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Here's why more companies like Coca-Cola are paying attention to "sustainability"

Coca-Cola (KO) says it is working to repay Mother Earth for all the water it uses to make its products around the world.

“Water is our number one critical ingredient,” Bea Perez, Coca-Cola’s chief sustainability officer told Yahoo Finance at the recent Concordia Summit in New York City. The Atlanta-based beverage giant uses water to make its billions of soft drinks, juices and purified waters.

In 2015, Coca-Cola says it returned 115% of the water it used globally that year, roughly 192 billion liters.

“India was our wake-up call,” Perez says. Coca-Cola’s massive water footprint in India has drawn harsh criticism from residents and activists who accuse the company of using too much local groundwater, particularly in drought-stricken areas and in regions where homes and farms need it to survive.

Perez says the company has since made water a key business priority, spending $2 billion on water initiatives around the world. Those efforts include water sanitation and infrastructure, watershed support and even reforestation in dozens of countries, including China and India.

Coca-Cola’s biggest competitor, PepsiCo, has taken similar steps, and a growing number of US companies are understanding the value of global sustainability, not just to society, but to shareholders.

The rise of the CSO
Perez has been with Coca-Cola since 1996 in various roles and was named the company’s first chief sustainability (CSO) officer in 2011. According to the Weinreb Group, DuPont was the first publicly-traded company to appoint a chief sustainability officer back in 2004. As of late 2014, 36 public companies in the US had a CSO, and that number is expected to grow. In general, CSOs are charged with monitoring and addressing a company’s community impact both socially and environmentally.

Nearly 50 business programs in the US currently offer degrees or a concentration in sustainability, including Brandeis International Business School, MIT Sloan School of Management, and Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon.

Perez says today’s young people are demanding this shift in higher education and believes it represents a huge opportunity for both employers and employees. “There are so many businesses today that are growing with sustainability right at the heart.”