Coca-Cola announced Sunday that it was the first Fortune 500 company to replenish as much water worldwide as it stripped from natural sources to fuel its production needs.
This achievement, undertaken in partnership with the World Wildlife Fund, represents the attainment of a target set back in 2007, but the organization has reached its goal early, having originally set a deadline of 2020. In a report audited by LimnoTech and Deloitte, the Coca-Cola global machine is said to have returned almost 192 billion liters of water to nature and communities in 2015, equivalent to 115 percent of its total consumption.
Yet the corporation’s path to reach this point has been a challenging one, attracting criticism and forced plant closures as a result of its alleged impact on local communities and water resources.
“A goal that started as aspiration in 2007 is today a reality and a global milestone we plan to maintain as our business grows,” said Muhtar Kent, Coca-Cola’s Chairman and chief executive officer, in a statement. “We are keenly aware that our water stewardship work is unfinished and remain focused on exploring next steps to advance our water programs and performance.”
To achieve its water replenishment goal, Coca-Cola engaged in 248 community partnership projects, working with government, civil society, and private companies. While some were of direct benefit to the sources of water the company used to supply its needs, others assisted communities not directly affected by the corporation’s activities.
Throughout the world, its plants are also required to assess impact on local water sustainability, ensuring they do not impair the ability of other community members to source sufficient quality and quantity of water. This approach reflects a priority set by Mr. Kent, who took the company’s helm in 2008.
“We have a simple belief inside Coca-Cola that if we can’t help create sustainable communities where we operate, we won’t have a sustainable business,” Kent told the Harvard Business Review. “It needs to be embedded in your business as opposed to inserted in your corporate social responsibility report.”
Not everyone is convinced, however, that his words have yielded sufficient results. India has been a particular point of contention, regarded as a vital market for Coca-Cola’s growth, with a burgeoning middle class amid a population of more than 1.2 billion.
In June 2014, The Guardian reported that the corporation was ordered by authorities to shut down a bottling plant in northern India, after the government accused it of extracting too much groundwater and ordered to recharge that water source with double the amount removed. Indeed, according to India's Economic Times newspaper, another Coca-Cola plant was recently shut down for pollution violations in 2015 and 2016.