Inside the bad math that lets Coca-Cola say it gives back all the water it uses

When Coca-Cola announced plans at the beginning of this year to recycle the equivalent of 100 percent of its packaging by 2030, the company promoted the effort as taking advantage of its success with the sustainable use of water. In a full-page ad of 2016 published in The New York Times, the company proclaimed: "For every drop we use, we give back one", boasting on its website that it was "the first. " The Fortune 500 company will achieve such an aggressive goal. "But a year of reporting on the Coca-Cola water program shows that the company greatly exaggerates its water record, suggesting that its new recycling plan" World Without Waste " it should also be viewed with skepticism.

Coca-Cola was criticized for its water practices in the mid-2000s. (The company did not answer specific questions, but issued a long statement for this article.) Coca-Cola holds low distribution costs from local water sources, a practice that has continued since the company's initial success in soda sources in the Atlanta area in the late 1800s In the 2000s, however, the local population in some of the regions of the world increasingly stressed by water looked more critically at the large users of water, and Coca-Cola became the target of public anger. before university students in the US They took the case and called for a national boycott in support of Indian farmers who accused the company of stealing their water and their livelihoods. It was an international public relations nightmare that threatened the brand image of Coca-Cola and the global commercial strategy.

E. Neville Isdell, CEO of Coke at that time, paid attention.

"Today," he said from a podium at a conference of the 2007 World Wildlife Fund in Beijing, "Coca-Cola Company is committed to replacing every drop of water we use in our beverages and production to achieve a balance in communities and in nature with the water we use. " The idea was to make Coke's operations "neutral in water." That year, the company committed to reaching this goal by 2020.

beginning, everything depended on how "each drop" and "neutral water" would be defined. The expression "water neutrality" first appeared at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002, a creation of the South African entrepreneur Pancho Ndebele. Like a carbon offset program, it offered delegates a way to counteract water consumption by buying credits to invest in water efficiency initiatives and expand access to clean water. After the summit, Ndebele established the Water Neutral Foundation to carry the concept forward, but struggled to gain credibility with the scientific community, which criticized "water neutrality" as a misleading term that lacked a rigorous method for assessing water use. and compensation and suggested that the world's water problems could be resolved with some beneficial contributions.

An accounting method of water use arrived that same year when the Dutch scientist Arjen Hoekstra created the Water Footprint, a method to add water that goes into everything we consume. His Water Footprint counted not only the water used in the factory, but also what is needed to grow the raw materials, create the packaging and everything else that goes into each product. The Water Footprint assessments captured the world's attention by publicizing the amazing amounts of water needed to make even our most humble daily needs. Take a single shirt: 712 gallons of water are needed to produce, mainly because of the water needed to grow the cotton. A quarter-pound burger requires 462 gallons of water if you take into account the water required to grow livestock feed. Countries and companies can calculate their own water footprints. People can also: in the United States, we have a Water Footprint per capita of 2,060 gallons per day.

The Water Footprint challenged people and businesses to think more critically about the use of water. The "neutrality" of the water expanded the ambitions of water beyond the environmental mantra of reduce reuse recycle . The two concepts seemed to go hand in hand, and Hoekstra began working on a Water Neutrality Calculator for the foundation of Ndebele. By linking water neutrality with Hoekstra's methodology to accurately measure Water Footprints, Hoekstra and Ndebele expected people and businesses to use the calculator to invest in nature conservation projects that could, at least in theory, restore water. that can not be reduced or recycled.

Greg Koch, then the Coca-Cola executive in charge of the world water administration, contacted Hoekstra. Two weeks after Isdell's speech in Beijing, Koch and Hoekstra met at a café in Amsterdam.

"It was exciting for me," recalled Hoekstra, who had taken a train from Enschede, a city 100 miles east of Amsterdam in the German border, where he works as a professor and researcher at the University of Twente.

Hoekstra was delighted with the idea of ​​helping Coca-Cola to truly evaluate and reduce the use of water in each part of its supply chain, not only the water used in its bottling plants, but also the amount it took to Grow the sugar and other ingredients and to produce each bottle of plastic and aluminum. Currently, the World Health Organization reports that half of the world's population will live in areas with water shortages by the year 2025; By 2030, the United Nations predicts that water stress will give way to water shortages for almost half the people on the planet. As early as 2007, Hoekstra and other experts were already sounding the alarm. Hoekstra thought that Coca-Cola was ready to face reality. But Coke would follow a different plan.


