This is not the first time environmental groups have criticized Coke’s operations in India.
In 2003, in response to a growing campaign against Coca-Cola, the Central Pollution Control Board of India surveyed eight Coca-Cola bottling plants in the country and tested the sludge at all these facilities. The Board found all the sludge at all the Coca-Cola bottling plants it surveyed contained high levels of toxic heavy metals like lead, cadmium, and chromium. At the time, it ordered the Coca-Cola company to treat its sludge as industrial hazardous waste.
Those toxic problems, coupled with allegations Coke has been complicit in the murders of union organizers at bottling plants in the South American nation of Colombia, have been increasingly troublesome to the Atlanta-based company.
In the last six months, 25 universities from the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, including the University of Michigan, the University of Guelph in Canada, and the University of Manchester in England, have all taken actions to remove Coca-Cola from their campuses.
| Anti-Coca-Cola protester at the company’s annual general meeting, 2004. © Aaron Couch / India Resource Center
On May 29, the president of Smith College in Massachusetts, Carol T. Christ, barred Coke from participating in the school’s upcoming soft drink bidding process. Coca-Cola’s seven-year contract with Smith College expires on August 31.
"In light of Coca-Cola’s business practices in Colombia and India, Smith will preclude Coca-Cola from the list of approved bidders when we enter the contract renewal process later this summer," Christ wrote in a letter.
Coke vehemently denies the charges.
"The allegations that led to this decision are based on Internet rumor and myth, and have been proven false time and again," Coke spokesperson Diana Garza Ciarlante told New Dehli-based Indo-Asian News Service.
"While our business relationship with Smith College is important, the integrity and reputation of our company is more important," she said.
On Tuesday, the soft drink giant announced its own environmental plan, pledging to spend $20 million to conserve seven of the world’s most critical river basins.
Right now, it takes 2.5 liters of water to make and bottle 1 liter of Coke, and 250 liters to grow the sugar cane in the mix.
"We are focusing on water because this is where Coca-Cola can have a real and positive impact," Coca-Cola Chairman and CEO E. Neville Isdell told a gathering of environmental advocates.
"We are focusing on water because this is where Coca-Cola can have a real and positive impact"
– Coca-Cola Chairman and CEO E. Neville Isdell
The pledge was announced at the annual meeting of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in Beijing. Over the life of a multiyear partnership with WWF, the company pledged to focus on "measurably conserving" China’s Yangtze, Southeast Asia’s Mekong, the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo of the southwest United States and Mexico, the rivers and streams of the southeastern United States, the water basins of the Mesoamerican Caribbean Reef, the East Africa basin of Lake Malawi, and Europe’s Danube River.
"We call this ‘greenwashing,’" said Srivastava of the India Resource Center. "An attempt by the Coca-Cola company to manufacture a green image of itself that it clearly is not, as their practice in India shows."
Coke’s announcement did not mention any measures to conserve water basins in India, a decision that did not surprise Srivastava.
"The Coca-Cola company and WWF did not dare to include India in this initiative (because) the public in India is increasingly becoming aware of the Coca-Cola company’s disastrous relationship with water, and would have to see it for what it’s worth — a drop in the bucket," he told OneWorld.
The deal also rubs U.S. critics of Coke the wrong way.
"In itself it’s a good thing, but we see it as largely a tactic to divert attention from other areas," Patti Lynn of the watchdog group Corporate Accountability told OneWorld.
"Coke is just trying to get some public relations points. They’re using this as a diversionary tactic," she added.
Lynn and other U.S.-based consumer advocates are angry because of the foray that Coca-Cola has made into the bottled water market.
From the 1970s to 2000, Corporate Accountability says, the annual volume of bottled water purchased and sold in the United States has increased by over 7,000 percent. Yet the bottled water industry operates with little or no regulation.
"Tap water is better regulated, and often safer," said Lynn, adding that bottled water costs 3,000 percent more.
Lynn pointed to a 1999 study by the National Resources Defense Council on bottled water sold in the United States, which found traces of arsenic, chloroform, and other impurities; chemicals that would be illegal if found in tap water.
Coca-Cola spent $1.7 billion on advertising last year. In North America, Coca-Cola distributes three bottled water brands: Dasani, Dannon, and Evian.
According to the Washington, DC-based Earth Policy Institute, consumers spend about $100 billion on bottled water each year. By comparison, experts estimate that just $15 billion per year, above and beyond what is already spent, could bring reliable and lasting access to safe drinking water to half a billion people worldwide — fully half of those who lack it.
"The way that Coke, Pepsi, and Nestle have marketed bottled water has had the effect of undermining people’s confidence in tap water and contributed to a broad societal shift," Lynn said. "Instead of buying bottled water, we need to be investing in our shared, public water systems."