The Coca-Cola Co. has staked out a leadership position for itself in the water conservation field, and all that hard work has paid off. Last week, Coca-Cola announced that it is the first Fortune 500 company to balance the water all of its 863 plants take from communities around the globe with local conservation projects that ensure the water is replenished.
It’s a massive undertaking, and it should light a fire under other companies on the Fortune list — we’re looking at you, Walmart (No. 1), ExxonMobil (No. 2) and Apple (No. 3). For the record, Coca-Cola comes in at No. 62 on the current list.
Coca-Cola and water conservation: Who’s counting?
Before we get into the particulars, it’s important to define some terms. According to Coca-Cola’s press release, the company’s new water conservation report covers water used in the company’s products, including plant operations.
Coca-Cola makes it clear that the report does not cover water used in agricultural operations in its supply chain, and apparently it also does not cover water-related transportation impacts.
Those are two important sectors. But the new report is still consequential because it expands the company’s approach to water conservation beyond the footprint of its plants, to include impacts on its host communities.
In addition, back in 2012 Coca-Cola handicapped the replenishment benefits of its largest, best-in-class projects so they would not have an outsized effect on the company’s total global figures.
As for the tracking, don’t just take Coca-Cola’s word for it. The company used an assessment tool that comes with the seal of approval from LimnoTech, which conducted the water conservation review. Deloitte performed the verification, and the Nature Conservancy was also involved in the project.
The result is a total of 191.9 billion liters of water returned to communities, which actually surpasses the company’s global sales volume by a significant amount. Percentage wise, it works out to 115 percent of sales volume.
That’s all wrapped up in a 1,188 page, peer-reviewed report.
Giving more than water back
To arrive at the figure of 115 percent, Coca-Cola included water conservation projects that enhance local watersheds outside of its plants’ sources, in addition to projects that directly replace water used in its plants.
According to the company, many of those projects have secondary beneficial impacts. These side effects were not included in the water calculations, but they can also affect local water use:
“In many cases, projects also provide access to sanitation and education, help improve local livelihoods, assist communities with adapting to climate change, improve water quality, enhance biodiversity, engage on policy and build awareness on water issues,” the report reads.
The company also designs its water conservation projects with the aim of enabling local communities to scale them up. Where possible, the projects are also designed to be models for new efforts elsewhere.
Both of those aspects of project design are critical if Coca-Cola is to continue to grow its sales volume.
Water conservation, beyond the product
As part of its water conservation plan, Coca-Cola requires each plant to assess its water lifecycle impacts, including plant wastewater:
“… One of the factors Coca-Cola plants must examine is whether or not their use of water and discharge of water has the potential to negatively impact the ability of other community members to access a sufficient quantity and quality of water.”
Plants that spot problems in this area are required to develop a Source Water Protection Plan and “mutually seek solutions” with local stakeholders for long-term sustainability.
Coca-Cola also points out that the wastewater treatment efforts add up:
“On the production side, the Coca-Cola system returned approximately 145.8 billion liters of water used in its manufacturing processes back to local watersheds near our bottling plants through treated wastewater in 2015.”
Coca-Cola has also taken an expansive approach to sustainability that includes energy-efficiency upgrades, the development of a sustainable plastic for its bottles, and funding for sustainable development among many other projects.
So, even though the new report does not cover total lifecycle and supply chain impacts, it still represents a big step forward for Coca-Cola’s vast network of bottling plants. And it demonstrates that even a traditional, global industry can re-engineer its operations and tailor them, location by location, to provide for a more sustainable future.
What now, ExxonMobil?
Image (screenshot): via .