At first, the idea seemed to be gaining momentum. In Beijing, Isdell had said that the company would not start with the water used in its supply chain, but would eventually address it. "We recognize that becoming a" neutral water "in our operations does not address the problem of water embedded in our agricultural ingredients and packaging materials.Working with WWF, we will look for opportunities to reduce water use in our supply chain , starting with the sugar, "Isdell told the audience. He went on to say, "Our goal, ultimately, is to establish a truly sustainable business in water on a global scale." The company's next steps suggested that it was considering an even more transformative review of its operations, including its supply chain. 19659017] After the first meeting between Koch and Hoekstra, Coca-Cola commissioned three Water Footprint assessments at a Hoekstra research team plant in the Netherlands. The meeting in Amsterdam also led to a series of meetings called the Water Neutrality Working Group. The first meeting was attended by Hoekstra, Ndebele and executives from Coke, World Wildlife Fund and several international agencies. Representatives from Nestlé, Ikea, the beverage manufacturer SABMiller and other companies, along with The Nature Conservancy, appeared at subsequent meetings in Europe and the US. UU

"We started by reviewing the concept of water footprint and discussing how this relates to business, on the assumption that this will provide the basis for calculations of water neutrality" with the aim of seeing what "could be developed in the next 6 -12 months in a credible and open process ", according to the minutes of the first meeting of the Water Neutralization Working Group in September 2007. Around the same time, water neutrality and the Water Footprint led international business conferences; JPMorgan presented the Water Footprint in a 2008 report on corporate water risk; and companies began commissioning water footprint assessments.

"There was a big stir," said Derk Kuiper, a Dutch conservationist and former member of the World Wildlife Fund who chaired the Water Neutral Working Group.

But according to Ndebele and Kuiper, the executives of the room resisted the enormous consumption of water in one area: the corporate supply chains, which Ndebele remembered as "the elephant in the room". From the beginning talk, recalled Hoekstra, Coca-Cola executives recognized the water needs of their agricultural ingredients; Agriculture, Hoekstra said, can contribute to more than 90 percent of water consumption in some places. ( The Verge asked Coca-Cola why the company excluded its supply chain from its original plan to replenish all the water it takes to manufacture its products, but the company did not respond)

"Particularly in the food and beverage sectors, they understood that at the end of the day the greatest water user is agriculture. And inevitably his water footprint was going to be much bigger because of that particular segment, "Ndebele said. "But I think at the beginning it was a challenge, the people were happy … not in fact attending to it." Ndebele had previously worked as a sustainable development manager for SABMiller, the London-based multinational brewing and beverage company that was one of Coca's Coola largest bottlers. (SABMiller is now part of a new company called Newbelco.)

Kuiper recalled increasing misgivings among corporate executives of the group. "Many organizations started making these initial calculations, and discovered that … for the Water Footprints supply chain, if you are a company with an agricultural supply chain, these are huge, these water footprints," he said. "There is not enough water for everyone", which means that there are not enough viable compensation projects to really balance the corporate agricultural water footprints.

Take the water footprint assessments that Hoekstra and his team conducted for Coca-Cola as of 2008. When Coca-Cola publicly published the report in September 2010, it revealed that 35 liters of water are needed to make every half liter of Coca Cola in Holland. Most of that water (28 liters) was used mainly to grow sugar beets to sweeten the drink. It took another seven liters to make the PET plastic bottle, plus a total of 0.4 liters of "operational water", which is the water used in its bottling plants to make each half liter of product. "[T] it was discovered that the operational water footprint associated with production was a very small percentage of the total water footprint," the report said.

Coca-Cola said The Verge that the "ultimate goal of the company is to obtain more sustainably 100% of our key agricultural ingredients" and That works with your suppliers to improve. "We believe we have made a lot of progress in this area, but we recognize that it is a trip," the company wrote in its statement for this article.

As the enormity of the task that the company had set out to sink, Coca-Cola and other members of the task force pressed Hoekstra to allow them to participate in an aquatic accounting sleight of hand that would reduce nearly half of the Water Footprint for every half liter of Coca-Cola, according to the people in the meetings.

With one move, adopting the use of "green" water instead of the "green" use of water could have wiped out 43 percent of the water footprint of Dutch Coke. A water footprint that uses "green network" would subtract the amount of water that natural vegetation might need if, say, a sugar plantation had not replaced it. In the cases in which the pre-existing natural vegetation absorbed more water than the crop that replaced it, the "net green" offered the possibility of reducing the overall water footprint of a company despite the links of industrial agriculture with water pollution and other water sustainability problems. The Verge asked Coca-Cola about requesting that the calculations be based on "net green" for water use, but the company did not respond.

