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Are Beverage Companies Doing As Much As They Can for the Planet?

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Without a doubt, beverage companies are taking significant actions to reduce their impact and become more sustainable. Evian's lighter bottle with 50% r-PET, Pepsi's 100% plant-based bottle which is also recyclable, AB InBev's successful efforts to dramatically reduce their water footprint, Coke's PlantBottle (see new commercial) and their substantial commitment to recycling, Nestle Waters' ReSource and Deer Park brands and their expressed concerns about recycling, energy use and community impacts as well as their intention to becoming a healthy hydration company.

These are all laudable actions which reduce each company's ecological footprint, most likely saving them money in the process, at least in the long run, while reducing their overall burden on the planet. I would characterize these actions under the heading of "becoming less bad," which is a good first step.

The next level of action is usually taken under the auspices of what I call "enlightened risk management," where a company sees the inter-dependencies between their raw material supply or their market and the world it lives in and then takes action, often in collaboration with an NGO, to protect it. This often has beneficial side effects for the surrounding community. One example is that of a Colombian SABMiller beer affiliate working with the Nature Conservancy to protect a critical watershed that was under threat from unsustainable farming practices. Coca-Cola has done similar work in China with WWF to protect the Yangtze, and to help sugar farmers become more energy efficient.

Coke's Replenish report says that the reason they are working to replenish water is that, "Clean water is a cornerstone for any sustainable community and sustainable communities are THE foundation of our business."

The third category is what you might call "doing good because it makes sense." And when I say sense, I mean business sense, but not only business sense as we start to get into the intangibles of something you might call leadership. It's hard to define exactly what that is, but people recognize it when they see it as "doing the right thing." This is less common but examples would include PepsiCo's commitment to provide access to safe water to three million people in developing countries by 2015. To date they have pledged more than $20 million to safe water and sanitation initiatives in developing countries since 2005 and contributed $5 million to the UN AquaFund. Coke also has a presence at this level supporting USAid and UNDP as well as in their 250 Community Water Partnership projects.

These are great steps that demonstrate real leadership. Virtually all of them are investments in the developing world, where one might argue, a dollar spent might go further than it does back home.

But what about back home, where despite all these noble efforts, bottled beverages and particularly bottled water still suffer from a lot a negative press? There are still a lot of people here who object to the very idea of bottled water for reasons that are not entirely imaginary. And it's not only the disposable plastic bottle. It's the cost and carbon impact of transporting it, sometimes over great distances, where there might be perfectly acceptable water, just steps away. It's the indignation and sense of violation that people feel, as illustrated in the documentary film, Flow, when a company comes in and begins pumping water out of their community to be shipped to far-away places at huge profit margins (considering that the raw material for their product is essentially free), while putting little back into the community even as the local water infrastructure is crumbling away. Or look at Food and Water Watch or Annie Leonard's video The Story of Bottled Water, which decries efforts to manufacture demand in conspiratorial terms and includes the now famous quote from the CEO of Quaker Oats' Beverage Division, "When we're done, tap water will be relegated to showers and washing dishes."

What can be done about this, to improve the perception of these companies and dispel the notion that the huge profits enjoyed by bottled water comes at the expense of tap water, which the industry denies, but critics like Peter Gleick, of the Pacific Institute, insist is true?

Over the past month, as I have put together a series about the future of drinking water, I have thought a lot about water and the way it comes down in billions of individually insignificant raindrops, which then pool together, moving from high ground to lower ground, filling reservoirs and lakes and providing us with life. I would like to challenge these companies to mimic nature, by substituting pennies -- even one penny for every bottle sold -- for raindrops, allowing them to accumulate into a fund that can be used to assist municipalities with their water systems. The program can be administered as a challenge grant program, with proceeds given to the most worthy applicants, much as IBM has done with their Smarter Cities program.

This would allow those companies participating to move into the leadership ranks while dramatically improving customer perception and loyalty and turning the connection between bottled water and tap water into a positive rather than a negative one.

As Paul Newman says in this video for Safe Water Network, "I think that for the possibility of the extraordinary luck that we've had in our businesses, some other responsibility goes along with that."

People will recognize "doing the right thing," when they see it, and I believe they will respond positively.