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Why Coca-Cola Fell Short on a Key Sustainability Goal

Coca-Cola missed out on its goal of returning all water used in manufacturing processes to the environment at a level that supports aquatic life by the end of 2010. What happened?

Coca-Cola

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Corporate sustainability goals require a tricky balance between ambition and realism. Sometimes, even realistic sustainability goals fall flat. Consider Coca-Cola’s recent sustainability report, which details a slew of successes, and one failure: The company missed out on its goal of returning all water used in manufacturing processes to the environment at a level that supports aquatic life by the end of 2010. What happened?

Admittedly, Coca-Cola did come close to reaching its goal. The company estimates that 94% of system facilities were compliant with wastewater treatment standards by the end of last year. But unexpected challenges prevented the company from fulfilling its standards completely.

“With operations in some 200 countries, there
are locations where our treatment plant is one of only a few municipal
or industrial wastewater treatment systems in the country. In a few places
we built the first system ever. Because this process is new to some
countries, we face challenges in finding qualified installers of equipment.
We also need to train operators to maintain the equipment. This
takes time and it requires investment,” explains Lisa Manley, the Group Director of Sustainability Communications, in an email. Coca-Cola does expect to reach the water goal this year.

The company’s failure isn’t indicative of a problem with Coca-Cola; rather, it serves as an example of just how difficult it is to formulate CSR goals in the first place. Manley explains that most business face challenges in four areas when devising sustainability goals: getting a business with operations in multiple countries to align around a common goal, collaborating with governments,
NGOs, suppliers, and others to reach goals, devising new systems of measurement (of both success and failure), and figuring out how and when to report progress.

Sustainability reports are new to many companies–this is Coca-Cola’s seventh annual report–and it takes time to work out the kinks. In any case, companies shouldn’t be derided when they don’t reach their goals. Instead, businesses should be commended for thinking big–as long as they make real efforts toward change.

Follow Fast Company on Twitter. Ariel Schwartz can be reached by email.

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.

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