Responding to Critics, Coca-Cola Report Touts Conservation Efforts
Tasha Eichenseher
October 7, 2005

Claiming corporate leadership toward sustainable use of natural resources, the Coca-Cola Co. released its annual environmental report today that says the company's global water policies have helped it reduce water use nationwide.

The company used 283 billion liters of water in 2004, down 5 percent from 2003, the report says. On average, the company used 2.7 liters of water for every liter of product it produced last year, compared to 2.9 liters in 2003.

The company says that it uses additional water to clean and run machines and processing equipment. New water reuse and efficiency technology and increased monitoring have helped the company decrease its use, company officials said.

In the face of harsh criticism over depleting and polluting groundwater supplies near its bottling plant in Kerala, India, Coca-Cola launched a Global Water Initiative last year to address water quality and quantity issues facing its more than 840 facilities worldwide.

"Since our business depends on access to water, water scarcity is a major risk to the sustainable growth of our business, potentially increasing costs and jeopardizing our ability to operate," the report says.

Amit Srivastava of the India Resource Center, which has campaigned against Coca-Cola and advocates for stronger environmental protection in that country, questions why the company would open a plant in drought-stricken areas if water is so important to its production and profits.

Coke's vice president of environment and water resources, Jeff Seabright, says the company is trying to offset groundwater withdraws in India by setting up rainwater harvesting systems. Tanks will collect water during the monsoon season and those reserves will be pumped back into underground aquifers, he explained.

The company does take drought conditions into consideration when siting facilities and it has reduced water usage in India by 27 percent, said Harry Ott, director of Coca-Cola's Global Water Resources Center.

"Technically, India has sufficient water supplies, but it comes in monsoons," Seabright said.

Srivastava contends that this strategy will not adequately recharge groundwater supplies, which the majority of people in the nearby community rely on for agriculture and their livelihoods.

Srivastava and other environmentalists are weary of the company's efforts, saying it may be greenwashing. Although, Srivastava said he would "welcome any announcement of any genuine initiatives."

Coca-Cola is riding the trend of corporate social responsibility, said Maj Fill-Flynn, a policy analyst at Public Citizen in Washington. "They're starting to feel the heat," she added.

For its part, Coke says it is not driven by profits alone. "We're paying attention to emerging signals from the United Nations and environmental activists," Seabright said.

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