The man responsible for Coca-Cola’s water sustainability program told an Omaha business audience Tuesday that saving water has become a central part of the company’s long-term strategy.
But it wasn’t that way a decade ago, when the Atlanta-based company was forced to shut down a bottling plant in India after local communities complained about its use of water during a drought that dried up shallow wells nearby.
“We lost our social license to operate,” said Jonathan Radtke, a hydrogeologist hired by Coke to oversee sustainability soon after the India incident.
Years ago, the company used to argue almost automatically against any changes that would result in higher costs for water, Radtke told about 160 people at a breakfast held by the Omaha Business Ethics Alliance at the Holland Center.
Today, “We are willing to pay more for water if it’s going to be more sustainable,” he said, adding, “You can make profit and be a good environmental steward.”
Coke’s water struggles haven’t ended, he said. Bottlers in California are working to cut water usage in the midst of the drought there.
And an article by CorpWatch, a website that focuses on corporations and the environment, said local authorities in another city in India required Coke to shut down a bottling plant last year after similar complaints about its water usage.
In the case of the earlier shutdown in India, Radtke said, Coke was getting its water from a deep aquifer that was not related to the shallow wells that people used. Closing the bottling plant did not improve the water levels in the community’s wells.
But besides the direct cost of closing the bottling plant, activists persuaded some U.S. universities to drop Coca-Cola products, he said, and news stories spread the image of Coca-Cola as a company that wastes water.
“It became a billion-dollar issue because we didn’t handle it right,” he said.
The reaction to the incident in India made corporate leaders realize that the company’s use of water was a real issue that needed to be addressed, he said. They created a broad, long-range program designed to conserve water in many ways, not just at its 1,000 bottling plants, 120 of which are in the United States.
When a drought hit the Atlanta area, local government officials called on businesses to cut water usage by 20 percent. Radtke, who said he is “a little bit of a tree hugger,” said Coke’s Atlanta bottling plant had already gone through a water conservation program and had to look harder for more savings. The plant shifted from water-based lubricants for its production equipment to dry lubricants and used air instead of water to rinse containers.
The world will never run out of water, he said, but 97 percent of that water is in the oceans and isn’t drinkable. Desalination plants are expensive and produce highly concentrated brine, so it’s better to conserve existing fresh water.
Radtke said Coke’s water conservation efforts are wide-ranging and often not directly related to its packaged drink products.
For example, the company helps pay for a project by the Nature Conservancy to promote new technology that helps Nebraska farmers along the South Platte River irrigate cropland with less water.
One of the people attending Tuesday’s talk asked about Coke’s production of bottled water in plastic containers, saying that tap water is at least as good for human consumption and doesn’t create plastic waste.
Radtke said Coca-Cola has never said that tap water is bad but that bottled water is a growing product segment for Coke because consumers want it.
He said he drinks tap water at home and uses bottled water “for convenience” and when traveling. People should recycle plastic bottles, he said. “I think to each his own.”