by Marion Nestle
Dec 7 2009

Saving the earth: Coca-Cola?

I greatly admire the work of Jared Diamond.  His book, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies, is as clear an explanation as you will ever get of how the inequitable distribution of favorable geography, climate, and natural resources affects the development and maintenance of human societies.

But here he is, incredibly, in the Sunday New York Times writing a fan letter to corporate social responsibility for protecting those favorable environments.  He writes:

There is a widespread view, particularly among environmentalists and liberals, that big businesses are environmentally destructive, greedy, evil and driven by short-term profits. I know — because I used to share that view.  But today I have more nuanced feelings…I’ve discovered that while some businesses are indeed as destructive as many suspect, others are among the world’s strongest positive forces for environmental sustainability.

And which corporations does he include as “strongest positive forces?”  Chevron, Walmart, and Coca-Cola.   I’ll leave discussion of Chevron and Walmart to others, but Coca-Cola?

Coca-Cola, Diamond says, is protecting the world’s water supplies.  The company needs clean water in the 200 countries in which it operates.  This, says Diamond:

compels it to be deeply concerned with problems of water scarcity, energy, climate change and agriculture. One company goal is to make its plants water-neutral, returning to the environment water in quantities equal to the amount used in beverages and their production. Another goal is to work on the conservation of seven of the world’s river basins, including the Rio Grande, Yangtze, Mekong and Danube — all of them sites of major environmental concerns besides supplying water for Coca-Cola. These long-term goals are in addition to Coca-Cola’s short-term cost-saving environmental practices, like recycling plastic bottles, replacing petroleum-based plastic in bottles with organic material, reducing energy consumption and increasing sales volume while decreasing water use.

Please note the future tense.  These are things Coke says it plans to do.  As for what the company is doing now, Diamond does not say.  His piece does not mention Coke’s negotiating with officials in developing countries to buy water at rates significantly below those charged to local communities, a topic under much discussion when I was in India last year.  It does not mention campaigns in India to hold Coke accountable for its abuse of local water rights or any of the similar campaigns in other countries.

Diamond’s piece does not talk about the efforts Coke puts into selling bottled water at the expense of local water supplies.  As described by Elizabeth Royte in her book, Bottlemania, companies like Coke exhibit every one of of the characteristics formerly deplored by Diamond in attempting to secure plentiful and reliable sources of cheap local water: in his words, “environmentally destructive, greedy, evil and driven by short-term profits.”

Diamond says he sits along side and has gotten to know and appreciate the motives of many corporate executives.  Me too.  Personally, many of them mean well and wish that they could do more to be socially responsible.  But they work for businesses that are required, by law, to make short-term profit their reason for existence.  This means that corporate social responsibility is necessarily limited to actions that bring visible – and immediate – returns on investment.

We need some critical thinking here.  If Diamond gave any thought at all to what Coca-Cola produces – bottled water and sodas – he would surely have to agree that less of both would be good for our own health and that of the planet.

  • Kelly

    I have to admit that Food, Inc did make me rethink my stand on WalMart to at least a small degree. Then again, it also made me rethink my stand on Stony Brook Farm. But the idea of WalMart responding to consumer desires and pressures to eliminate rBGH from the milk they sell being the death knell for rBGH is, at least, interesting.

    So although I don’t share your admiration of Diamond’s work in general, I do wonder how much there might be a ‘Coke working behind the scenes to meet non-obvious consumer demand’ thing going on; I know they own Odwalla, do they own any other major organic brand that might be driving internal change (and colouring Diamond’s view)?

  • Kelly

    Woops. Make that Stonyfield Farm. Too much reading about SUNY campuses this morning!

  • I agree. Just because huge companies are making changes in their supply chains and waste streams, sustainability has more aspects than inputs and waste. I have seen a lot restaurant chains and electronics companies get credit for becoming more eco-friendly, but the truth is shipping meat across the country (or further) and creating laptops and phones that will be obsolete in a few years is fundamentally unsustainable. Not to mention the social costs…

  • There is a clear pattern in the examples brought up by Marion Nestle and Jared Diamond – that companies will do what they believe is in their own best interest (this should not be surprising). In Jared Diamond’s examples, the interests of the company align with those of the environment, so of course such actions would be wise ones (as is advertising such public friendly actions). At the same time, Marion Nestle’s examples where companies pursue more underhanded tactics also “make sense” (in the interest of the companies) if companies can get away with it. The big point is that companies will always act in their interest (and there is no reason they shouldn’t, from their perspective). The key idea now is to see how we can align company interests with those of a global world, like in the case of environment benefits or in effective [enforceable] regulations.

  • As always, your comments on current issues are interesting and thought-provoking.

    It’s hard to imagine Coca-Cola caring about water issues when there are millions of people on our planet who are sick and dying because of issues related to lack of clean water. Imagine trying to convince any of these people that “at least Coke recycles!”

    Also, I have visited countries where Coca-Cola is cheaper than bottled water so that’s what people buy for themselves and their children. (In areas where there is no local water supply and the only water available is bottled…..)

