World Water Week: Seven ways businesses are progressing water stewardship

As research released for World Water Week (August 26 -31) reveals that the number of large companies pledging to measure, manage and report their water risks has doubled over the last three years, edie rounds up seven ways that the business community is progressing water stewardship efforts worldwide.

The research, published this week by climate disclosure organisation CDP, highlights the progress corporations have made towards addressing water stress – an issue which the United Nations (UN) estimates affects 1.2 billion people, or one-fifth of the world’s population.

It reveals that 2,025 of the world’s largest corporations, which collectively represent more than $20.3trn in market capital, are now reporting their water footprint through CDP, up from 1,200 just three years ago.

Of these companies, almost a quarter (478) said that implementing water efficiency measures presented new business opportunities and benefits. As a result, the business case for disclosure and action on water is becoming clearer.

CDP’s director of water security Cate Lamb said a trend towards business leaders “stepping up to the challenge” of tackling water issues had occurred in recent months, with those reporting through the initiative identifying 7,300 water risks across 102 nations in 2017.

“This increase in disclosure and transparency is driving action,” Lamb said. “Improved water use efficiency, combating worsening water quality, valuing ecosystems and improving access to water, sanitation and hygiene are just some of the actions companies are taking. Leading businesses are also increasingly fostering innovation to protect water quality.”

If water efficiency is to be fully recognised as a critical aspect of corporate sustainability, it is important that professionals in the field can build the business case for acting on this growing global crisis. With this in mind, edie has rounded up seven ways that businesses of all sizes are moving to progress their water stewardship actions.

1) Pursuing circular economy techniques

In 2017, 106 companies told CDP they were using circular economy techniques to repurpose their wastewater, either internally or externally – a 66% year-on-year increase.

For example, biotechnology company Biogen Inc. has recently moved to distribute wastewater from its manufacturing plants to other organisations, where it is repurposed for use in fertilisers.

With industry estimated to account for 19% of global water withdrawal, a switch to closed-loop processes could undoubtedly alter the industrial water process paradigm from extraction to renewal.

In fact, banking group ING estimates that the adaptation of circular economy methods in water-stressed regions could save 412 billion cubic metres of water each year, the equivalent to 11% of annual global water demand.

2) Investing in water access solutions

The Global Water Institute estimates that 700 million people in 43 countries suffer from the effects of water scarcity, with UNESCO predicting that this figure will rise to 1.8 billion by 2025 if no action is taken.

In a bid to tackle the issue, corporates are increasingly making moves to invest in water access solutions in their areas of operation. CDP found that more than $23bn was invested in projects like desalination plants, irrigation systems and drought resistance in 2017.

PepsiCo, for example, has invested more than £30m in water access solutions since the launch of its Safe Water Access initiative in 2006 and is on track to provide 25 million people with clean water by 2025.

3) Implementing water efficiency measures

While energy efficiency plans are a key part of most corporate sustainability strategies, water has historically been something of a “forgotten” environmental footprint. However, in the wake of extreme weather events such as heatwaves and floods, the onus is now on companies to tackle water wastage within their operations and supply chain.

Since the water retail market opened to businesses last April, more than 100,000 organisations have reportedly switched water retailer in a bid to improve efficiency and reduce costs.

Several of these organisations, including brewer Greene King, hospitality giant Whitbread and beverage firm Coca-Cola, are also reaping the environmental and financial benefits of obtaining a self-supply licence to deliver their own water and wastewater services. Greene King, for example, revealed this month that it the switch to self-supply had enabled the company to reduce its water footprint by more than 140,000m3 since April 2017. Daily, Greene King has realised 384.32m3 in consumption savings – the equivalent of 676,313 pints.

4) Championing collective catchment management

In a great example of organisations aiming to drive sustainability outside their own operations, this year saw 60 companies and NGOs commit to a new initiative that aims to tackle water scarcity and stress in the UK through collaborative catchment management.

Marks & Spencer (M&S), Asda and Sainsbury’s are among those to have signed the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership’s Catchment Management Declaration, which helps businesses align their sustainability strategies with the water targets detailed in the Government’s 25 Year Environment Plan.

Signatories of the declaration commit to take responsibility to progress sustainable water management in all the areas they operate, and to support the improvement of existing water governance frameworks.

By signing the document, they additionally pledge to inform citizens about their role in water stewardship; encourage positive behaviour change among employees, customers and suppliers in a bid to cut water wastage; reduce pollution from wastewater and reduce abstraction from rivers and groundwater in water-scarce areas.

5) Investing in initiatives that restore damaged river basins

Some 544 companies told CDP that they were taking action to restore river basins in order to address water risks last year, up 124% from 2015 figures, with environmental protection proving to be the top sustainability concern for the majority of businesses to disclose their water footprint through the organisation.

CDP noted that the 7,300 water risks identified last year covered 149 river basins across 102 nations, with businesses increasingly working to go beyond water efficiency practices and lead collective action in river basins around the world.

For example, AB InBev last year reforested 100 hectares of degraded areas and protected 120 further hectares of forest in Brazil and Bogata a bid to reduce sedimentation. The company, which is the largest brewer in the world, is also engaged in watershed restoration and protection programmes in Argentina, Bolivia, China, Colombia, Mexico, Peru, South Africa, Zambia and the US.

6) Aligning with SDG 6

The focus of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6, which calls for clean water and sanitation for all people, is water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH). With more than 9,000 companies now reporting on their impacts on the SDGs, almost one-third (682) of the companies reporting their water footprint to CDP now integrate the provision of WASH into their sustainability assessments – up 75% on 2015 figures.

Meanwhile, 48 corporations have committed to ensuring that all of their employees have access to the appropriate standards of WASH by signing the World Business Council for Sustainable Development’s (WBCSD) WASH at the workplace pledge.

Recent additions to the pledge include Dow Chemical Company, BMW Group and alcoholic beverage firm Diageo, which re-designed its Water Stewardship Blueprint this summer after becoming a signatory.

The pledge was launched after research from the WBCSD found that one-third of the world’s population does not have access to a safe toilet water, while 10% are unable to access safe drinking water. The research additionally found that for every dollar a company invests in WASH, it can expect to generate $4.3 through increased employee productivity and decreased absenteeism.

7) Placing an internal price on water

The number of corporations to place an “internal price on water” to justify funding decisions is on the rise, with the CDP’s latest Global Water Report finding that 53 of 742 big companies had taken such a move in recent times.

Among those to have taken this approach is health and beauty giant Colgate Palmolive, which measures the “true” cost of water as 2.5 times more than the purchase cost, once social and environmental impacts are accounted for.

This approach has also been adopted by Diageo, which assigns internal water costs to individual manufacturing plants as part of a wider goal to improve water efficiency by 50% by 2020.

Previously, several think tanks concluded that a move to place an internal price on natural resources such as water can be combined with conservation approaches to align business actions and environmental protection.

Sarah George

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