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Coca-Cola’s new formula for water stewardship: government partnership


Jesse Bragg of Corporate Accountability International calls Coca-Cola ‘the leader in using their influence and money … to deflect criticism from its environmental record’. Photograph: Lucas Jackson/REUTERS


Powered by article titled “Coca-Cola’s new formula for water stewardship: government partnership” was written by Jennifer Inez Ward, for on Wednesday 5th February 2014 19.39 UTC

Standing before cameras with Illinois tall grass gently swaying in the breeze, agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack and Coca-Cola America’s president Steve Cahillane in September announced a partnership to help restore and protect damaged watersheds around the country for five years.

Keeping watersheds – the areas that drain into a river, lake or other water source – clean is key to protecting the water supply, and the deal represents the one of biggest corporate sustainability partnerships ever for the USDA.

“We are very fortunate that Coca-Cola has been a strong partner with us,” Vilsack said at the event. “It’s local communities, it’s Coca-Cola, it’s government, it’s us working together to get the job done. Budgets are tight. Our capacity to do more projects is limited. Coca-Cola comes along and says, ‘Hey, we’re here to help. We’re going to extend the number of projects you do.'”

The signing, which took place with great fanfare, was the culmination of a couple of years of Coke and USDA partnerships on various sustainability projects. The watershed projects are expected to return more than 1bn liters of water to the National Forest System, which provides drinking water to more than 60 million Americans. And that’s on top of a half billion liters the previous projects were already estimated to have replenished.

But what the announcement and subsequent press release failed to mention is that most of the projects actually supply water to Coca-Cola’s own factories. A comparison of the locations of current and past projects with those of Coca-Cola plants – via a deep dive into company archives and reports, as well as conversations with company officials – shows that four of the six projects touted by the USDA involve a water source for Coca-Cola facilities.

These include:
• restoration of a creek in New Mexico that flows into the Rio Grande, which supplies water to Coca-Cola facilities in El Paso and McAllen, Texas
• repairs in Michigan related to Osborne Creek, which flows into Lake Michigan, a water source for Coca-Cola’s Grand Rapids plant
• a watershed restoration project in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, which supply water to a bottling facility in San Leandro, Calif.
• restoration at Colorado’s Trail Creek watershed, which also supplies Coke’s Denver bottling facility.

There’s nothing wrong with a corporation helping its operations while working to improve public resources. After all, many sustainability experts have said it’s important to make sustainability material to core business operations. Still, Coca-Cola’s direct benefit from these projects was notably absent from the communications about the partnership.

The USDA declined to speak on the record about the deal, but Coke was happy to chat.

Jonathan Radtke, water resource sustainability manager for Coca-Cola North America, said the company doesn’t always pick projects based on proximity to plant facilities.

“Sometimes, if there’s a project in a region where there may be more of a need for restoration, and it’s not right where we’re sourcing water, we’ll select that project,” he said. “And in some cases, [projects] are within the sourced watersheds. That’s sort of the sweet spot, a win-win for both of us.”

The partnership began when Coke reached out to the government agency. From there, the company selected restoration projects it was interested in working on. Coca-Cola sees the USDA partnership as a way to align its water sustainability goals with public good, Radtke said.

The bigger question

The partnership is part of a larger trend of the federal government’s growing reliance on corporations, as well as non-profits, to help solve sustainability challenges. Whether it’s helping with natural disaster recovery, tree planting or protecting other watersheds, public-private partnerships, it seems, are here to stay.


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