Hello from balmy Philadelphia, where I’m liveblogging from the 2008 Net Impact North America Conference hosted by the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Net Impact is an umbrella organization founded about 15 years ago to be an organizing force for business school students interested in social impact. The organization has grown to a gargantuan scale, and Yale SOM’s chapter is the largest student organization on campus. We’re sending a contingent of 80 students to the conference, nearly a quarter of the student body! The total attendance is reportedly around 2400—not quite as big as the National Performing Arts Convention that I attended earlier this year, but not too far off either.

The opening event was a keynote conversation between John Brock, Chairman and CEO of Coca-Cola Enterprises and Carter Roberts, director of the World Wildlife Fund. Coca-Cola Enterprises is not the same as Coca-Cola; it’s a separate company that handles the bottling and distribution of Coca-Cola products. Brock began by describing his company’s recent focus on developing specific targets for sustainability, things like introducing hybrid electric trucks. As he put it, “most of the things we do [in the sustainability space] not only make sense for the planet but also pay off economically.” Roberts gave a brief history of WWF, which started out solely as an organization protecting species. However, as time went on, they realized that to protect species, you need to protect their habitat; to protect their habitat, you need to protect the environment; and to protect the environment, you have to change how the world works. So they’ve now expanded into areas like policy, commodity markets, and an international network of people on the ground. For example, Amazonian forests are being cut down to grow soy, which are being sold to China to feed chickens and cattle, which are being sold to an increasingly affluent middle class there. So, Roberts argued, if you want to save the rainforest, you have to start with China. Roberts also spoke about consumption in the US, which is completely out of control. By itself, our country consumes 1.2x what the planet as a whole can sustain over the long term. If the rest of the world were to catch up with the US, we would need 11 planets to sustain our hunger! Carter says that the businesses that survive and succeed are going to be the ones that realize this and figure out ways to do more with less.

The focus of the partnership between WWF and Coca-Cola Enterprises is water conservation. Right now, CCE uses 1.77 liters of water for every liter of water it transmits to the consumer. That’s down from 1.9, but there’s a long way to go to get to parity. Coca-Cola proper would like to take this even further—doing reforestation and other initiatives to replace the liter that’s taken out. The sugar in Coke actually takes more water to produce than the beverage itself. As a major buyer of sugar, Coca-Cola has a lot of leverage to determine the sustainability practices of its suppliers.

Coca-Cola Enterprises has set a goal of reducing its carbon footprint by 5% over the next six years, despite 4% year-over-year growth. However, climate change in the Arctic Circle is now on track for the worst-case scenario. Companies acting alone, voluntarily, won’t be enough—we’ll need legislation and participation from everybody as well. John Brock then talked about setting intermediate goals regarding water conservation of reducing that 1.77/1 ratio by 10% next year. (As an aside, I can only imagine what it must be like to be on the sustainability case for a ginormous company like Coca-Cola or Wal-Mart. Thrilling, in a way, but talk about pressure—you could be holding the future of the world in your hands, in a very real way. Not meeting your targets on the business side might cost you your job, but at least it won’t cost a few coastal cities here and there.)

Next was a discussion about bottled water, which the moderator calls “the elephant in the room,” referring to the two bottles of Dasani on the table. (Dasani is owned by Coca-Cola.) Carter pointed out that Dasani is actually not as bad as some competitors, since it uses local sources (and not as wasteful as Coca-Cola either, since there’s no sugar content). That doesn’t speak to the packaging, however.

During the brief Q&A portion of the event, an audience member from Baruch College asked about environmental labeling for consumer products. Brock gives qualified support, and suggested that it’s on its way eventually. Another questioner asked what Coca-Cola is doing to promote health and wellness in light of its product mix. Brock responded by talking about the “panoply” of products available to consumers, including the healthy ones; they’re starting a “Get up and run” campaign in association with its products. (Interestingly, no one had any questions for Carter Roberts.)

Overall, I think this cross-sector work between two very high-profile organizations is very cool—and quite groundbreaking. However, I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed in Brock’s answers, which betrayed some hesitancy and defensiveness around issues (such as nutrition, plastic bottles, etc.) beyond what his company had already committed to. The willingness of him and other company leaders to play ball on the environmental front undoubtedly represents progress. I just hope that it won’t turn out to be too little, too late.

I’ll be back with more from the Net Impact North America Conference later today.