"There was a general push by the beverage companies towards 'green net', and the problem also came up specifically when we were doing our report," Hoekstra said, referring to the water footprint assessments created to the company. "It felt like a victory when Coke finally accepted our report despite the general pressure within the sector [beverage] and Coca itself to change to net green."

After Hoekstra rejected Coca-Cola's request to replace it with "green" net green "in its Water Footprint methodology, the company never advanced with a water footprint from the global company of The Coca-Cola Company, which According to Koch, speaking on behalf of the company two years ago, there was no need since Hoekstra's work had already confirmed his "intuition" about the amount of water embedded in his chain of products.


Even when it became clear that the company would never come close to achieving "water neutrality" in its integral sense, Coca-Cola went ahead with its high profile water compensation program in 2007, committing to replace "Every drop" of water used in their beverages With The Nature Conservancy and other technical experts, the company devised a framework to evaluate projects and evaluate how many liters would "return" nature to To fulfill the promise of the company to return "every drop" of water used to make their drinks.

The company invests in three main types of projects. Their investments in water and sanitation are designed to expand basic services in poor communities in Africa and elsewhere through excavations, water purification projects and water distribution and measurement systems. The company also finances "productive use" projects aimed at increasing the conservation and reuse of water and increasing the water supply for irrigation. Finally, there are watershed protection and restoration projects, ranging from tree planting and stormwater management to high-tech irrigation projects designed to reduce the number of aquatic crops needed to grow.

The company said The Verge that "The Coca-Cola Company and our bottling partners have long believed that we should conduct our business more sustainably and grow responsibly" and that it has to work with your partners to achieve it. He also said that "[u] Ultimately, our goal is to help protect and conserve water resources, and bring safe water and sanitation to people in the communities we serve."

Since many of the projects were expected to improve water conditions for several years, the company devised rules to document multi-year "credits", and continues to report its progress on an annual report on water replenishment (along with an annual sustainability report), complete with hundreds of pages of fact sheets and technical notes at the foot of page. Coca-Cola said The Verge that it has invested in improving wastewater treatment, efficiency in water use and addressing "local needs and challenges".

However, the almost 2 billion liters of water that the company compensated in 2015 cover little more than its "operational water", that "very small percentage" of its water footprint, according to the company's own words years before in the Dutch report. Specifically, when it refers to returning "each drop", it essentially refers only to the water that actually fits in each bottle or can of your drinks: the 0.5 liters in each half-liter bottle of Coca-Cola, which actually carries 35 liters of water. to produce, according to the evaluation of the water footprint completed in that factory in the Netherlands. Coca-Cola did not respond to questions from The Verge about whether water is currently considered neutral or about the distinction between operational and total water use.

In addition, many of the Coca-Cola compensation projects face questions about whether they deliver the benefits claimed by Coca-Cola. Perhaps the most serious allegation about the company's conservation spending is whether it properly examines the projects to ensure they have the backing of science. The company did not answer detailed questions about these criticisms, which have been raised by scientists in Mexico.

Mexico, Coca-Cola and one of its bottling companies financed forestry work that included the digging of trenches similar to those used in the agriculture. These infiltration ditches were intended to guarantee sufficient water to the suckers. Coca-Cola has publicly taken credit for helping to fund more than approximately 5 million trenches in national parks and other forests throughout Mexico. However, these projects have been criticized for causing damage to some of the country's most emblematic national parks.

The forestry commission of the Mexican government, Conafor, suspended the use of these trenches more than three years ago in some parts of the country. Scientific studies have concluded that the practice did not improve growth conditions, but increased erosion and forest degradation. The lead author of the studies, Dr. Helena Cotler of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), said The Verge that brought the problems to an executive who was in charge of community services for Coca-Cola de México (a subsidiary of the Atlanta-based parent company) in 2014. The following year, a Mexican conservationist appeared in a YouTube video calling Coca-Cola and other corporations that funded trench work. In response, Cotler said the executive told him that the company suspended funding for the trenches in 2015. (Coca-Cola did not answer questions about whether it had discontinued trench funding).

However, in Coke's most recent replenishment report, published in April 2017, the company continued to count these discredited projects each year toward its global replenishment count until the year 2023. It is not an insignificant amount. Of the total of 221,700 million liters of water that Coca-Cola estimates restored to nature in 2016, the 13,000 million liters that the company attributes to Mexican trench projects are equivalent to almost 6% of its global replenishment claims and the 7.5% of its global watershed protection investments.

