Ethical consumerism has brought heightened pressure on soft drinks companies with regard to the environmental and social impacts of sourcing, manufacturing and distributing their products. But, Annette Farr writes, it has also been a catalyst for some laudable charitable projects which reflect well on the companies behind them while dramatically improving the lives of some of the world's most impoverished people.

Ethics matter, not only to the growing number of ethically-aware consumers, but also to manufacturers being held ever more accountable for the manner in which their products come to market. Soft drinks producers can be challenged by pressure groups over a range of ethical issues related to working conditions, dealing with suppliers and the environmental impacts of sourcing raw materials, packaging and distribution.

The idea of 'putting back what you've taken out' is emerging as a fundamental corporate social responsibility issue for soft drinks companies. Brands from young start-up companies to the veteran global giants are responding in a positive and - when it comes to the cola giants - a competitive way, as is being seen in India.

Coca-Cola India announced in January that it is working with the Bharat Integrated Social Welfare Agency (BISWA) to help fight malnutrition among the very poor. As part of this 'Hidden Hunger' initiative, Coca-Cola has developed a nutritiously fortified drink called Vitingo which contains iron, vitamins C and A, folic acid and zinc.

This follows PepsiCo's announcement last September of its plans to help the malnourished of India. Then Dr Mehmod Khan, chief scientific officer, PepsiCo, said: "We recognise that almost 50% of young women are iron deficient in India, placing them and their children at risk for physical and mental impairments. The initial work will focus on reaching young women with a nutritious product. The product will be developed for India, South Africa and, in time, Nigeria."

There are, of course, many good causes in Africa for brands to support, especially concerning the purity and availability of water. Indeed, a number of UK bottled water brands have made the support of drinking water projects their unique selling point.

Duncan Goose, founder of One Water, set the ball rolling in 2005. All of the company's water profits are used to install PlayPumps, water pumps in African villages powered by children's roundabouts. As children play, clean water is pumped out of the ground into storage tanks for use by the community, thus freeing up time previously spent collecting water for children to go to school and for adults to tend their crops.

Similarly, Thirsty Planet was launched by UK company Waterbrands in 2007 to raise money for the provision of clean water in Africa via the charity, Pump Aid, whose aim is to install 'elephant pumps', devices which have provided clean drinking water for more than a million people in Zimbabwe and Malawi.

Since then, the company reports that the brand's year-on-year volume sales have more than doubled. To help widen distribution and attract new, younger consumers a 500ml PET bottle with sportscap was introduced last November. "Initially Thirsty Planet was to be sold only in multipacks through the major multiples," says Waterbrands managing director Paul Martin. "But we quickly had to introduce a single-bottle format to satisfy demand, and the sportscap is the next development in the portfolio."

Meanwhile, Calypso Soft Drink's charity water brand, Thirst Aid, launched last year, has already been recognised for its ethical and humanitarian work, gaining a Silver award at the 2008 Water Innovation Awards. Working with Save the Children, the brand aims to raise funds to provide clean drinking water in Ethiopia, a country where 9m children are at risk of disease from dirty water. Five pence from every 500ml bottle and GBP0.03 from every 330ml bottle is donated to the project.

Save the Children will use the money to construct water points and washing facilities. They will connect 14 natural springs by pipe to village water points, and create four hand-dug wells and connect them to hand pumps. When the project is complete, more than 5,600 people will have access to clean, safe water, and half of these will be children.

Richard Cooke, sales and marketing director at Calypso, says: "By teaming up with the UK's largest independent charity, Save the Children, consumers can support a brand which will contribute positively to the lives of many people who live in such deprived conditions. We have guaranteed the project GBP55,000 over the short term and as the brand grows and becomes more established, we would aim to surpass this figure and set new longer-term targets."

For producers of fruit juice drinks, a key ethical issue lies in the sourcing of raw ingredients. In this respect Fairtrade certification provides a guarantee to the consumer that disadvantaged producers are getting a better deal for the fruits that go into the drinks. According to the Fairtrade Foundation, its label is now recognised by 70% of UK consumers.

Leading UK smoothie and juice brand Innocent says it prioritises buying its fruit from farms that look after both the workers and the environment, and favours farms certified by independent environmental and social organisations such as the Rainforest Alliance (the source of all Innocent's bananas). The company also donates 10% of its profits each year to support rural development projects in the countries where its fruit comes from.

When it comes to the pomegranate fruit, now being used more and more in new soft drinks, the POM354 scheme operating in Afghanistan which aims to replace opium fields with pomegranate orchards now has the support of Alibi Pomegranate, a functional pretox drink launched in December,

This initiative, supported by the Afghan government, was the brainchild of James Brett, co-founder of pomegranate juice company Pomegreat, and aims to provide a viable alternative for local farmers, while also reducing opium and heroin production. Alibi creator and founder Oliver Bolton is an active founding member of POM354. For every can sold, Alibi will donate GBP0.05 towards POM354's work in Afghanistan.