Business fails to turn off the tap

Water is a vital resource, and it is not unlimited. But its consumption is still being overlooked by businesses as a key factor in sustainability, says Kevin Stanley

Water is essential in domestic and commercial life. But, from as far back as the industrial revolution, we have plundered our planet, consuming resources and polluting the atmosphere with greenhouse gases and the waterways with toxic chemicals. We have treated water trivially. And, at the beginning of the 21st century, we find ourselves facing the a catastrophic environmental disaster on a global scale.

"Businesses use 8,000Ml of water a day," says the Environment Agency's David Calderbank. "Most can save 30% or more of their water costs by implementing simple measures such as installing dual-flush toilets and using rainwater collected on roofs for vehicle washing and outside watering." This is good advice but it is only in recent years that businesses have begun to take notice of the environment or to promote ethical or environmental messages as part of their company proposition.

Consumers, or other businesses further down the supply chain, now expect businesses to prove their environmental credentials, or at the very least act responsibly by working to develop sustainable processes. Because of this, many businesses have realised that having a positive environmental outlook can be a powerful selling point.

Most are now aware that embracing the recent advances in low carbon, or renewable energy, technologies can be beneficial in terms of marketing and promoting a positive company image. But perhaps fewer businesses would be so willing to take environmentally positive steps if it were not also ultimately cost effective to do so.

Fortunately, it is increasingly financially viable to be green. And businesses within virtually every sector are now recycling, minimising energy usage and devising more efficient delivery methods to reduce carbon emissions.

It is perhaps because water is relatively inexpensive that it is often overlooked in terms of financial savings. Yet, regardless of the monetary value placed upon it, water remains our most vital natural resource.

David Gray from global energy consultancy McKinnon & Clarke says: "Water prices are continuing to rise beyond inflation. Businesses and water-intensive industries can no longer ignore the fact that this utility should be recognised as an area in which costs can be reduced. Traditionally, a lack of knowledge at how to offset the price rises has led to many financial directors overlooking water as part of their energy management strategy."

McKinnon and Clarke, which advises UK clients on effective water purchasing and management, believes the only way to solve water shortage is to focus on reducing consumption. "More should be done to encourage businesses - the largest users of water - to reduce water consumption," says Chris Davenport from the firm's water division. "Many business users think there is no way to reduce water bills, yet we have achieved reductions of up to 80% by introducing effective methods of capturing or reusing water. We often find that when organisations are considering utilities savings, water tends to be a lesser consideration, or there is a belief that the costs can less easily be influenced. We therefore suggest that companies take into account each aspect of utilities' expenditure and devote a similar amount of effort to each to maximise saving opportunities."

Commercially and domestically, due to poor habits and lack of discipline, the majority of us spend more on our water needs than is necessary. There are, however, simple methods to effectively save water and money.

It seems part of the problem in encouraging conservation, reuse and recycling of water is psychological. The fact that 70% of our planet is covered by water gives us a false sense of security, so most of us use water without much thought.

We consume it as if it were infinite, whereas the reality is that useable water is a limited resource. Unfortunately, the prevalent attitude in the UK - where we complain of being rained on most of the time, and where hosepipe bans are met by public derision - is that water is trivial. The facts, though, tell a different story.

Domestically, we use an average of 120 litres per person per day, and inconceivable amounts commercially. But we are widely unaware that in parts of the UK, due to higher population density, we have less water available to us than many Mediterranean countries.

Thames Water's corporate advisor on water efficiency, Donna McKitterick, says: "The business sector accounts for one third of the total water use within the UK and approximately 20% of all water use in the Thames Region - that's 486,000Ml of water a day." And a spokesperson for The London Chamber of Commerce and Industry (LCCI) says that it encourages businesses "to embrace green measures and provides advice on how businesses can become more environmentally friendly". The LCCI's Going Green: Guide for Company Directors shows that businesses that improve their water efficiency can see many additional benefits, such as reduced operational costs and improved reputation, as well as helping protect the environment.

In order to become more water efficient, businesses should take key steps such as auditing their consumption, carrying out leakage checks and educating staff about how to save water."

The fact is that we need to change our way of thinking because the opinion that water is cheap and limitless is both totally unsound and environmentally unsustainable.

So what is the answer for businesses looking to conserve, reuse and recycle water? Chris Philpot from NGO, Waterwise says: "It's essential that businesses develop water conservation practices in order to achieve long-term sustainable supply and protect our environment.

There are many simple and some more complex changes that businesses can make in order to reduce water consumption." In the box above, he outlines his advice and tips for businesses.

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