Why Can I Buy a Coke Without Sugar or Caffeine But Not Water?: Dumb Question

Dumb Question sat down recently with Jeff Seabright , Coca-Cola's vice president of environment and water resources.

Q: It’s really hard to compare or rank companies based on their sustainability strategies. Take Coke and Levi’s. Coca-Cola can make drinks without sugar and caffeine. But Levi’s makes what it calls “waterless jeans ,” which comes close to eliminating water use in the last phase of production.

So why isn’t there waterless Coke? Does that make Levi’s more sustainable than Coke?

A: That's a really dumb question! Water is needed for every living thing on the planet. It is infinitely renewable. So the issue around water isn't not using water. We all need water. We're a beverage company. We make products that hydrate people and water is obviously essential to that.

The real issue is what do you with the water that you borrow from nature for your business, and how do you make sure you're giving back. In our case we've made a commitment to give back as much as we use by 2020.

Q: Some companies build artificial catchments or green roofs to take advantage of rain. How scalable are some of those things for your replenishment goal. How much rainwater can you catch?

A: A tremendous amount. The work that we're doing on rainwater catchments can be done virtually anywhere. We do some of it here in the United States. It just so happens in India that it's a time-proven technology.

Q: How does it work?

A: Basically it's the construction of small little check-dams so that when the monsoon rains come in sheets of water, they are channeled into retention ponds that then percolate down into the water aquifer. So it's a way of taking what nature gives us, rain — in large parts of India it comes as intense monsoon downpours — and making sure a lot of that is captured and then charging the acquirers underground.

Q: Coke has a history in India. What happened there and what did you learn from it?

A: Back in 2003 or so there were allegations that Coca-Cola in the state of Kerala in southern India was withdrawing groundwater at the expense of poor farmers in the community. And it was a highly emotional issue. It became a court case, and the Supreme Court in Kerala appointed an independent groundwater commission to investigate the scientific claims behind the case.

The groundwater commission found what I think we knew to be the case, that it was a persistent local drought, three-year back-to-back drought, 2000-2003, that led to the water tables dropping for the shallow wells in that area of Kerala. Our wells for our bottling plant are drawn from a deeper, unrelated aquifer and so we were not the proximate cause of the water depletion. But because our red trucks kept leaving the plant, the local folks associated our water use with the depletion in their wells.

The real lesson for us was that we were not effectively engaging enough with the community. Had we been doing so it wouldn't have reached that level of crisis. We're continuing to grow our business responsibly in India; we're there for the long run.

Transcript edited for length.

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