Coca-Cola to reach water goal five years early

The Coca-Cola Company expects to replenish all the water it uses to make its beverages by the end of 2015, five years ahead of its scheduled goal.

The beverage giant, which manufactures brands such as Diet Coke, Sprite and Powerade, announced Tuesday that it and its bottling partners returned nearly all of the water used to make its beverages in 2014 to local communities and the environment.

Last year, the company used about 305bn liters of water to produce about 163bn liters of beverages sold globally. Based on last year’s sales volume, the company said it had replenished 94% of the water used in its products.

This puts Coca-Cola five years ahead of its goal, announced in 2007, that it would restore the amount of water equivalent to what it uses in its beverages and production by 2020.

There is growing awareness that the era of cheap, readily available water is coming to an end – something businesses are being advised to take into serious consideration. A report from the sustainable business consortium Ceres published in May, for example, found that most food companies aren’t prepared to deal with the water risks that Ceres expects will lead to higher water and food prices.

Coca-Cola, on the other hand, seems to be taking the issue of water insecurity seriously. As part of its efforts, the company has launched 209 community water projects in 61 countries, covering issues like improving access to safe drinking water and protecting watersheds. It has partnered with more than half a dozen aid and development organizations, including the United States Agency for International Development, the United Nations Development Program and the Millennium Challenge Corporation, to help meet its goals.

Environmental experts have previously questioned Coca-Cola’s water stewardship activities, suggesting they are a way for the company to use its influence and money to deflect criticism away from its environmental record.

The senior director of global water stewardship at The Coca-Cola Company, Greg Koch, said the ambition and scale of Coca-Cola’s goal helped make it a success. “You incentivize people, including our partners, by having an aggressive goal,” he said.

He also credited the scientists who helped the company craft its water replenishment initiatives in communities around the world. “They helped make all of us a little more intelligent on how to design projects with bigger impacts,” he said.

The water that isn’t used in the company’s beverages goes towards manufacturing operations such as cooling towers and cleaning mixing tanks and pipes, Koch said. He added that the company has spent about a billion dollars developing wastewater treatment plants around the world to date.

An estimated 90% of all wastewater in developing countries is discharged, untreated, directly into rivers, lakes or oceans, according to the UNEP. “We wanted to make sure we were not contributing to that,” said Koch.

In a statement, The Nature Conservancy (TNC), which helped Coca-Cola develop its methodology in measuring its water replenishment efforts, emphasized the importance of large corporations taking responsibility for the effect their business operations have on the environment.

“More and more companies now recognize that factoring nature into their decision-making is a smart business strategy,” said TNC CEO Mark Tercek. “Coca-Cola’s commitment to water underscores that investing in nature can produce very positive returns for businesses and local communities.”

Looking ahead, the company will increase its commitment to replenish water to match sales growth, Koch said.

“We manufacture locally, so we’re fully dependent on the stability of each community,” he said. “They all need reliable supplies of water – it’s an issue vital to our business.”

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