Sanjay Guha: Why Coca-Cola’s commitment to water sustainability is the ‘real thing’

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The stress on the world’s water resources is a grave concern. Experts, political decision-makers and leading businesses gathered in Istanbul this week to search for solutions.

Our population is growing and, as we become more prosperous, the amount of water we use is growing too. Climate change is increasingly adding to the pressures, making agricultural land unproductive, forcing the mass movement of people and inflaming tensions and conflict.

As the Independent on Sunday highlighted last week, by 2030 over half the world’s population, mostly in developing countries, could be living in areas where water is running short. The World Economic Forum warned that the problems we face from the current economic turmoil could be dwarfed by those stemming from a water crisis which could see harvests cut by a third.

These bleak forecasts should push water scarcity right to the top of all our agendas. It is a particular concern to a company like Coca-Cola. Water is the most important ingredient in all our beverages. It is essential for the production of sugar and other crops we rely on. Without it, we simply don’t have a business.

But the importance of water for us – and the reason for our support for World Water Day today– goes beyond this direct relationship with our products. Across the private sector there is now a recognition that access to clean and sufficient water supplies is necessary for sustainable communities without which there can be no long-term, sustainable future for our businesses.

There are still some people who doubt just how genuine is the conversion of business to the ideas of sustainability or who fear the downturn will see environmental concerns downgraded by companies. They misunderstand the business imperative.

The sceptics are right that companies like ours have not overnight become charities. Our aim remains to sell more drinks. But if we intend to celebrate our bi-centenary in 2086 in good health, our growth has to be achieved in a way which is sustainable.

So what does this mean in practice for a company like Coca-Cola? Does our support for World Water Day and sustainability go further than just some well-chosen words?

We believe it does. This doesn’t mean that we have, by any means, got everything right yet, let alone can defend every decision we have made in the past. Indeed, it is to benefit from outside expertise and turn our aspirations into solid improvement on the ground that we have entered into a global water partnership with WWF.

We are now committed to do what we can to promote good water stewardship and husband precious resources in all the 200 countries in which we operate. Our public goal is to return to communities and nature the amount of water equivalent to all we use in our drinks and their production.

When 1.5 billion of our drinks are enjoyed every day, this is not a goal which can be met overnight. But through reducing water use in our plants, stepping up the recycling of water use in our manufacturing process and playing our part in replenishing water reserves, we are already making progress.

In many ways, cutting our own direct water consumption is the easy part. Through more efficient practices, our water consumption fell by 2% between 2002 and 2007 while the global volume of drinks we produced grew by more than 20%. We want to go further and, as part of our partnership with WWF, have set ourselves a global target to improve water use efficiency by 20% by 2012.

On waste water recycling, too, we have a good record. Our aim is to return to nature all the water we use in our manufacturing processes in a state which can support agriculture and aquatic life. We already do this in 85% of our bottling plants and intend to match this performance everywhere by the end of next year.

We accept, too, we have to look beyond our operations, not least to help rebalance the water contained in our drinks. Across the world, we are working with a whole range of partners from schools to the United Nations to protect and improve water resources and provide access – often for the first time – to clean water for communities.

We are involved in more than 200 projects in over 60 countries from community reservoirs in India to cleaning up Lake Malawi. With the WWF in particular, we are working to protect and improve some of the world’s most important freshwater sources including the Danube, the Yangtze, the Rio Grande and Mekong.

We understand as well that there is little point in cleaning our plant’s water only to pump it back into a stream which is already heavily polluted. It might allow us to tick our own corporate box but it does nothing to solve the problem of water scarcity. So we are increasingly involved in tackling water pollution outside our operations. It is why, for example, we have just committed ourselves to spend another $30 million dollars to provide clean water and proper sanitation to two million more people in Africa.

Water sustainability is also now central to our investment decisions. Potential markets and ease of distribution were once the key factors in deciding where to build plants. Now it is the long-term supply of water. We consult widely with community groups, as well as local and central government, before going ahead. We understand that water challenges are local and that pointing to the progress you are making in Scandinavia where there is plenty of rainfall is no good if you are doing too little in drought-hit Africa.

We are also looking at our indirect use of water with WWF, and other partners, in order to manage our overall water footprint. We know that sugar, some of which is irrigated, is one of our most water intensive ingredients. So we are reviewing how best practices can be applied to irrigated sugar - especially in water stressed regions and where water is withdrawn from aquifers.

Businesses across a whole range of sectors are taking a similar approach to water and sustainability. Our consumers must press us to go further and faster. It is in our interests as well as the planet’s to continue on this journey.

Sanjay Guha is President of Coca-Cola Great Britain

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