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Create a Path to Water Sustainability


“Water crises are the single most impactful risk facing the world today.”

– World Economic Forum’s Global Risk Report 2015

In recent blog posts, I’ve written how sustainability can positively impact a company’s brand image as well as its supply chain. This is especially true when it comes to water sustainability. As more business leaders become aware of the risk increasing water scarcity can have on their supply chain, they also are learning of the negative impact that irresponsible water use can have on their brand, reputation, customer relations and the local communities in which they operate.

Water stewardship is not just a case of doing well by doing good … it’s a necessity. Companies cannot afford not to act. And while acting in a responsible and sustainable manner is good for people, businesses and the planet, at the same time, supply chain organizations face major risks related to water that require action now.

Many organizations are making great progress in managing water resources, and dedicating substantial resources to improving water management. Some address the challenge from an external perspective because most of their water expenditure occurs outside of their immediate operations. For example, in the beer industry water consumption is concentrated in the agricultural supply chain (it takes five liters of water, on average, to make one liter of beer). Other efforts focus on the management of water in internal direct operations, while others focus on water governance and accessibility.

CEO Water Mandate Provides Guidance

The CEO Water Mandate is a public/private partnership established in 2007 to mobilize business leaders in advancing water sustainability. It is a special initiative of the U.N. Secretary-General and the U.N. Global Compact implemented in partnership with the Pacific Institute, a leading nonprofit research organization. The Mandate strives to help businesses understand the importance of water sustainability, provides guidance and tools for making positive changes and encourages global corporations to commit to adhering to its standards. 

The CEO Water Mandate outlines five core actions of effective corporate water stewards. These actions extend across direct operations, the community and the supply chain:

  1. Provide water, sanitation and hygiene for all employees
  2. Drive efficiency and reduce pollution in operations
  3. Facilitate improved water performance in the value chain
  4. Advance collective action and sustainable water management in river basins
  5. Achieve continuous dialogue with stakeholders

In 2015, the Mandate announced it was initiating a focus on water stewardship in the supply chain, centered on improving the effectiveness of supply chain water management strategies. Work in this area will make corporate water stewardship principles and water risk assessment tools more accessible to extended supply chains, facilitate collective action in key parts of the world, and reduce water-related risks and impacts of farms, manufacturing facilities, and other supply chain sites.

Water Conservation Superstars

Companies that use a lot of water in the supply chain are prime candidates to examine their water usage and commit to a sustainability strategy that focuses on water stewardship. While the majority of water sustainability programs focus on reducing a company’s “water footprint” over a period of years, some companies are taking additional steps to identify other metrics such as net-positive water returns. More businesses are finding that crucial progress can only be made at the local level, carrying out community watershed protection initiatives in the markets in which they do business.

Many beverage producers (Pepsi, Coca-Cola, MillerCoors) and creators of products that incorporate water (Unilever, Procter & Gamble) have established effective measures to reduce water usage and reuse more water. Even more exciting, there’s a trend to create products that require consumers to use less water.   

Coca-Cola is a leader in water stewardship with the stated goal that for every drop of water it uses, it gives one back. In fact, the company reached its 2020 water replenishment goal five years ahead of schedule. Coca-Cola created an infographic that shows its extensive accomplishments in water stewardship.

Pepsi is another global leader in water management that has made tremendous gains in achieving water use efficiency in agriculture, its direct operations, local water replenishment, and respect for water as a human right (working to provide people with access to safe, sufficient water and advocating for strong water governance).

Ford’s Chicago Assembly Plant introduced two new water-saving projects toward the end of 2016 that helped the facility reduce water usage by 13 million gallons last year. Ford expects that number to be significantly higher in 2017 after a full year of operation. The plant increased the re-use of water in the pre-treatment system and added a cooling tower side-stream electrolysis (water softening) to remove calcium and magnesium. Ford’s water stewardship goal is to reduce water use by 72 percent per vehicle by 2020.

Intel has a water policy that outlines five tenets of water responsibility in the communities in which it operates: safety, sufficiency, transparency, physical accessibility and responsibility. Intel’s semiconductor fabrication and assembly/test plants are water-intensive, so Intel works closely at the plant level to address local concerns and conditions. In Albuquerque, Intel used an integrated water management system to increase water purification efficiency and improve water reuse. The site has offset over 50 percent of its freshwater needs through water reuse. In Hudson, Mass., a state-of-the-art water management facility allowed Intel to boost production by more than 50 percent without increasing levels of discharge to the local treatment plant. And at an Intel facility in Israel, water from the plant is treated to stringent quality standards and then used to irrigate crops.

Unilever is focused on smart water use across the value chain and is taking action by developing products specifically designed for use in water-scarce countries. It also works with suppliers to reduce the water used to grow Unilever’s crops, while reducing water use in its own factories around the world.

Sanofi has set the goal to reduce water consumption by 25 percent from 2010 to 2020. At the same time, it focuses on the challenge of preventing pharmaceuticals from entering waterways as the result of effluents from manufacturing facilities, medicines consumed by patients, and the improper disposal of unused and expired medicines.

There are hundreds of other water stewardship superstars, among them GE, Procter & Gamble, AT&T and Levi Strauss & Co. (which has saved more than a billion gallons of water since 2011). Some of these organizations publish a standalone sustainability report, while many more include a comprehensive section on sustainability in their annual financial reporting.

Take Action

You can advance water stewardship at your organization and as a consumer, inspired by progress being made around the world.  

The U.N.’s CEO Water Mandate encourages businesses of all sizes, from all sectors, all parts of the world and at all stages of the water stewardship journey, to endorse the CEO Water Mandate. By endorsing the Mandate and its six elements – Direct Operations, Supply Chain and Watershed Management, Collective Action, Public Policy, Community Engagement, Transparency – an organization is required to report annually on progress in each of these areas.

If you are not part of an organization, you can still join the Mandate’s Stewardship Community as a valued stakeholder to stay up to date on progress and attend events.

Share and Celebrate your Success

If your supply chain organization is advancing your company’s water sustainability program, be sure to let others know about your progress.  Connect with the people who write the corporate social responsibility report or share your water saving facts with your marketing or PR team.  (For more ideas of ways to share your story see here.)

And celebrate your success on World Water Day, which is held on March 22 each year.  Participate or pile onto an event organized on or around this date to increase people’s awareness of water’s importance in environment, agriculture, health and trade.

About the Author

Jennifer Daniels Former Vice President of Marketing, APICS

Jennifer Daniels is a former vice president of marketing at APICS.

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