These accounting problems did not prevent the company announced in 2016 that had reached its goal of water neutrality "For every drop we use, we return one," announced Coke's press release. According to the company, the 191,900 million liters returned "to nature" in 2015 allowed the company to achieve "balance" – water neutrality – five years ahead of schedule.

Since then, the company has counted every liter that says it is saved, and reported water compensations worth a total of 221 billion liters in 2016, or "133 percent" of its global sales volume. But by looking at its broader water footprint, this figure represents only a little more than its "operational water," not the water that enters the supply chain. According to the company's study of the complete water footprint, almost 99 percent of water use is left uncounted, possibly more, considering that not all compensation projects of the company really "return" water to nature, according to the company's own admission.

"In most cases, access to water and improved sanitation projects result in a real increase in local water use and can It seems contradictory to pursue this type of project as a balance for industrial consumption, "according to a 2013 document written by Coca-Cola executives and affiliated consultants that explains how their water compensation program works. The newspaper goes on to say that the company, however, believes that this additional use of water is not necessarily bad, as long as it is used in an equitable and sustainable manner. Despite the lack of real "replenishment" last year, the company said that these water and sanitation projects compensate a total of 12.2 billion liters per year.

Even Koch, who led the water compensation program for Coca-Cola before leaving the company last year, acknowledged that some of the projects – particularly drinking water projects – mitigate social, economic and environmental risks, but water withdrawals often increase in some places by making it easier for people to access water.

"In this context, in all cases, it does not necessarily mean you're replenishing water," Koch said. But, he added, "I would say that the vast majority of the volume of water reported actually replenishes."


If the sustainability value of Coke compensation projects is sometimes doubtful, a significant number of these investments foster other Coke business needs. the company in the approximately 900 communities around the world where it relies on local water supplies to manufacture its products.

One of the most efficient ways in which Coca-Cola guarantees access to water is to partner with government agencies that serve as guardians of the world's best water sources. Since 2007, according to Koch, the company participated in about $ 1 billion in nature conservation, infrastructure and water and sanitation projects in more than 100 countries in partnership with the government and international agencies and non-profit groups . (When asked about these investments, Coca-Cola told him The Verge that he had "invested approximately $ 2 billion": half in wastewater improvements to his plants and the rest in investments of water efficiency and community water projects, addressing the question of whether part of that money was provided by its partners.)

These projects have been accused of privileging the access of the company's water over that of the local populations. For example, Houston-based non-profit organization Living Water International, which received money from Coca-Cola through a coalition of nonprofit groups, faced allegations of attempting to carry out clandestine privatizations of public water resources that could have raised water prices in the Mexican city of Ocotepec. (The moves provoked protests and the organization did not complete the project.) When asked about the criticisms, Coca-Cola did not respond.

. Water puts Coca-Cola in partnership with a wide range of environmental groups, resulting in large payments for institutions whose missions are alarming about the unsustainable use of water, among other issues. Coca-Cola has invested millions of dollars in almost every independent environmental organization to help with the evaluations of its water replenishment program. Coke has spent tens of millions of dollars on water efficiency projects and access in partnerships with groups ranging from the United Nations Development Program to the US International Development Agency. UU Making it the favorite of organizations that follow corporate citizenship.

Among the best -known natural groups with which the company has partnered-is the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). In Isdell's speech in Beijing in 2007, he announced that Coca-Cola was giving $ 20 million to WWF to carry out conservation work, and the company has continued to work with WWF ever since. WWF-EE UU He praised Coca-Cola for its forward-looking approach and said its replacement goals represent "a step in the right direction," but did not answer questions about what role it played in helping the company define water neutrality.

Neither Coca-Cola nor The Nature Conservancy (TNC) disclosed the total amount of money that the company gave to the non-profit organization to carry out conservation work and what TNC described as "adviser in a variety of issues, "including helping the company develop the methodology it uses for the production of the unmanageable" quantification "report that Coca-Cola publishes annually to share its good works related to water. But the company made multiple donations to support the work of the organization, including a $ 2 million grant from The Coca-Cola Foundation to support freshwater restoration projects and nearly $ 7.4 million to replenish the company's Latin American division and its bottlers.

The leaders of the organizations have also offered the effusive and public praise of the company. "Our partnership with Coca-Cola has set the gold standard," according to Carter Roberts, president and CEO of World Wildlife Fund-US, while TNC President and CEO Mark Tercek was quoted in Food magazine Processing in 2015 saying: "Coca-Cola's commitment to water underscores that investing in nature can produce very positive benefits for businesses and local communities."

