I’ve been a member of Omaha’s Business Ethics Alliance for over five years and was quite excited when we agreed to be a sponsor of the BEA’s most recent Executive Breakfast.

The breakfast featured a conversation with Coca-Cola’s water sustainability program manager Jonathan Radtke with a special appearance by Mace Hack, the Nebraska state director of The Nature Conservancy. The two entities are partnering on an interesting project promoting new technology that helps Nebraska farmers along the South Platte River irrigate with less water.

The conversation took a number of twists and turns, and thanks to the always exceptional moderation of the BEA’s director, Beverly Kracher, an exceptional conversation unfolded.

Coke is doing some exceptional things as it relates to water conservation and replenishment of waterways. They are well ahead of schedule in working to achieve their 2020 100% water replenishment goal.

My favorite quote from Jon was his reference to Coke’s internal view that their sustainability initiatives really leverage “the power of ‘and’ ” which is to say there are multiple benefits to everything they’re doing. They save money and help the environment and attract customers and engage employees and…you get the point.

There was a great discussion that included attendees that centered on what motivates organizations to be more sustainable. Responses were a bit across the board, with references to the Pope’s recent encyclical, our collective moral obligations to future generations, and the fact that it’s ultimately good for businesses.

Interestingly, Coke is now more than happy to pay more for the water they use so long as it leads toward a more sustainable water system and all water users pay their fair share. Publicly articulating that you’re willing to take on bigger costs is pretty unheard of, but Coke understands that it’s necessary in order for them to succeed longer term.

Radtke suggested that companies need to look beyond their quarterly income statements and should consider the long view with a reference to the 7th generation principle taught by Native Americans that says every decision should consider how it will affect descendants seven generations into the future. Not many other corporations are thinking out that far.

In talking with several other attendees over the last few days, many were challenged by the tension between Coke’s great sustainability practices and the fact that they primarily sell products that result in health challenges for consumers. I get it, but I don’t put that on Coca-Cola. In my view, it’s on consumers to change their behaviors. If society wants healthier beverages, then start drinking them. Until then, I’ll see you at the vending machine – let’s split a Coke.

Onward and upward.