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Coca-Cola CEO Muhtar Kent on water, obesity

Coca-Cola CEO Muhtar Kent delivers a speech during the opening ceremony of a Coca-Cola bottling plant in Yangon on June 4, 2013. Coca-Cola on June 4 opened a factory in Myanmar as it returns to the former pariah state after an absence of more than six decades.

Back in 2010, Coca-Cola made a big commitment – the brand promised to be water neutral by 2020.

Coca-Cola’s Chief Executive Officer and chairman, Muhtar Kent, joined Marketplace Morning Report host David Brancaccio to discuss the endeavor and its implications, as well as Coca-Cola’s role in global society.

The goal: create 500 million liters within the first two years.

“We made this bold commitment that through reduction -- using new technology in our factories -- through recycling we give the water back to municipalities where we operate, and finally through replenishment programs because recycling and reduction is not going to get us to water neutrality. And we will add a third component of this, and that’s water replenishment -- harvesting rain water for example, or this new eco-cycle and eco-center concept with the Slingshot machine,” Kent says.

Coca-Cola teamed up with Dean Kamen, the man best known as the inventor of the Segway, to distribute one of Kamen’s other inventions into the world. It’s the Slingshot, a vapor compression water purification machine, which Kent says can create 850 liters of safe drinking water from any contaminated water. And he purports that it uses less power than a hairdryer, operable through solar power off the grid.

“This is a really big deal. We believe that through our wide network of distribution and logistics, we can actually get these units to the last mile, where people don’t have a source of electricity, where people don’t have a source of clean drinking water, where people are dying,” Kent says.

“Why are we doing all of this? Because when there’s healthy communities, we have a healthy, sustainable business,” he says.

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Coca-Cola does business in 207 countries. And with that global presence, Kent says he can’t just sit back and watch 3.5 million people a year die because they don’t have access to safe drinking water.

But isn’t Coca-Cola inherently making water seem like a consumer product, rather than a basic human right?

Kent doesn’t think so. He believes Coca-Cola is servicing rural Africa, Latin America and Asia by selling safe bottled water.

“If there’s a choice between tap water and bottled water, the consumer can make that choice. In a very large geography in the world, that choice does not exist. Therefore, in my view, we are providing a huge service to humanity.”

It’s all about choice. Similarly, Kent doesn’t believe Coca-Cola and other soda brands are at fault for the obesity problem plaguing America. Coca-Cola makes far more than just cola, or sodas for that matter.

“We used to be a one product company. Now we have 500 brands, 3,000 products. We are the largest manufacturer of juices in the world. We own the largest citrus plantations around the world. We have actually provided tremendous amount of choice to people,” he says.

Someone trying to make healthy choices could purchase an Odwalla orange juice, or Dasani bottled water, and still be funding Coca-Cola.

“We have products with calories. We have products without calories.”

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About the author

David Brancaccio is the host of Marketplace Morning Report. Follow David on Twitter @DavidBrancaccio
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