In a TNC statement, Kari Vigerstol, director of TNC Conservation for Water Funds, ] The Verge :

"Coca-Cola has been a leader in water management and has set a an incredibly ambitious goal of reducing its water footprint, supporting river basin restoration projects and increasing access to drinking water for communities … We must adopt collaboration and innovation with the private sector to achieve the level of change necessary for the agriculture, energy and water security ".

WWF did not answer questions about the role it played in helping the company define water neutrality or whether Coca-Cola had achieved water neutrality. But the TNC acknowledged that "it is almost impossible to make a scientific case for 'water neutrality' in a sense similar to carbon neutrality," even if "companies may choose to discuss" water neutrality ". as it is a way of communicating to consumers they are trying to do, "according to the Vigerstol statement. It should be noted that Vigerstol was part of a team of authors that included Coca-Cola executives, who, in a 2013 document, seemed to define water neutrality as possible without including water from the supply chain. (However, the newspaper recommended expanding the "scope of the strategy" to "cover the entire value chain of the company"). Such a definition would have been at odds with the Neutral Water Calculator that Hoekstra and Ndebele had presented at World Water Week in 2008.


Scientists, however, are much less impressed.

Hoekstra split from Coca-Cola in 2008. But the company has continued to promote its water achievements; Earlier this year, he embarked on a new initiative "World Without Waste" to address the packaging. Coke described his promise to use 50 percent recycled content and recycle "the equivalent" of 100 percent of the packaging by 2030, an offer, the company said, to usher in a "circular economy."

"Juntos, podríamos estar James Quincey, presidente y CEO de Coca-Cola, dijo en un artículo de opinión de enero que lanzó la iniciativa

que ya han surgido las críticas. En un editorial sobre el nuevo proyecto, John Sauven, director ejecutivo de Greenpeace Reino Unido, ridiculizó la promesa de empaque de la compañía como una cortina de humo familiar. También comparó los frecuentes anuncios de sostenibilidad y las campañas de concientización pública de la compañía con un programa de publicidad encubierto que pasa por alto lo que él llama los "escasos" estándares ambientales de la compañía y el incumplimiento de los objetivos de sostenibilidad del pasado. Sauven también acusó a la compañía de anunciar promesas de empaques, solo para abandonarlas más tarde, una carga que recuerda el trabajo de neutralidad de agua de la compañía hace una década, cuando Coca-Cola evaluó la Huella hídrica de sus botellas de plástico PET (parte del trabajo reali zado por Hoekstra en la planta holandesa) pero nunca avanzó con agua compensada en su envase.

La ​​iniciativa de residuos no ha sido completamente criticada. La promesa de la compañía de reciclar el equivalente de cada botella y cada una de sus productos ha sido bien recibida por muchos en la comunidad ambiental. Sin embargo, a pesar de hablar de una "economía circular", los nuevos objetivos de empaque 2030 de la empresa parecen débiles junto a los de otras compañías de Fortune 500. McDonald's, por ejemplo, dice que el 100 por ciento de su empaque se hará con "fuentes renovables, recicladas o certificadas" para el año 2025. Con su propio plan, Coca-Cola espera llegar a la mitad para 2030.

Hoekstra, quien dijo él era demasiado optimista hace una década, ahora piensa que fue "un avance que una gran compañía hizo una primera evaluación de la huella hídrica y lo compartió públicamente" en 2010. En lugar de compensar más agua, le gustaría que Coca-Cola se tome en serio reduciendo las necesidades de agua de sus productos. "Mi esperanza y expectativa es que las empresas, tarde o temprano, formularán objetivos de reducción de la huella hídrica que incluyan objetivos para su cadena de suministro", dijo.

Cuando Isdell inició la empresa en el camino hacia la neutralidad del agua hace más de una década, dijo a la audiencia en Beijing: "Nuestro objetivo, en última instancia, es establecer un negocio verdaderamente sustentable en el agua a escala global". Lo que han hecho en su lugar es perpetuar "Coca-Cola Capitalism", dijo el historiador Bartow J. Elmore, autor del libro de 2015, Citizen Coke. "Es un modelo económico del siglo XIX. Crecimiento perpetuo: la búsqueda interminable de vender más productos el próximo año que el año pasado: un alumno de quinto grado podría decirle que eso no es sostenible ", dijo Elmore. "El coque es sintomático de la economía que es ecológicamente defectuosa".

Este artículo fue informado en asociación con The Investigative Fund en The Nation Institute.

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