The ever-increasing focus on sustainability by brands is like a rock thrown into a lake, with the effects continuing to ripple outward. Suddenly, it isn’t all about limiting interaction to times revolving around consumption. Companies are thinking about how the consumer can do more, positively impacting the environment during use or at disposal. And they’re also going further and further up the supply chain to ensure virtuous behavior—knowing that journalists are growing more vocal about environmental infractions that previously remained hidden.
Speaking with Robert ter Kuile, PepsiCo’s senior director of environmental sustainability, I learned that this ripple is now spreading beyond the consumer entirely, and into their communities at large. Ter Kuile, who spoke about innovation in water use at GLOBE 2012, said that his company is digging deep into local communities to find water-saving opportunities that produce both positive environmental and consumer impact.
"If you start thinking outside your watershed, you’ll miss nuances of the local situation that you really need to pay attention to" ter Kuile said. "It’s about breaking down the watershed where we operate, and analyzing the situation across the spectrum, from farms to the supply chain to runoff."
Ter Kuile used PepsiCo’s Casa Grande, Arizona, facility as an example. The plant operates at near net zero waste and zero landfill. It is powered entirely by renewable resources: solar and biomass. And a new water filtration plant cleans used water to U.S. drinking water standards, enabling it to be reused in operations and eliminating wasteful "one-pass" water. It isn’t hard to see how this story would make the news in a desert city, and earn a positive glow for the company.
PepsiCo took the ripple even further, signing a joint declaration with the UN, stating that the world’s inhabitants have a right to safe water. According to ter Kuile, this shifted the conversation beyond conserving water, to conserving accessible, affordable, quality water, and led to innovations like the creation of decentralized water facilities. It even led to microcredit opportunities in countries like India, where citizens began to finance connections to local spigots.
In order for a brand to be "futureproof," it must do more than embrace sustainability and innovation. It needs to do so with a deep understanding of today’s and tomorrow’s consumers.
Ter Kuile makes it clear that water is becoming an issue that will increasingly transcend utility to become political. More and more, people are going to desire sustainable safe, clean water in their own backyard. Any company that is seen working toward that "local first" goal—as opposed to espousing water preservation on a less tangible "global"
scale, will win support—from consumers, the press, and politicians. For a company like PepsiCo, one of the world’s largest beverage producers, this translates into a brand that can survive, and thrive, in increasingly chaotic times.
First, start inside, and radiate out. As ter Kuile says, you need to start sustainability within your own four walls. Skip this step, and you won’t earn the legitimacy you need to be trusted in the community.
Second, tie your sustainability to insight. PepsiCo produces beverages, so it makes perfect sense that conservation of quality water would be a primary focus. What’s more, water is a real, universal need. So not only can PepsiCo claim a strong internal motivation to preserve water, they can also build on the insight that water will be tied increasingly to consumer happiness in the future.