in the Life, and multiple start ups. She serves on the boards of Trust for Conservation Innovation, a fiscal sponsor and incubator for over two dozen environmental non-profits, and the Presidio Graduate School, the leading MBA/MPA program focused on sustainability.

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