Driven by the fast emerging threat of water scarcity, Beverage giants are increasingly mainstreaming their water conservation practices though some observers remain cynical
about the claims and the true accomplishments. The beverage industry relies on water for its survival; making it self-evident that in order to sustain business they need to roll up their sleeves and try to tackle the problem of water depletion. Beverage giants like Coca Cola, Pepsi, Nestle and Miller all have water conservation programs in place which are striving to substantially cut down on consumption of fresh water. It does not take a genius to figure out that this does not only stem out of some altruistic corporate social responsibility paradigm, but from a very simplistic fact- if there is no water, there is no business for these companies as the main ingredient of a carbonated
drink is water. Overriding the larger political picture and policies regarding climate change and resource depletion, both big and small businesses need to waste less and utilize efficiently more. It has been estimated that the total amount of global spending by the sector on water conservation programs is more than USD 500 million.
It might not be an exaggeration then to say that for either reason, be it rational self interest or a genuine concern for environmental threats, beverage giants have been making progress in countering water loss.
PepsiCo was recently awarded the Stockholm Industry Water Award in recognition of the company’s innovative water stewardship initiatives. The awards, given during World Water Week, are to honor sustainable water practices by corporations in terms of water management techniques and innovative water process technologies. PepsiCo was lauded for its achievement in improving water efficiency by more than 20% per unit of production, 4 years before the goal was to be reached. These water efficiency measures are expected to translate into savings worth USD 17 million over the next five years. One of the major innovations introduced by PepsiCo has been a new cleaning technique which uses purified air to clean new Gatorade bottles instead of having to rinse them with water. This technique is now being adopted by a lot of companies saving billions of liters of water.
Overall the Beverage Industry Environmental Roundtable (BIER), a global collective of beverage producers established in 2006, has been making significant efforts to meet their water conservation targets. As a whole, the BIER companies have reduced their water use by 9% and 10.3 billion gallons, with Coca Cola decreasing its water use by 20% and Dr Snapple trying to reduce its water use and waste by 10% per gallon by 2015. At the Rio+20 convention earlier this year, Coca Cola, pledged to reduce its water use in manufacturing plants by 35% using a beverage process water recovery system that they have recently developed.
BIER companies have also been increasingly involved in water conservation methods in agricultural processes. PepsiCo has developed something called an i-crop, a ‘precision-farming’ technique. The i-crop was developed in conjunction with Cambridge University to enable PepsiCo farmers to monitor, manage and reduce their water use and carbon emissions, while maximizing agricultural yield. In PepsiCo’s UK potato farms, the i-crop has met with significant success with a 13% increase in crop yield and 8% reduction in water use.
PepsiCo’s water conservation policies have also worked fairly well in places like Arizona. A near net-zero plant built in Casa Grande running primarily on renewable energy recycles up to 75% of its water while sending zero landfill waste. The beverage majors are also attempting similar initiatives in the developing countries. Infact PepsiCo India claims that its beverage operations have “reduced water use in manufacturing by more than 45 percent and conserved more than 3 billion liters of water since 2007; thus achieving positive water balance – giving back more water than the company consumed.” To put it in context, PepsiCo has 38 bottling plants in India out of which at least 9 are in areas which the government of India has classified as “water-stressed” hence such interventions are not only laudable but clearly driven by the business needs. Many industry observers have not totally bought into these claims and highlight that such success at being water positive or even water neutral seems to have been achieved only in India. Irrespective the criticality of the issue cannot be undermined - Coca Cola, which claims to be water-neutral in India, has had to shut down one of their biggest bottling plants in Plachimada and others in Mehdiganj and Kala Dera are facing considerable pressure for unsustainable water practices.
On the up side, PepsiCo’s most successful initiative in India has been its work with farmers to reduce water use in cultivation of rice. The direct seeding technique allows the seeds to be planted directly into the ground. This bypasses the nursery stage in which farmers would earlier have to sow the seeds and then flood the fields. It removes the need for flood irrigation and reduces water use by as much as 30 percent.
Wastage and resource depletion are what plagues every industry. What is good to know is that the beverage industry has risen to the occasion and is making some headway to mitigate these hazards. However, exaggeration of their efforts and accomplishments will end up positioning the corporate sustainability interventions as mere PR exercises thus camouflaging the actual strides undertaken in the right direction.
The author Anindita Chakraborty is a part of the Sustainability Outlook Team.