Coca-Cola, Nike innovate water use with fluid thinking

Coca-Cola, Nike innovate water use with fluid thinking

Abstract photo of water running down drain
Water running down a drain is just one example of water risk.

What if someone said that they could jumpstart your creativity? What if they said that the very thing that all businesses need to function can enable new thoughts to flow freely?

I’m talking about water. Corporate water use and risk.

I realize that water is hardly the usual domain of expansive and fun free-thinking. But it should be.

What if instead of boring (but essential) lists of what to do to assess water risk, the innovation part were clear?

Lay the groundwork

Corporate decision-makers still need to start with (often dry, but essential) initial questions about water risk, overall process steps and specific guidelines — such as those of the CEO Water Mandate as well as the Alliance for Water Stewardship and Ceres’ "Aqua Gauge." And business people need to understand where corporate assets and supply chains "sit" within various hydrological systems and the landscapes — a task made easy by WRI’s Aqueduct, Oxford University’s Local Ecological Footprinting Tool and other existing analytical tools.

Once the overall issues and "opportunity space" are understood, business people can dive into planning for work on water risk assessment and mitigation.

Look around for inspiration

Concurrently, though, there should be a broadening of focus to derive inspiration from the innovators.

Closeup of Nike Colordry polo fabric

The Colordry polo shirt is Nike's first product made with water-free dye.

For example, Nike has stepped in with waterless dyeing of fabric and apparel. Nestle touts a "zero water factory expansion" in Mexico with a dairy operation. Coca-Cola has invested in planting trees and restoring watersheds in a range of areas in which the company operates. Anheuser-Busch InBev has supported work on efficiency as well as restoration through investments in what the company calls "social mobilization for water conservation in water-stressed areas." The list goes on.

The innovators reveal sophisticated understanding of the system — both hydrological and business. They evidence an understanding that water clearly does not just come from the tap. (As both an environmental scientist and a mother, I can say that the reason that there are so many children’s books on the water cycle is that it is not intuitive — and needs to be explained.) Water is part of a hydrologic cycle and watershed-based hydrological systems that functions differently depending on the local geology, plants and trees, soils, rainfall, weather and climate, as well as the diversions put in place — and other factors. Untangling hydrological systems can surface the proverbial spaghetti plate of complicated systems mapping, that either overwhelms or bores most people.

Water cycle infographic

The hydrologic cycle is complicated enough that the USGS offers learning materials for "kids ages 5-95."

The trick for business people is to step back. Understand both the parts and the whole of the system. Scrutinize how both hydrological and business systems can be optimized through innovations (or undercut by specific practices). You can undertake immediate efforts to invest in decreasing water waste and increasing water efficiencies, as well as improve overall system function (including the functioning of watersheds through restoration). Then, determine where and when to invest in R&D.

This work should seek to innovative solutions to problems "outside" of the system, such as using less water (or no water) for production processes, considered from a full life cycle perspective and leveraging insights from biomimicry.

Be alert to possible answers

Throughout all of these tasks, it is useful to assess corporate facilities and key supply chain partners in their "native habitat" — which gets super-fun. It gets you out into green walled offices with good oxygen. It can make you think more creatively. It makes you realize that you may not be able to use engineering to solve all water problems.

"Green infrastructure" may well be a significant part of the solution — potentially within a blended model. It is notable that proponents of a "gray/green" approach to corporate resilience now include Royal Dutch Shell, the Dow Chemical Company, Unilever and SwissRe, as laid out in a recent report these companies created along with the Nature Conservancy and a resiliency expert.

As you consider corporate water risk and opportunity, think like an aikido master. How can you anticipate and avoid impacts through redirection? Think like R. Buckminister Fuller and innovate solutions. And think like Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, who said: "Somebody has to do something, and it's just incredibly pathetic that it has to be us."

It has to be all of us. But it’ll be fun. And it’ll get our creative juices flowing.