Alumnus Moves from Student Activism to Working with Corporations

Christina Copeland '11 discusses how important it is to measure water use in corporations...


"The air, the water and the ground are free gifts to man and no one has the power to portion them out in parcels. Man must drink and breathe and walk and therefore each man has a right to his share of each." ~ James Fennimore Cooper

Christina Copeland water tasting

Tap water vs. bottled water blind taste test on Cornell’s Ho Plaza

As an idealistic undergraduate at Cornell, I was passionate about tangibly affecting people’s behavior towards environmental issues on campus. In 2007, this manifested itself in the start of a campaign to raise awareness of the detrimental environmental impacts of bottled water (which has since evolved into the student group Take Back the Tap). I started the campaign in response to my alarm at how many people on campus drink bottled water when residents of Ithaca New York - and most places in the U.S. - are lucky enough to have potable tap water at our disposal, yet globally many struggle to find that. Back then I had no idea how this beginning interest around issues of water and equality would come back to me in my post-graduate work experiences.

When my last semester of college rolled around I dutifully began submitting job applications, trying to edge into the niche of corporate sustainability. After several months and the realization that there were very few entry-level positions into the 2011 U.S. corporate sustainability area, I came across an opportunity to take a year-long position with Tata Consultancy Services (TCS). I accepted – the work was within the corporate sustainability consulting department at TCS and based in Mumbai, India. A month after graduation, I found myself not only learning about the world of sustainability consulting, but also how to stay dry (as much as possible) during a monsoon downpour, how to hail a rickshaw, how to wear a sari and haggle while kurti shopping, and many more unexpected skills.

I worked on a variety of projects during my year in India, with the largest being a water accounting project for Ambuja Cements. This involved traveling to cement plant locations across India and performing water audits and accounting, poring through and analyzing excel sheets of water data, and contributing to a 200+ page report for the company. This was an amazing opportunity to “dive in” (pardon the pun) to a project and focus on the corporate side of water use in a country where the issue is of extreme importance.

Christina Copeland in India

Christina Copeland- cement plant in Ropar India for a water audit

I experienced a lot of culture shock while in India, and at the core of it was the prevalence of inequality. My driving force for doing environmental work is the belief that climate change and its impacts are one of the biggest destabilizers of equality among people. This starts from the basic “tragedy of the commons” argument that natural resources such as air and water are common goods easily harmed by the actions of self-interested individuals/corporations. While everyone suffers from the demise of the shared resource, it is often the citizens of developing countries who suffer the most.

I think that one of the biggest, most effective ways to fight this inequality is through working with corporations.

During my time of corporate sustainability consulting with TCS, I heard more and more about an organization called CDP (which was then known as the Carbon Disclosure Project). CDP is extremely useful because it collates and manages the world’s largest database of corporate environmental data (which can be quite handy for a consultant), and after leaving TCS I came to work for them. CDP works to serve institutional investors - ranging from J.P. Morgan Chase to socially responsible mutual funds such as state teacher pension funds - by collecting environmental data so they can assess how the companies they invest in are preparing for risks associated with climate change. The organization is perhaps best known for the Climate Change questionnaire(pdf), which asks the world’s largest companies to respond to questions on corporate environmental governance, risks and opportunities relating to climate change, and Scope1, 2, and 3 greenhouse gas emissions.

Christina Copeland

Cate Lamb, CDP’s Head of Water, Christina Copeland(right) holding the 2012 CDP S&P500 Water Report

Due to increasing investor awareness and concern, in 2010 CDP introduced a water program to gather information on corporate water use. The program now has 530 signatory investors representing $57 trillion in assets. CDP officially requests a response to our Water Questionnaire (pdf) from companies in the most water-intensive sectors (pdf) which are listed on the Global 500, S&P500, Australia’s ASX 100, and South Africa’s JSE 100 indexes.

Water is a pillar of life and we are entering a global crisis - it has been suggested that water could provoke World War III. The U.N. estimates that about 10% of the world’s freshwater goes towards domestic use, while 20% is used by industry and 70% used for irrigation (often to produce crops which are present in corporation’s supply chains, such as cotton). Yet there is surprisingly little data on how corporations are managing this precious resource - that’s where the CDP Water program comes in. What I find really exciting about CDP’s Water program is that it takes an important issue - water use by corporations - and serves as the main catalyst for collecting global metrics and strategies on it. Data is always a vital step when tackling any problem, and I am proud to work for the organization paving the way towards measurable action.

Lord Turner once said “what gets measured gets managed,” and in the veins of that quote, CDP believes that by formally asking companies to report on “resource risks” such as carbon and water we can drive change for environmental good within those companies. We need to find solutions to the barriers companies face in measuring, managing, and reporting around water use and water stewardship programs. As a first step in the massive task of sustainable, equitable global water use, CDP provides a vital path for companies to be transparent about their activities and to learn best practices in how to be global stewards of the greatest “free gifts to man”.

Views expressed in News posts may not be those of Cornell University. No endorsement is implied.