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A closer look at P&G’s ‘water positive’ pledge

The consumer products leader is vowing to restore more water than it consumes, with a focus on 18 ‘water-stressed’ regions. Does it go far enough?

Hoover Dam showing historically low water levels in October 2021.

The Hoover Dam, Nevada-Arizona, on Oct. 2. The largest water reservoir in the U.S. is barely a third full. Image via Shutterstock/HannaTor

Consumer products powerhouse Procter & Gamble stepped forward in mid-June as the latest company — alongside the likes of Google, Meta, Microsoft and PepsiCo — to embrace a "water positive" future by 2030.

Like the commitments announced previously by the other companies, P&G’s goal will be measured strictly on volumetric considerations — that is, the amount of water its operations and products consume from specific watersheds. To reach that state, the $76 billion company behind brands ranging from Bounty and Head & Shoulders to Pampers and Tide is building on its existing water-related conservation and reduction commitments with two new water restoration pledges.

The first goal centers on "restoring" the water consumed during the manufacturing of P&G products. This restoration goal works in concert with two existing commitments: to increase water efficiency by 35 percent per unit of production versus a 2010 baseline; and to source 5 billion liters of water from circular sources, such as wastewater recycling systems in its facilities. In the 2021 fiscal year, the company used 69 million cubic meters of water in production, which represents an efficiency improvement of 25 percent per unit of production from 2010. The company, which is based in Cincinnati and supports extensive global operations, has reused 3.1 billion liters of recycled water over that timeframe. 

The second, more unusual, pledge calls for the company to restore more water than is consumed by use of its household products in two "high water-stressed metropolitan areas," Los Angeles and Mexico City.

According to P&G CSO Virginie Helias, those two cities account for more than half the total water consumed by P&G products in 18 regions previously identified as priority restoration locations. Each of those regions represents a key market for the company; they are also home to at least one manufacturing facility. Those sites are in seven countries: China; India; Italy; Mexico; Spain; Turkey; and the United States.

Within the identified regions, the company figures that activities related to its products — such as clothes-laundering, shampooing or dishwashing — account for between 9 percent and 17 percent of overall water consumption. By centering on those locations, P&G hopes to accelerate its restoration impact, but Helias acknowledges the company doesn’t know all the answers. "We are building the bridge as we walk on it," she said.

To reach the restoration goals for both manufacturing and consumer product usages, P&G is investing in a series of projects across the 18 water-stressed regions. In the U.S., P&G said it is moving to support six new restoration projects in the Bear River basin in Utah and Idaho, in addition to the eight programs it already helps fund in California’s Sacramento River basin and in the Colorado River Indian Tribes System Conservation Project in Arizona. Projects might include flood management systems, groundwater replenishment, irrigation modernization, flood plain, forest or habitat restoration, and so forth.

Collectively, this work will restore "billions of liters" of water by 2030, according to P&G’s press release about the new strategy. It is being managed in partnership with the Bonneville Environmental Foundation (BEF) Business for Water Stewardship program. "We can help a corporation understand the on-the-ground interventions," said Todd Reeve, CEO of BEF and co-founder of Business for Water Stewardship.

In exchange for supporting the projects, P&G will receive water restoration certificates that it can use to account for progress. Reeve added: "What can be really positive, and this is happening with P&G, is that the portfolio can represent other integrated climate benefits." One example might be improved biodiversity associated with habitat restoration. 

A new era of water targets

P&G worked closely with the World Resources Institute (WRI) Water Program to develop context-based water targets and identify regions where restoration efforts should be prioritized. The steps it took to select these destinations serve as important benchmarks for a working group developing science-based targets specifically reflecting water’s role in corporate climate action, according to Helias. P&G plans to publish more information about its methodology in collaboration with WRI later this year. 

"P&G’s water target applies a rigorous analytical approach and complements the other aspects within their comprehensive water stewardship strategy," said Colin Strong, corporate water stewardship lead for the WRI Aqueduct Program. "It adds a first-of-its-kind ambition to address water consumption and offers a roadmap for others to adopt targets in the face of our shared water problems."

What is new about P&G’s approach, Strong told me, is the rigor that it has put into understanding the specific impact of its products when they are being used by consumers.

For example, P&G touts data that suggests U.S. households can save up to 100 gallons of water per week by using its Cascade Platinum dishwasher tablets in energy-efficient dishwashers instead of handwashing dishes in the sink.

Cascade graphic

Helias stressed that product design and chemistry innovation, as well as water efficiency and management investments at the operational level, are centerpieces of the company’s overall water stewardship strategy. One such illustration: The Pantene and Rejoice brands are creating no-rinse conditioner lines that reduce water usage. Elsewhere, a new Dawn product uses spray-activated suds, which saves about 50 percent of the water used by traditional dish soaps because it doesn’t need water to create the suds, according to P&G. Numerous other projects are being supported by its laundry, dishwashing and personal care brands.

The funds for the various conservation measures, efficiency projects and research and development necessary to deliver on the water goals will be allocated at the corporate level. About a year ago, Helias said P&G added ESG metrics to its executive compensation and division heads have been required to add metrics related to certain natural capital considerations (including water) into their financial analysis for new investments. "Sustainability, for us, is built in," she said.  

P&G is working to spur additional innovation through the 50 Liter Home Coalition, an alliance organized by the 2030 Water Resource Group, the World Economic Forum and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. The mission supports product development that substantially reduces hot water consumption for basic house tasks such as doing laundry or taking a shower, and its co-founders include Electrolux, Engie, Grundfos, IKEA, Kohler, P&G and Suez. The current chair is the mayor of Phoenix, another city facing severe water scarcity issues. For perspective, government data suggests the average person in the U.S. uses between 80 and 100 gallons per day; 50 liters is the equivalent of between 13 and 14 gallons.

Setting a new bar

How unique is P&G’s mission when compared with the water-positive commitments by companies such as Google, Meta, Microsoft and PepsiCo? What stands out for WRI’s Strong is that the goal extends far beyond the water consumption of the company’s own manufacturing and production processes. "I am beginning to be fairly unimpressed by targets that deal only with operations," he said.

Will Sarni, founder and CEO of water strategy consultancy Water Foundry, likewise praised P&G’s decision to look beyond its own water footprint, but he challenged P&G and others to look beyond strictly volumetric considerations. "Companies are becoming increasingly obsessed with saving a liter and ignoring or not understanding that the value of a corporation in solving the water crisis is more than saving a liter of water," he said. 

One area where he’d like to see P&G and other companies invest more time is engaging with the public sector to help develop policies that recognize the intersections between water scarcity and quality, and the climate crisis. "To me, that is what is missing in this accelerated vision," he said. "What are they doing around public policy? That is what will really have impact at scale."

Editor's note: This story was updated June 22.

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