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By 2020 Coca-Cola, arguably one of the most familiar products in the world, plans to be water neutral — giving back as much water as it uses to produce its soft drinks.

To meet that goal, the company needs to return roughly 4 billion liters of water a year, no easy task and what some critics have called impossible.

“We have to have sustainable water supplies and sustainable communities,” said Jonathan Radtke, leader of Coca-Cola’s water resources sustainability program, noting that saving water is an investment in the future.

PepsiCo has made a similar pledge.

“At first I was a little upset,” Radtke said. “They copy everything we do. But if you’re going to be a leader, some will follow.”

Radtke, who is a hydrogeologist by training, said the impetus for Coca-Cola to make such a pledge occurred in 2005 when drought in India meant people were going thirsty. The government shut down Coke’s water-hungry plant to guarantee more water for its people.

“We lost our social license to operate in that area,” Radtke said.

That prompted Coke to come up with its water neutrality pledge that includes reducing water use at plants, replenishing water sources, recycling and risk management.

To replenish, Coke has been involved in helping to fund about 50 watershed projects. In Michigan, Coke joined the Forest Service to put in a natural stream crossing that allows steelhead to again spawn in a Lake Michigan tributary. In Montana, the company worked to help purchase an instream flow on Racetrack Creek, south of Deer Lodge, a tributary to the Clark Fork River.

“I do these things because it’s meaningful for our business,” Radtke said.

It’s also good for Coca-Cola’s image.

“Millenials pay a lot of attention to this,” Radtke said. “Over half of them told us they would spend more for sustainable products.”

Coke isn’t the only large corporation focused on the environment. Patagonia clothing has also put its money into activism.

“Our first issue years ago was salmon and the Land and Water Conservation Fund battle,” said Bill Klyn, of Patagonia.

More recently, the company funded the documentary film “DamNation,” which advocates for the removal of unnecessary old dams.

“Deadbeat dams need to come down,” Klyn said.

The company has also contributed to the fight against the controversial Pebble Creek Mine in Alaska proposed at the headwaters of one of the world’s largest salmon fisheries. And Klyn said Patagonia is challenging other businesses to step up and help.

“One thing we push is that the environment is the economy,” Klyn said.

Being a socially responsible corporation is no easy task, and it costs more as well. Patagonia’s founder, Yvon Chouinard, has been quoted as saying, “Living the examined life is a pain in the ass.”

In a report on its social and environmental initiatives in 2014, the company humbly noted, “In the end, Patagonia may never be completely responsible. We have a long way to go and we don’t have a map — but we do have a way to read the terrain and to take the next step, and then the next.”

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Montana Untamed Editor

Montana Untamed editor for the Billings Gazette.