Skip to main content

The future of corporate water action

Ceres calls on companies to create net-positive water impacts, ensure the human right to water and to strengthen water governance and policies, with the goal of fulfilling these actions by 2030.

Flooded cornfield

Editor’s note: This article is the second in a series about the Ceres Roadmap 2030, a vision for sustainable business leadership in this crucial decade. The roadmap provides a 10-year action plan to help companies navigate and thrive in the accelerated transition to a more just, equitable and sustainable economy. You can find the first article here.

The water crisis is one of the greatest human, environmental, economic and financial challenges of our time. No person or business, no matter the industry, can survive without clean water — and that supply is dwindling and in danger. Scientists predict by 2030, global water demand will more than double supply.

This growing crisis is playing out here and now. The largest companies, in particular, have a critical role to play. It is also in their own interest to act as it has major financial implications on their bottom line.

For example, in Australia, the country’s largest agribusiness, Graincorp, saw its earnings decline by about half in 2018 due to a poor harvest caused by drought in the eastern half of the country. But too much water is also a major financial risk. Flooding in the Mississippi River Basin in 2019 submerged millions of farm acres of corn and soy, triggering a drop in stock prices in the meat industry and other agricultural sectors.

Corporations are increasingly aware of the need to change their business practices to ensure a sustainable water supply. Over the past six months, several major industry leaders announced notable new water commitments, including Cargill, McDonalds, Microsoft and Starbucks.

But there is still a gap between commitments and the actions being taken and the actions needed. That’s where our new Ceres Roadmap 2030 can help.

This 10-year action plan helps companies embed sustainability factors into how they do business, including protecting water resources and other natural resources and building a more just and inclusive economy. With water, it calls on companies to create net-positive water impacts, ensure the human right to water and to strengthen water governance and policies — with the goal of fulfilling these actions by 2030.

The future of water commitments: 3 key aspects

1. Create a net-positive water impact

It is no longer enough for companies to just reduce water use or eliminate their own pollution. Companies must focus on becoming "resource positive" — giving back more than they take from the planet — in order to outweigh their negative impacts of water and ensure a sustainable global water supply.

Some companies are already working to create a new movement towards water positivity across the economy. Tech giant Microsoft just made a new pledge to be "water-positive" by 2030, committing to replenish all the water it consumes. It is joined by Gap Inc. Given that it takes hundreds of gallons of water to make a pair of jeans, the company has pledged a water-positive impact on areas of high water stress by 2050.

While these commitments represent an encouraging trend towards resource positivity, they still lack many crucial interim steps needed to keep companies accountable to their goals. The Ceres Roadmap not only lays out why companies need to become water-positive but also what specific actions they can take to achieve those goals.

2. Ensure the human right to water

Companies must help to protect the human right to water. Companies can do their part by allocating resources and developing policies that promote increased community access to clean water and sanitation.

More corporate sustainability initiatives are recognizing the importance of human rights in a water commitment: the CEO Water Mandate, a pledge signed by major companies such as Anheuser Busch, Cargill and Dow Chemical, places the goal to "recognize the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation" among other steps toward water stewardship.

One company that has stepped up in this area is The Coca-Cola Company, which depends on water for its products. At the formal launch of the Ceres Roadmap, CEO James Quincey noted that the company has helped to provide water and sanitation for 10.6 million people since 2010 through its water programs. It expands its efforts during the global pandemic to address the increased needs.

By placing workers and communities that feel the impacts of water stress most acutely front and center, companies can make sure that their water programs promote a more just and inclusive approach to a water-secure future.

3. Strengthen water governance and policies

Even the most ambitious actions by a company to reduce its water impacts can be quickly negated if local governance of water resources is inadequate. It is critical for policymakers to hear directly from companies about the economic case for stronger water management.

To accomplish this, companies need to advocate for science-based public policy and regulations on water management issues at the local, state and national levels. This includes but is not limited to science-based allocations and discharge limits, infrastructure funding and efforts aimed at maximizing local water supplies.

One such advocacy collaboration is Ceres’ Connect the Drops, an initiative that brings together more than 35 companies with a water footprint in California to urge policymakers to advance innovative water solutions for sustainably managing the state’s stressed and often unpredictable water supplies.  

So there they are — the key actions to help companies be a leader on water in the years ahead. Ceres is ready to work with companies to rise to the challenge and help create a sustainable water future for generations to come.

More on this topic