Distilling water efficiency into Diageo’s operations

World Water Day not only highlights the global water challenge but for Guinness and Smirnoff producer Diageo, it raises awareness throughout the company's supply chain and operations, says Michael Alexander

Last week’s date was particularly significant for Diageo’s head of environment, Michael Alexander, whose job it is to ensure that Diageo’s brands are being produced as efficiently as possible and incorporate the company’s sustainability strategy.

Addressing the global water challenge is essential for those in the beverage industry, as processes can be extremely water intensive and clean, high quality water is an essential ingredient for many products.

According to Alexander, the beverage industry has achieved substantial water savings over the last few years and continues to lead on water stewardship across sectors.

“Many companies in the water sector have water targets and initiatives throughout the world, their supply chains and within their own operations to address the global water challenge,” said Alexander.

Despite considerable progress being made in the sector, Alexander was clear that more needs to be done, but stressed that those in the industry were working together to tackle environmental issues.

“Collaboration in the beverage industry is almost a benchmark for other industries to work on and emulate. I’m not saying the industry is perfect, but there is a good, solid, long-term collaboration within the industry to work on issues such as water and carbon,” said Alexander.

Collaboration has paid off. According to the Beverage Industry Environmental Roundtable’s (BIER) Water Use Benchmarking Report 2012, by improving water use efficiency, the industry avoided the use of approximately 35 billion litres of water in 2011 – enough water to fill London’s 02 Arena more than 16 times.

The report showed that out of 296 breweries, 83% showed an improvement in water use ratio from 2009 to 2011. The water use ratio for breweries that produce only beer improved 12% from 2009 to 2011, the greatest improvement in the study.

Distilleries were also measured, and recorded significant reductions in water use. Out of 80 facilities, 54% improved their water use ratio from 2009 to 2011. The distillery data set as a whole showed an improvement of 10% from 2009 to 2011.

As a beverage producer using the distilling and brewing processes, Alexander pointed out the water intensity of the two methods but said it was a challenge to compare, due to the geographical locations of sites.

“It’s difficult to say because Smirnoff and Guinness are made in different parts of the world but as a rule distilling is more water intensive than brewing but most of the distilling goes on in the northern hemisphere, in particular Scotland, North America and Canada – which means we don’t have any water stressed sites distilling at the moment”.

Diageo has contributed to the industry’s uptake of water reduction activities and is currently ahead of its water efficiency targets – to improve water efficiency by 30% by 2015 – having made improvements of 19% since 2007, with 7.2% improvements in the past year.

“Our big focus is on water stressed sites in water stressed regions, where we have 12 sites. We’ve made good progress on our 2015 target to reduce water waste by 50%. We’re currently at 28% and have a little over 20% to go and we know the next 20% is going to be tougher to achieve,” he added.

However, Alexander says that water efficiency within Diageo’s own operations is only part of the story. “We’ve got to look more and more into the supply chain and look where we can impact water use in our supply chain, which is a much bigger user of water. And that is where our next focus will be as well as keeping our eye on our 2015 targets,” he adds.

To build up a sustainable supply chain Diageo will be working on several projects with farmers in Africa to improve local supply chains of the crops used to make its products and to improve water efficiency in the growing, the processing and the fermentation of the crops.

Michael Alexander is head of environment at Diageo

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