Water: The Newest Wave of Corporate 'Social Responsibility'

Even critics of World Water Week,
held annually in Stockholm, Sweden, agree that it's an important forum
where thousands of people working on water issues share information.

year's event, held from August 16 to 22, placed special emphasis on the
relationship between water and climate change. The closing statement
was literally a message to COP15, the major United Nations Framework
Convention on Climate Change
meeting in Copenhagen, Denmark, this December. "Water is a key medium
through which climate change impacts will be felt," it reads, adding
that "water-related adaptation" should be seen as part of the solution.
The statement also calls for funding "to assist vulnerable, low income
countries already affected by climate change," along with longer-term
adaptation efforts.

So why are there critics of World Water Week? In a word, Nestle.

2007, not only did the world's largest bottler of water sponsor
World Water Week, but speakers were also given bottled water to drink.
Civil society groups protested
and the plastic bottles disappeared, but Nestle did not. The 2009 event
was again sponsored by Nestle, along with Sweco, a sustainable
engineering and design company offering "solutions for water supply,
wastewater treatment, solid waste management and site remediation";
Black & Veatch, an engineering, consulting and construction company
that calls itself "one of the world's foremost providers of solutions
for energy and water needs"; and the charitable arm of Femsa, "the
largest beverage company in Latin America."

In other words, World Water Week has become an opportunity for
companies selling water, beverages, and water and sanitation services
to grab a seat at the table, as water practices and policies are
discussed. It must also be a networking gold mine, where companies can
pitch their services to government representatives from around the

Another example of the creeping corporate influence is an
international public opinion survey released to coincide with this
year's World Water Week. The survey, which received media attention,
found that more than 90 percent of respondents consider "water
pollution" and "a shortage of fresh water" to be serious problems. The summary of survey results
interpreted respondents' identifying both governments and companies as
responsible for ensuring clean drinking water as "indicating that
[public-private] partnerships are an important component to resolving
the world's fresh water sustainability challenges."

The survey was funded by the Molson Coors Brewing Company.

Coors wasn't the only beer company lifting a frosted mug to World Water
Week. SAB Miller paired with the environmental group WWF
on a report presented at the event. After studying the water use, or
"footprint," for Miller beers made in South Africa and the Czech
Republic, the report concluded that "the total water involved ... is
overwhelmingly used on the farm rather than in the brewery."
Conveniently for SAB Miller, WWF added that "beer's water footprint is
relatively small, with a recent Pacific Institute study finding that
coffee, wine and apple juice all have water footprints more than three
times that of beer."

promoting beer as a less water-intensive beverage choice doesn't quite
seem to meet the World Water Week goal of "advancing the water,
environment, health, livelihood and poverty reduction agendas."

Carrying water for corporate social responsibility

World Water Week is only one way in which corporations seek to promote themselves as good "citizens" on water issues.

Molson Coors is a good case study. The beer maker recently partnered with Circle of Blue, which describes itself
as an "international network of leading journalists, scientists and
communications design experts." Molson Coors also belongs to the Beverage Industry Environmental Roundtable,
a corporate attempt "to define a common framework for [environmental]
stewardship" -- without any pesky regulatory agency or independent
watchdog groups present.

Coors also signed onto the CEO Water Mandate, part of the United
Nations' voluntary corporate social responsibility (CSR) program, the
Global Compact.
Civil society groups fault both the Global Compact and CEO Water
Mandate for allowing corporations to reap PR benefits from associating
with the UN, without making significant changes to business practices.
In March 2008, an international coalition of grassroots groups working
on water issues wrote to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, "Led by Coca
which has a highly questionable track record when it comes to water
takings and water pollution, the companies which have signed on to the
CEO Water Mandate all have a vested interest in securing control over
water sources and services in times of increasing water scarcity." The
letter prompted the UN to develop a "Transparency Framework," which CEO
Water Mandate critics found less than reassuring.

Perhaps the heaviest public scrutiny -- and most elaborate "social
responsibility" posturing in response -- involves the bottled water
industry. It has become increasingly rare for bottled water brands to
launch without a non-profit partnership or other CSR angle.

prime example is Ethos, a bottled water brand launched by Starbucks and
in 2008. Ethos' partner is H20 Africa, an organization co-founded by
actor Matt Damon that carries out drinking water projects in African
communities. For each bottle sold, five cents go to the Ethos Water
of the Starbucks Foundation. Ethos ads proclaim, "Every bottle makes a
difference." The slick marketing campaign doesn't mention that
Starbucks and Pepsi both declined an earlier opportunity to partner
with a bottled-water company that gives all of its proceeds to charity.

this year, Primo Water Corporation tried to out-ethic Ethos.
Primo offers "single-serve water ... packaged in eco-friendly bottles
made from plant-derived bioplastic." In its work for Primo's launch,
the PR firm Porter Novelli "targeted more than 140 influential CSR,
green, and mommy bloggers," reported PR Week. Primo ponied up to
sponsor the 2008 BlogHer conference,
while Porter Novelli "formed a consortium of recycling and waste
management companies and groups, academics, and retailers," to explore
"viable solutions for recycling bioplastic." The latter is an
imperative for a company promising "zero waste," but lacking "a
scalable, economically viable way" to recycle its supposedly green

None of these tactics -- cultivating a "responsible" public image,
co-opting non-profits, setting up voluntary self-regulatory structures,
and influencing policy debates from the get-go -- is anything new in
corporate public relations. But the primary importance of water to
life, not to mention the increasing stresses on water resources from
population growth and climate change, make the corporate warping of
water policy and philanthropy especially troubling.

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