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Conversations With Water Leaders: Jeff Seabright of Coke on Water Partnership Programs and Watershed Responsibilities


Twelfth in a series, “Conversations With Water Leaders,” conducted by OOSKAnews in association with Singapore International Water Week.

In this edition, Jeff Seabright, Vice President for Environment and Water Resources at The Coca Cola Company, talks with OOSKAnews correspondent Renee Martin-Nagle about water partnership programs and watershed responsibilities. Being a major water user, Coke has a strong focus on water stewardship and his employees and partners recognize water as a shared resource and conserving and protecting it is a shared responsibility.

Coke is the largest beverage company in the world.  With potentially huge impact around the world, what responsibilities does the company have?

The DNA of this business, going all the way back to its inception, has been a positive, engaged, optimistic ethic.  A lot of that has to do with the franchise system -- local bottlers in local communities, relating on local terms to bring Coca-Cola to those markets.  Secondly, there’s a real recognition that when you’re the world’s leader capable of shaping market forces and technology choices, you have an obligation to use that scale and market presence to innovate and create added value.  If you’re a very small, independent beverage manufacturer, you might not have those relationships with suppliers and technology innovators, or the bandwidth to make a big impact.  In the water space, we’ve taken a leadership role in the World Economic Forum to elevate water.  Along with Nestlé, we were a very strong partner with the United Nations (UN) to create the CEO Water Mandate.  I chaired the World Economic Forum Water Security Group for the food-energy-water nexus book.  We’re trying to exercise our obligation to be a real leader.

What’s Coke’s position when it comes to water?

Water is the basis of every beverage that we produce, so water treatment, water quality, wastewater treatment plants, and stormwater management at our bottling plants have been a core focus of the company.  As a result of a detailed water risk assessment in 2004, we knew we really needed to understand what’s going on in the watersheds and communities we share with other users wherever we operate.  The signature message of our work over the last decade has been to look beyond our plants and into the shared water risks in watersheds and communities. For water, our next focus will be in the area of agriculture. The food-water-energy nexus is something we’re going to be increasingly focused on too.

What kind of challenges have you faced working with watersheds and communities you share with other uses?

We faced a challenge in Kerala state in south India around allegations that we were drawing water at the expense of farmers. It was a wake-up call.  The Energy and Resources Institute in New Delhi was commissioned to conduct an in-depth study of our water practices and report back.  They spent a year and a half, with full access to our facilities, and produced a 700-page report with recommendations and findings.  They identified areas of improvement, one of which was a much greater engagement around the social aspects of water.  We incorporated the recommendations into our overall strategic framework, and as a result we’re a better and stronger company today. 

Are Coke’s bottling partners engaged on water?

We are a franchise system, meaning that the bottling partners who produce our finished products under license around the world are independent companies, locally owned, family-held or maybe traded on a stock exchange.  We issued a water risk survey in 2004 that had 300 questions for every one of our more than 900 bottling plants.  We had a 94 percent response rate which was tremendous.  I think it reflects the fact that our business, right down to the local bottling plant operators, understands that water is absolutely vital.  

How do you use the water risk survey results to reinforce your water stewardship initiatives?

We devised a model that had specific areas of water risk and put together a course for each of Coke’s then 23 geographic business units around the world.  We spent a day and a half with the cross-functional teams -- public affairs, technical, and legal -- reviewing the data and seeing whether it was valid, and we closed out the briefing with the business unit presidents.  Then we went to smaller geographic units around the world and validated a global water snapshot at the local level.  We aggregated all of that into a strategic framework for our 360 approach to water, and found four core areas.  One was inside our plants, focused on water use efficiency, wastewater treatment, and water quality.  Secondly, there was watershed health, watershed conservation and source protection.  Thirdly, linked to it, we look at the shared users in communities.  Then fourthly, we’ve become very active in the World Economic Forum, the UN Global Compact, the CEO Water Mandate, as well as various policy discussions. We clearly saw the need for partnerships -- with other industries, NGOs, and government organizations -- to achieve more together than we could alone.

Could you give me some examples of how Coke replenishes water it uses?

Sure.  Most of it is locally driven, working with our bottling partners as a result of our source water protection requirement.  In India, we have an extensive program of engaging the local community on rainwater harvesting structures to help channel the monsoon rains into recharging aquifers.  Another example is working with local farmers and municipalities to effectively subsidize more water-efficient and productive drip irrigation for agriculture.  The third example is reforestation.  Deforested areas do not retain water when it rains so we’ve been engaged in reforestation in Mexico, Brazil, and other places.  Reforestation ends up being a very powerful tool to help improve the health and quality of local watersheds.  For each of these, there’s methodology that we use to determine what share of that water benefit can accrue toward our goal to replenish water. 

You’ve taken the water ratio (a measure of efficiency) of your products from 2.60 in 2005 down to 2.12 in 2012, and your new goal is 1.7 by 2020.  How do you set out to achieve this goal of water efficiency?

