Beijing Slams Pepsi and Coke As "Dirty" For Using Too Much Water

pepsi coca-cola water pollution beijing china photo

Flickr: a God's Child

This week Coca Cola and Pepsi -- two of the biggest multinational companies in China, and self-professed leaders in corporate social responsibility -- found themselves teamed up: on a list of the top 12 factories causing water pollution in Beijing.

But it turns out their inclusion on the list is not the result of pollution -- at least not the kind that, for instance, poisoned water in a coastal city in Jiangsu province last week. Rather, it has to do with their high consumption of water. Given China's severe water shortages, that's a creative, and worthy criteria for inclusion on the list, and it illustrates the no-holds barred approach regulators in China are taking to environmental violators. Immediately after the list was published by the Beijing Development and Reform Commission, spokespeople for both Coca-Cola and Pepsi sought to outline the steps they had taken to meet municipal wastewater effluent standards as well as their own internal standards.

"In addition to complying with wastewater standards, the Coca-Cola system is working to improve the efficiency of our water use in all of our facilities. Globally, our goal is to improve efficiency by 20 percent by 2012," a Coke spokesman said.

But Ma Jing, a spokesperson for the Beijing commission, shot back. He told China Daily that the capital is targeting the environmental practices of large enterprises in order to meet the energy saving and emission reduction goals laid out in the city's 11th Five-year Plan. That plan calls for reducing energy consumption 4 percent per unit of GDP each year between 2006-2010.

"If these companies do a little more in cleaner production, they will contribute a lot to the capital's energy and water saving," said Ma. "This is why they are on the list."

"The listed companies have reached the Chinese standards for pollutants emission," he said. "But there is no best, but better, in environmental protection."

The response was murky on the issue of water consumption, but it underscored the point that no one -- and especially not international heavies with great green aspirations -- are far from faultless in the depletion of China's ecological resources.

Last year, as it touted its ecological responsibility in Beijing, Coca Cola committed to a goal of water neutrality -- replacing the water it uses across the world. Pepsi has a similar goal.

But Beijing's list points up the gulf between image and reality for both companies -- and the dire environmental situation of some of the places which they operate.

This is not the first time Coke and Pepsi have been accused by locals of malfeasance. In India, both companies have faced boycotts over pesticide pollution. Although the pesticide link was inconclusive, the Indian grassroots campaigns helped to highlight the companies' depletion of groundwater, and have led to a global outcry.

In 2007, after activist Ma Jun released his groundbreaking China Water Map, more than 90 multinational companies were targeted by Chinese environmental authorities for pollution committed as far back as 2004. General Motors, Samsung, Unilever, Pepsi and Yum Brands chains Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut were just a few of the companies on the list.

Beijing's Bright Approach
Now both the Coke and Pepsi factories in Beijing will be subject to monthly inspections of their environmental compliance starting at the end of the month, according to a statement on the commission's website.

The list highlights not only a growing awareness of the water scarcity issue among China's leaders, but a new way of addressing it. As officials put more pressure than ever on water polluters -- rightly calling them poisoners -- they are also smartly combining "pollution" with excessive consumption.

Coke, Pepsi: Your Move
For their parts, Coca Cola and Pepsi have a responsibility to do their best in addressing environmental concerns in China and other places they operate.

Through serious corporate responsibility campaigns, they have acknowledged as much. Not only does the health of their billion future customers depend on responsible behavior, but by dint of their reputation, these companies serve as role models for corporations in China and everywhere. As both companies continue to expand and seek to build more market share in bottled water as well, their environmental responsibilities will expand too.

And by force of their size and influence, they are also well positioned to do good. Even if "water neutrality" is a dubious and impossible goal, Pepsi and Coke are capable of having a positive impact, both in terms of water and other ways. (See the perplexing but informative case Walmart.)

Instead of burnishing their images, will Coke and Pepsi do the real thing to address China's concerns?

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Coke and Pepsi Banned in Parts of India Amidst Pesticide Claims
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