When Coca-Cola showed off its sustainability chops this summer at the Beijing Olympic Games, one of its pledges grabbed my attention: recognizing growing concerns about water around the globe (and in Beijing) and its own heavy water footprint, the company had the remarkable ambition
to return to communities and to nature an amount of water equivalent to what we use in all of our beverages and their production. This means reducing the amount of water used to produce our beverages, recycling water used for manufacturing processes so it can be returned safely to the environment, and replenishing water in communities and nature through locally relevant projects.
The pledge wasn't just a bid to protect one of Coke's biggest ingredients, but for mouths and minds in valuable and increasingly drought-plagued markets like China and India. Activists in Kala Dera, where Coke has been accused of depleting groundwater, may be skeptical, Time was impressed. Says Fortune, "No company is doing more than Coke to provide clean water to the world's poor (and not-so-poor) people."
But the term Coca-Cola is using for its goals -- "water neutrality" -- which was coined at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002, and which Coke will be unveiling again in the next few days is, well, quite slippery. Last year, Coca-Cola even admitted as much.First Things First
After years of intense criticism for its ecological footprint, Coca-Cola has taken great pains to clean up its act. The company "developed and continues to evolve one of the more sophisticated water stewardship programs in the private sector," says a recent report from Business for Social Responsibility (BSR; see PDF here). "As of March 2008, no other organization in the world has publicly pledged to achieve "water neutrality" across global operations that span more than 100 basins and sub-basins around the world."
Like "carbon neutrality," the tactic of "water neutrality" relies upon a kind of offsetting of one's water consumption, a balancing of water accounts. By supporting healthy watersheds and sponsoring clean-water projects around the world, as well as continuing to implement technological solutions at its factories and bottling plants, the company says it will theoretically be able to save or replenish the amount of water it uses.
How much is that? In 2006, the production of 1.5 billion beverages a day in over 200 countries added up to about 80 billion gallons (290 billion liters) of water total — equivalent to one-fifth of the daily water usage of the U.S. Taking into "embedded water," or all the hidden water used in manufacturing, it takes about 2.5 liters of water to produce just one liter of its products at Coke's bottling plants.
In some cases Coke is aiming for "water positivity." At its plant at Kala Dera, where the company came under severe fire for allegedly depleting groundwater supplies, Coca-Cola says it uses rainwater harvesting to replenish five times the water it takes from the ground. (Though this claim is questioned by the India Resource Center).
"Troublesome and Misleading"
But going "water neutral" is misleading. As the India Resource Center notes, Coca-Cola's own concept paper on water neutrality developed alongside the World Business Council on Sustainable Development, World Wildlife Fund and others in November 2007 (see pdf here), took issue with the term:
In a strict sense, the term 'water neutral' is troublesome and even may be misleading. It is often possible to reduce a water footprint, but it is generally impossible to bring it down to zero...After having done everything that was technically possible and economically feasible, individuals, communities and businesses will always have a residual water footprint. In that sense, they can never become water neutral.
But, the paper continues, the term does sound good:
Alternative names to 'water neutral' that have been suggested include water offset, water stewardship, and water use reduction and reuse. However none of these other terms seem to have the same gravity or resonance (inspiration) with the media, officials or NGO's as the term neutrality. For pragmatic reasons it may therefore be attractive to use the term 'water neutral', but there is a definite need to be clear about precisely what it entails if reduction of water use to zero is not possible.
What It Entails
It isn't. Unlike CO2, water is a finite resource. And taking water from one place and replacing it in another doesn't exactly balance accounts in the first location. True water sustainability "will involve more than "neutralizing" the volume of water that [Coca-Cola] uses," writes BSR. "This is because fluctuations in the amount and quality of water available to a given community or ecosystem play an important role in sustaining the diversity and proper functioning of river ecosystems and watersheds."
In a new paper in Conservation Letters, researchers bring the term under the microscope and search for a more precise framework. While offering a model similar to the one Coke is pursuing, the paper encourages further innovation and development of quantitative mechanisms for investing in watershed services and proposes a possible "water neutral market."
With a well-defined scheme, "innovative voluntary mechanisms can provide benefits in a chronically water stressed and developing country, such as South Africa."
For more clarity, Joel Makower points to the BSR report, in which six organizations — Twente University, WWF, Coca-Cola, World Business Council for Sustainable Development, Water Neutral/Emvelo Group, and UNESCO-IHE — came together to investigate the benefits of the term. They landed on three criteria for legitimate use of "water neutrality":
Defining, measuring, and reporting one's "water footprint"; Taking all action that is "reasonably possible" to reduce the existing operational water footprint; Reconciling the residual water footprint (amount remaining after a company does as much as possible to reduce footprint) by making a "reasonable investment" in establishing or supporting projects that focus on the sustainable and equitable use of water.
As Makower notes, the definitions of "reasonable investment" and "reasonably possible" invite questions. But this isn't a bad start. How Coke and other multinational water hogs like Pepsico and Nestle Waters will deploy the term may become clear next week, at an big conference on water management in San Francisco.
Keeping them honest will be a counter-conference to highlight these companies' greenwashing efforts. It's sponsored by the India Resource Center and The Blue Planet Project, Council of Canadians, Food and Water Watch, Indigenous Environmental Network.
Considering its resource use -- and its resources -- Coca-Cola is uniquely positioned to adopt the "water neutrality" goals it has set out, and continue to be a global leader in corporate sustainability. It's already doing an impressive job.
But the use of the term "water neutrality" highlights the tension between sincere ambitions to lighten its water footprint and the need to placate critics through better PR.
But the word is catching on. There's also a "water neutral" eco development being planned in the UK, and an online campaign aimed at water conservation, waterneutral.org. And we assume it will become the Next Big Green Thing next year as more companies -- especially those operating in drought-ridden places like Australia, India and China -- recognize the problem of global water scarcity.
But for now the term is "troublesome" and "misleading," says Coke, its biggest proponent. In less scrupulous hands, "water neutrality" may even be recklessly imprecise within a system that demands precision and honesty. And water conservation.
See also Coca-Cola: press release on "water neutral" goal Water Stewardship and Concept paper on "water neutrality" and Conservation Letters Water neutrality: A first quantitative framework for investing in water in South Africa