Coca-Cola India knew it needed to be more than compliant with government regulations for water stewardship. The company and its bottling partners have helped transform the business into an example for the world to follow.
Venkatesh Kini’s devotion to the natural world of India began long before he started working for Coca-Cola. As a young boy growing up on the country’s west coast, he loved to experience wildlife. He remembers parting ways with his school group during a day at Sariska Wildlife Sanctuary and walking back to the resort alone through the forest. Monkeys rollicked in a nearby river, and birds sang in the trees all around. Decades later, the 49-year-old president of Coca-Cola India still recalls the simultaneous tranquility and exhilaration he felt in that moment.
Kini says he rarely drank cola as a child, as soft drinks were more of a rare luxury and treat, and Coca-Cola was not available in India until many years later. Now he leads the India business unit (BU) for Coca-Cola – the company’s sixth-largest market by volume (and growing).
His care for the world has not faded, but the country he has grown up loving continues to struggle with access and availability to water.
India contains 17 percent of the world’s population and only 4 percent of its water. As BU president of a company that has been accused of contributing to water scarcity around the world, it’s as much an opportunity for Coca-Cola India as it is a challenge. Over the past three years, Kini has accelerated the company’s movement to be at the forefront of water sustainability efforts in the country.
“I’m a passionate environmentalist myself,” he said. “And what I’ve observed is that typically environment and economic growth can go hand in hand, but it requires a certain amount of awareness within communities.”
Coca-Cola has often been the target of organizations that hold the view that big business and healthy environmentalism cannot coexist. But in India, the company has created replenishment potential equivalent to 146 percent of the total amount of water used in manufacturing. This is above and beyond the legal requirements.
But for Kini, simply complying with government regulations on water withdrawal isn’t enough. And it isn’t enough for the people of India either.
“Coca-Cola is a very visible user of water,” Kini said. “Even if on paper it isn’t a large user of water, perception matters.”
Criticism the company has received for depleting water reserves were highlighted by protests against Coca-Cola’s plant in the city of Kaladera, where some studies concluded that groundwater sources had been overexploited. Although Coca-Cola plants use a small amount of water relative to agriculture and some other water users, the company realized its responsibility to be more than just compliant with government regulation.
“Coca-Cola is a very visible user of water. Even if on paper it isn’t a large user of water, perception matters.”
Coca-Cola has created replenishment potential of around 1,900% of the water used (19 times the water used) by its Kaladera plant as of December 2015. However, earlier this year, the company announced a temporary suspension of beverage production at the Kaladera facility as a part of its focus on consolidation and supply optimization at other facilities. Other regular operations like warehousing and distribution at the plant continue as scheduled. The company retains its license to produce at this plant, should it decide to do so in the future.
Even so, the fact remains that India as a whole is far short of the water it needs, and Coca-Cola’s efforts alone certainly aren’t going to change that. According to Kini, it isn’t enough to “say yes” to water stewardship; the company wants to redefine it.
“We’ve set the bar for our sustainability efforts well beyond local laws and, in fact, in many cases way beyond global norms and really focused on, ‘What is the impact we want to have in the communities that we serve?’” he said.
Notably, India has recently proposed revisions to water guidelines for industry. As these guidelines develop Coca-Cola will review and adapt policies as necessary.
“We’ve set the bar for our sustainability efforts well beyond local laws and, in fact, in many cases way beyond global norms…”
The “golden triangle,” as Kini calls it, is vital. Neither Coca-Cola nor any other company, civil society organization or government entity can expect to solve the problem of water scarcity independently. But when these groups combine resources to create sustainable solutions for the availability, storage and use of water, the results are far more effective than when those sectors of society attempt to fix problems by themselves.
That is what Coca-Cola aims to achieve across the world with its partners, and what Kini and his team are putting into action in India. Using its vast reach and growing knowledge of best practices for water conservation, Coca-Cola India has created a thriving business that engages local communities.
“One of the advantages of being a big, well-known, global brand is that when there are solutions, we can actually help scale those solutions,” Kini said.
Coca-Cola India’s biggest innovations, of late, are results of its engagement with people on the ground; helping them understand a problem and create infrastructure, and allowing them to succeed for themselves.
“One of the advantages of being a big, well-known, global brand is that when there are solutions, we can actually help scale those solutions.”
In India, one of the biggest issues communities face is water storage. The monsoon season, which runsfrom July to September, provides massive amounts of water. When summer arrives, India is faced with insufficient water supplies. So, for centuries, communities built check dams to block the flow of monsoon water runoff so it can be stored year-round. But most rural communities in India have lost the infrastructure, know-how and resources for check dams, leaving them exposed to water shortages.
Anandana, the Coca-Cola Foundation in India, along with local NGO partners, helps groups of villages determine the optimal locations for these dams by using topographical studies and provides financial support to build them. By its latest estimate, Anandana has helped community members build 150 dams across Northern India, creating 13 billion liters of water storage potential, benefiting over 500,000 villagers.
“Typically in CSR efforts, if you come in over the top with a solution that is imposed on a community, it never really works,” Kini said. “So what we learned is that the best programs are the ones where the local community has a sense of ownership for it and the ideas and solutions are carefully evaluated and selected with their input.”
But Kini recognizes that this is only a start. As he points out, the demand for water will continue to rise and, therefore, Coca-Cola must continue to raise the bar for both its business and sustainability programs. He takes criticism in a positive stride, he believes they create an opportunity for the company to collaborate with local people and do better.