It’s been a lot of very basic things, such as making sure we’re executing well, improving operational performance, using better management practices, and picking the obvious low-hanging fruit like leaks and drips.  But we’ve also introduced better practices and technologies.  I’ll give you an example.  Traditionally we form the PET bottles in our bottling plants through blow-molding.  Before the bottle gets filled, we would put a spigot in the top of it as it’s whizzing down the line and flush it out with water to make sure it was absolutely clean.  That meant we were filling every bottle with water to rinse it out, right?  We thought, “We can achieve the same safety and quality control by using high-pressure, ionized air.”  So we put in air rinsers.  That is not rocket science or massive innovation, but it’s certainly a more efficient and effective process.

Your January 2013 Water Stewardship and Replenish Report says that Coke has initiated 468 projects in more than 100 countries since 2005.  Would you describe one or two of the projects?

A favorite of mine is the reforestation project in Toluca, a semi-mountainous area just outside Mexico City, where we have a bottling plant.  Along with Pronatura, an NGO, and the government of Mexico, we made a commitment to reforest 30,000 hectares (approximately 74,000 acres), which is a tremendous undertaking.  That project does several things.  It creates livelihood for the people who grow, move, plant and nurture the saplings.  The trees help protect that watershed and provide a carbon sink.  Another project is in Kenya, where, for safe water for schools in Nyanza province, we look at point of use water treatment options and education around hand washing and hygiene.  The impact that it has in terms of kids’ health -- the lack of water-born diarrheal diseases -- is palpable.  The kids are healthier and stronger, and school attendance improved by 50%, which is extraordinary.  That’s a great example.  I’d also mention a third thing that’s still in the pilot phase.  We’ve been working with Dean Kamen, the inventor of the Segway, on Freestyle, our new micro-dosing vending machine.  He’s also invented a safe water purification system, called ‘Slingshot’ for application in developing countries. We’re working with Dean and others to place the Slingshot units in remote underserved areas. We’re also partnering to combine it with solar energy, telecommunications availability and other offerings in a new concept called EKOCENTER.  We launched it in South Africa with our chairman last year.

How would you balance the roles of government, the private sector, NGOs and international organizations regarding water management?

In the area of water, there’s an absolutely essential role for government.  Water is the ultimate public good.  It is something that is critical to every aspect of human health and well-being, and to economic productivity, ecosystem health, etc.  Having a solid and transparent regulatory approach to managing the resource is vital. Having said that, the role the business community can play in showing different ways to manage this resource through innovation, innovative mechanisms, is vitally important.  The NGO community, in terms of providing analytical input and constantly trying to raise the bar with respect to water resource management, is also very important.  That reflects what our chairman talks about as the golden triangle of civil society, business and government to address really complex challenges, and water is certainly one of them.

Which Coke programs make you particularly proud?

One thing I’m extremely proud of is our partnerships with the World Wildlife Fund, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the UN Development Programme.  There are a lot of projects that we’re doing by engaging with partners and those partnerships enable us to make a greater impact than we could alone.  Another thing is our requirement called Source Water Protection.  A requirement in the Coca-Cola system is a big deal, because it means that all the franchisees have to follow it.  Every bottling operation has to perform an assessment of its watershed and of the shared users, and prepare a plan of action on how to engage, address, mitigate and address those challenges and risks.  That requirement is audited, and a failure is reported up the chain of command, just like a quality issue.  That, to me, is a really strong statement of purpose and intent that we’ve integrated it that deeply into the business. 

If you could wave a magic wand and implement one change for water stewardship, what would it be?

The one thing that would be important would be for governments, with the engagement of business and NGOs, to elevate water to an economy-wide perspective so that that it’s not just the water minister’s job to think about water, but it’s the job of the finance minister and the planning minister to think about those issues as well. 

How do you think Singapore has contributed to the global water discussion and solutions?

In many ways, Singapore has been the model for the world.  It’s a densely settled area that has limited access to its own water resources, and finding ways to reuse water, such as NEWater, has been absolutely incredible.  As we go forward, that sort of focused effort and real leadership from government is going to become increasingly important in more geographies.  They are really a beacon to the world in terms of pointing the way toward integrating water resource management and using technology and innovation in ways that are truly sustainable.

What final message would you like to leave with our readers with?

I think we need to elevate water in a much more engaged way, not just the experts but also consumers and ordinary citizens.  The time has come for us to be constructively discontent.  There’s so much more to be done, and we need to approach each day with a fresh sense of energy and constructive purpose.  Water is a shared resource and conserving and protecting it is a shared responsibility.   

Thanks so much.

About Jeff Seabright: Jeff Seabright is Vice President for Environment and Water Resources at The Coca Cola Company in Atlanta, Georgia. He has held several positions in government and business, including as a Foreign Service Officer in the U.S. State Department and as Legislative Assistant to US Senators Timothy E. Wirth and John D. Rockefeller IV. In 1993, he joined the U.S. Agency for International Development, later serving as Director of the Office of Energy, Environment & Technology. He moved to the White House in 1999 as Executive Director of the Climate Change Task Force where he helped negotiate the Kyoto Protocol and later joined Texaco, Inc. in New York as Vice President for Policy Planning. He earned a Master's degree in International Relations from the London School of Economics, and began his professional career with Booz Allen & Hamilton.

Seabright spoke with Renee Martin-Nagle, a Visiting Scholar at the Environmental Law Institute in Washington, DC.

This story is brought to readers free in association with Singapore International Water Week.