Beverage giants backing water conservation
Fifty miles outside Houston, Texas, is a massive field of waist-high grass, buzzing bees and palm-size butterflies - just waiting to be ripped up by some entrepreneur.
However, rather than develop this pristine remnant of coastal prairie, vast enough to house more than 300 football pitches, the Dr Pepper Snapple Group is investing thousands of dollars to ensure it remains untouched.
The project is part of the company’s $1.1 million investment in the Nature Conservancy, designed to benefit five Texas water sources from which its bottling plants draw water.
The projects will improve water quality and quantity by preserving the prairies’ sponge-like attributes.
But for Dr Pepper and other beverage companies engaged in similar work, the impetus is their bottom line - conserving water guarantees long-term access to the most crucial ingredient in their products.
“If there’s not fresh water, there’s no business - it’s just that simple,” said Laura Huffman, state director of the Nature Conservancy in Texas. “It is their number one infrastructure concern ... Water tops the list, above roads, above energy, above all else, because if you don’t get water right, you’re not making anything.”
The biggest players - including Coca-Cola and Pepsi - as well as smaller, regional beverage companies, list water as a risk in long-term plans. In 2006, 18 companies created an alliance called the Beverage Industry Environmental Roundtable to tackle water, energy and other issues that could affect the industry’s growth. There is no total available for how much has been invested in water conservation projects in the past five years, but experts believe it’s more than $500 million dollars.
Between 2008 and 2010, 69 per cent of the alliance’s 1,600 manufacturing facilities decreased water use by nine per cent - or 10.3 billion gallons, enough to supply New York City for eight days.
Thomas Lyon, a professor at the University of Michigan who researches connections between industry and the environment, said three factors have pushed beverage companies to conserve water: future markets in developing countries don’t drink enough soft drinks; the impacts of climate change are starting to become more apparent; and some of the countries targeted for growth are the same ones that will be most affected by climate change.
“At the heart of it ... is their bottom line,” he said. “Water is a finite resource and they desperately realise that it could become a major problem.”
About five years ago, the corporations began partnering with environmental groups, funding projects to bring water to people in the developing world, such as India, China and Africa, where water is most scarce and infrastructure is often deficient.
The partnerships help everyone: environmental groups receive much sought-after funding; cash-strapped governments tackle projects they can’t afford; and beverage companies can market themselves as “green” by conserving the most crucial, finite resource on Earth and ensure the future of their business.
The Coca-Cola Company has committed to improving water efficiency by 20 per cent by the end of this year and becoming water neutral - returning to the environment any water used. “We know the importance of water to the world and the planet, and we know the importance of water to our business,” said Bea Perez, the company’s chief sustainability officer.
For Pepsi, the wake-up call came when it laid out four possible scenarios for 2030 and discovered water was the greatest risk in each. Last year, Pepsi met its goal of becoming 20 per cent more efficient by 2015, saving the company some $17 million in water expenses over five years.
Carter Roberts, CEO of the World Wildlife Fund, warns that drinks giants can’t ease off.
“As a society, we’re going to have a huge crash if all these companies don’t take action at the same time,” he said.