Corporate Accountability

How Coke Spun the Public on its Water Use

Coke claims to give back as much water as it uses. An investigation shows it isn't even close.
James O'Brien/The Verge

When Coca-Cola announced plans earlier this year to recycle the equivalent of 100 percent of its packaging by 2030, the company touted the effort as building on its success with sustainable water use. In a 2016 full-page ad published in The New York Times, the company proclaimed, “For every drop we use, we give one back,” boasting on its website that it was “the first Fortune 500 company to hit such an aggressive target.” But a year of reporting into Coca-Cola’s water program shows that the company is grossly exaggerating its water record, which suggests that its new “World Without Waste” recycling plan should also be viewed with skepticism.

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Coca-Cola came under fire for its water practices in the mid-2000s. (The company did not answer specific questions, but it did issue a lengthy statement for this article.) Coca-Cola keeps distribution costs low by tapping local water sources, a practice it has continued since the company’s early success at Atlanta-area soda fountains in the late 1800s. By the 2000s, however, local people in some of the world’s increasingly water-stressed regions were looking more critically at big water users, and Coca-Cola found itself a target of public ire. By 2007, US college students took up the cause, calling for a nationwide boycott in support of Indian farmers who accused the company of stealing their water and livelihoods. It was an international PR nightmare that threatened Coca-Cola’s brand image and global business strategy.

Key Findings

  • Coca-Cola claims that for every drop the company uses, it gives one back. But “every drop” includes only what goes into the bottle.

  • The company does not count water in its supply chain — including the water-guzzling sugar crop — in its “every drop” math.

  • In a report, Coca-Cola acknowledged that the water used in production was “a very small percentage of the total water footprint.”

  • The company has been criticized for the science behind elements of its replenishment program that “offset” its water use.

About the reporter

Christine MacDonald

Christine MacDonald

Christine MacDonald is an investigative journalist whose work explores linkages between global environmental issues and local impacts.