  • All this shows is that nothing (not even Walmart) is all good or all bad, but we have to way the good and bad. I’ve recently read 2 books that have completely transformed the way I consume (both food and other goods): The Way We Eat – Why our food choices matter

  • All this shows is that nothing (not even Walmart) is all good or all bad, but we have to way the good and bad. And for all the good they are doing, they’re doing an unbelievable amount of bad. I’ve recently read 2 books that have completely transformed the way I buy and eat:

    The Way We Eat – Why our food choices matter
    Big-Box Swindle

    Both go into the ethics of our consumption and the nitty-gritty of what these companies do to make a profit and manipulate governments, communities, and individuals.

    If anyone is interested, I wrote reviews on both of them:

    You’ll never look at a big-box store or the conventional food system the same way again.

  • Pingback: Marion Nestle: Don’t trust big business « Later On()

  • It comes down to a question of ideology. Does doing one decent thing (or ‘planning’ to do) compensate for the millions of pounds of fossil fuels burned, the millions of people obese and sick and dying because of things like non-nutritious, calorie-ridden sodas? Are we supposed to applaud Coca-Cola for taking a babystep in a direction that is decent and, not coincidentally, in style?

    I’m surprised at Diamond’s take. Well, just sad is a better word. Someone who seemed to be a champion of muckraking veiled ‘do-gooder’ attempts is now on their side?

    Like Professor Nestle said, maybe there is some heart to the people he meets that run these corporations. I don’t doubt it. But let’s be realistic: ‘clean water’ is a hot issue right now and if it makes them look good to be slightly more sustainable, it makes them sell more soda.

    That’s the bottom line.

    That’s the bottom line.

  • Pingback: uberVU - social comments()

  • Kristi

    Way to go Marion! Thank you for pointing this out. A movie called ‘Flow’ also does a great job of highlighting how corporations take advantage of local water supplies in underdeveloped countries.

  • jake

    I agree, and wouldn’t put too much faith in corporate responsibility solving our environmental problems… but to clarify, insofar as I know, no company is “required, by law, to make short-term profits.” In fact, making short term profit could be considered a breach of fiduciary responsibility if it is at the expense of shareholder value (long term). Also, some privately owned corporations have no responsibility whatsoever to turn a profit — it depends on the businesses’ objectives

  • Coke should move all its franchised operations to the North Pole where there is plenty of fresh and free flowing melting ice water, nice and cool environment for the end products and few peasants to complain about water theft killing their communities.

    While there, they could erect mirrors to reflect the solar rays to help slow down global warming. A socially responsible and profit making opportunity win-win for everyone.

    So, I’m being as ridiculous as a Jaded Diamond.

    Corporates like Coke only do things for their own benefit. Stealing water from those that can’t be heard or fight back is immoral, regardless of the window dressing.

  • Peter Englander

    This all says nothing of the fact that Coke’s main product is simply awful for you, made out of corn syrup and contributing to obesity, diabetes, tooth decay and over-active children.

  • I’m thrilled that there is another reason besides obesity to not drink this junk! Let’s use this opportunity to teach school kids about the environmental impact of this over-hyped brown sugar water and get them re-thinking what they drink.

    In light of the double whammy of peak oil & climate change, it seems to me that one thing that we can do to reduce our carbon output would be to avoid all Coca Cola products and drink tap water instead in a re-useable container.

    Math and science teachers can help students calculate how much oil and CO2 are spared by drinking water.

  • If it’s true that companies like Coca Cola are becoming “positive forces for environmental sustainability”, it is only because enough economic/political pressure has been applied upon them to force a change.

    They see the writing on the wall and are reacting to position themselves as defenders of the emvironment in an attempt to secure their market share

  • Right on Marion. It saddens me that someone who produces such great books would take that kind of stance. In my interviews for my book, I see a backlash and I guess this is part of it, along with the anti-locavore book that came out this summer. People say only large corporations can feed the world, protect our water. And we know they are looking out for our interests, right. I’ll pass your blog comments on. Oh, what did you think of the book I wrote: The Locavore Way: Discover and Enjoy the Pleasures of Locally Grown Food?

  • William

    I have been doing corporate sustainability research for the past two years and I agree with the posts that identify regulation as the force behind any positive environmental or social change made by large companies. Any voluntary initiatives are trivial (though not for marketing purposes!) and every substantial improvement has been made out of fear of impending regulations. Diamond’s assertion that they’re helping the environment by mitigating their own impacts seems like a flaw in logic to me.
    What’s strange is the specific companies he chose as examples. By my measures those three companies are not close to being environmental leaders in their industries. He could have at least picked someone other than Chevron, even ExxonMobil has better environmental transparency and performance.
    I’m also a big fan of Diamond so I’m willing to cut him some slack, but I think he’s being naive. He visited Chevron sites in New Guinea and thinks the company is responsible. If he looked at the global data he might think differently.

  • Pingback: Weekend Links at 10,000 Monkeys and a Camera()

  • Rosa

    Multinationals will never cease to surprise us with the way they turn things around. In 2004-2005, Coca Cola was charged with depleting ground water reserves in three different states in India and leaving local people with no water. They now claim that they want to protect water reserves, but it seems that producing a liter of Coca Cola requires a minimum of 8 liters of water…

  • Emily

    Plus, can we mention the huge greenhouse emissions caused by actually transporting bottles of water? How can something be considered enviromnentally responsible when it’s doing so much to encourage climate change?

  • Rosa

    Here’s a link with more information on the issues: