Coke, CSR, and Water

Here’s a story from the Environmental news Network: Coca-Cola Undertaking Africa Water Project, CEO Says

Coca-Cola Co. said Wednesday it would help to bring clean drinking water to parts of Africa in a plan to work with local communities on environmental issues like water management. “We’re focusing on water because we’re a hydration company,” Neville Isdell, chief executive of the world’s largest beverage company, said at a Business for Social Responsibility conference here.
“We’re focusing on water because it’s the main ingredient in every product we make…the success of our business depends on the availability of local water resources.”

OK, so the first comment to make is that, on the surface at least, this is a relatively progressive approach to Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). It involves a company working in a field it actually knows about — in Coke’s case, treatment & transport of drinkable liquids — on projects that hold the possibility of not merely providing band-aid solutions, but instead contributing to the long-term development needs of communities.

Secondly, it’s worth noting that Coke is quite open about the fact that this is CSR of the “win-win” kind: it’s not philanthropy (i.e., it’s not Coke giving something away out of the goodness of its heart). Establishing a stable water supply is both good for local communities and helps Coke meet the needs of its bottling plants.

Now the cynical counter-spin: in helping bring water to more African communities, Coca-Cola is also helping bring its product, Coke, to more African communities. That is, Coca-Cola is expanding its market. As the ENN story notes,

International markets are becoming more important to Coca-Cola…as consumers in developed markets choose drinks like bottled water and tea over soft drinks.

OK, well I already noted that this isn’t philanthropy, it’s CSR of the win-win variety, which necessarily involves an upside for the corporation involved. So, what’s the problem? Well, the worry, anyway, is that Coca-Cola isn’t just expanding its market, it’s expanding the market for what is generally a pretty unhealthy product. Enjoyed in moderation, Coke is surely far from lethal. But better access to high-sugar, low-nutrient beverages is pretty much the last thing Africa’s poor need. I don’t want to ‘look a gift-horse in the mouth,’ — after all, lots of parts of Africa clearly are in desperate need of better supplies of water — but this particular example strikes me as being only slightly different than a tobacco company subsidizing the construction of roads to isolated towns so that they can more easily distribute their deadly product.

But if I lived in one of those African villages (or if I were a local politician), I guess I’d see this as good news. I’d accept the gift of clean water, even if it meant that kids would also now have easier access to some pretty unhealthy food choices. Not a pretty choice to have to make. But the fact that it’s offering something that desperate people would gladly accept is perhaps not the highest praise we can imagine for a company.

(Thanks once again to Melissa for alerting me to this story.)

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