Coca-Cola’s recharge claims challenged by activists

An international campaign launched by the global beverage manufacturer Coca Cola last week claims that the company has reached its global water replenishment goal, which aims to return 100 per cent of the water utilised in manufacturing its product “back to the nature and to communities”. The company’s India Vice President, Public Affairs and Communications, Deepak Jolly, told The Hindu that Coca Cola India had significantly reduced the amount of water used to manufacture the beverage in its bottling facilities. As per their 2013 Sustainability Report, Coca Cola India had replenished more water resources than it used, with replenishment percentage up from 118 in 2012 to 129 in 2013, he said.

However, environmental groups monitoring the company’s corporate accountability record, especially in India, have challenged the basis of their claims. San Francisco-based campaigner Amit Srivastava, with the international corporate accountability watchdog firm India Resource Centre told The Hindu that such campaigns aim to whitewash the ground reality of beverage firms like Coca Cola that cannot realistically attain water neutrality due to the high water footprint of their end products.

Coca Cola’s 2013 Sustainability Report shows that the organisation only accounts for water used in its bottling operations. The report states that its ‘water usage ratio’ improved from 2.12 lt in 2012 to 1.98 lt in 2013, calculated by measuring water used for manufacturing the beverage against water contained in one litre of the beverage.

But Srivastava points to a 2010 research paper published by the Water Footprint Network, which shows that sugar-containing carbonated beverages have a water footprint of over 300-600 lt for every litre of beverage produced, much higher than the water footprint the company cites on the basis of water used at its bottling plants. This is because the water footprint of the entire supply chain is not calculated. He says that cane sugar is a major component of Coca-Cola products in India, and as one of the largest procurers of sugar in India, Coca-Cola is well shy of achieving any balance with the water actually used in producing its beverages. “The numbers used for their announcements are thus about 200 times less than the actual water footprint of Coca-Cola products.”

Daniel Chico, spokesperson, Water Footprint Network, Netherlands, affirms this further saying: “When we look at water management, it is important not just to look at water used in plant operations, but to look at the whole supply chain.”

Mr. Jolly told The Hindu that the 2014 sustainability report had gone for auditing and their latest water replenishment results had not arrived in the first place. To a query then as to how Coca Cola’s global campaign could safely claim to have achieved its annual water replenishment targets, when the data from India — a major manufacturing base with 56 bottling plants, including franchisees — was not finalised yet, he said nothing. Further the 2014 replenishment target would depend on variable factors such as annual rainfall data, which impacted the amount of rain water harvested or water recharged in ponds dug by them, etc.

Extract here, replenish there

Sunil Gulati, Director of Quality, Safety and Environment, Coca Cola India told The Hindu that water replenishment was calculated on the basis of the “replenishment potential achieved through initiatives such as rain water harvesting, renovation of water bodies, ponds and construction of check dams by the company”. However, not always are such initiatives located close to the manufacturing plants, but based out of where the potential for impact was higher, which could even be 20-30 km away from the plant site, says Gulati. However, as Srivastava points out, replenishing an aquifer hundreds of miles away from the point of extraction, as Coca-Cola has often done to “balance” their water use, has no bearing on the health of the local aquifer depleted during bottling operations.

Trivandrum-based ecologist Dr. S. Faizi, who investigated water problems in Plachimada as a former member of the Kerala Groundwater Authority told The Hindu that in the village where Coca Cola India had shut down its plant following the Kerala government’s intervention, the ground water had depleted considerably and was found polluted with cadmium, lead and arsenic from sludge disposed by the local factory.

“Though the Supreme Court-led monitoring committee demanded that the company install a Reverse Osmosis plant and provide piped drinking water to every household in Plachimada, no remediation steps were taken by them. Now the local panchayat is providing drinking water in tankers to the villagers.”

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Printable version | May 12, 2021 4:46:45 PM |

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