How corporations are changing our freshwater future

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Everything we use, wear, buy, sell and eat takes water to make. That means the business of water is everyone’s business. And it’s why over 30 diverse companies have joined the corporate water stewardship movement called Change the Course that aims to fundamentally change how we use, manage and value freshwater. 

Less than 1 percent of all the water on Earth is both fresh and accessible for drinking, irrigation, power generation and environmental benefits. As we close out 2016, we reflect on a year of worldwide headlines spotlighting trouble for that precious 1 percent. With record-breaking droughts and floods, the depletion of groundwater, toxic algal blooms and persistent competition for scarce supplies, freshwater challenges have risen to the top of global security concerns. In 2016, the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, declared water crises to be the top global risk to society over the next decade. 

Declarations such as these underscore the imperative for businesses to help lead the drive toward greater water security. Fortunately a growing number of forward-thinking companies are realizing that through coordinated action they can change our freshwater future for the better — reducing risk and uncertainty, while creating healthier rivers and diverse economic opportunities at the same time.

Going with the flow

Assurance of long-term access to freshwater supplies is critical to business success. It is essential to the siting and safety of operations, to developing markets for goods and services, and to attracting and retaining a talented workforce. Increasingly, a growing millennial workforce desires to work in cities and towns with flowing rivers, clean lakes and a variety of outdoor recreational opportunities. Companies that help create and sustain those opportunities will attract top talent and help communities thrive.

Our nationwide Change the Course campaign has brought together more than 30 diverse corporations to help build water security by shrinking our human water footprint and restoring flows and health to vital freshwater ecosystems. For every personal pledge from a member of the public to conserve water, Change the Course returns 1,000 gallons to an ecosystem in need. Corporate partners underwrite the restoration projects, which are implemented with on-the-ground conservation partners. 

In this way, Change the Course creates a virtuous cycle of freshwater education, conservation and restoration — and it’s working. Corporate partners already have supported a growing portfolio of 30 restoration projects across 10 U.S. states and Mexico, restoring over 8 billion gallons of water and engaging over 225,000 individuals in water conservation. Companies have creatively deployed their brands and engaged their customers, employees, business networks and financial resources to advance water stewardship. 

Increasingly, corporations realize that through collaborations they can be an influential force for change in outmoded water management policies and practices. Through its Connect the Drops program, for example, Ceres, a Boston-based non-profit, has elevated the business voice in drought-stricken California, linking the state’s economic vitality to the sustainability of its water supply. Companies that have signed on to the program are raising public awareness, promoting conservation and saving water in their own operations.

Creative corporate engagement

Companies are spearheading water stewardship actions in a variety of ways. While many have implemented strategies to reduce operational water use, until recently, few had developed the capacity or mechanisms to address larger water challenges outside of their own walls, such as restoring flow to depleted rivers. But as Deanna Bratter, director of corporate sustainability with WhiteWave Foods, recently wrote in Huffington Post, "Companies need to go beyond facility footprint, taking responsibility for the water needs of our communities, supply chains, and the world at large." 

WhiteWave Foods, whose brands include Silk, So Delicious and Horizon Organic, was the first charter sponsor of Change the Course. A key motivation for the company was to balance its unavoidable manufacturing and operational water footprint gallon-for-gallon by purchasing Water Restoration Certificates (WRC), a product created by the Bonneville Environmental Foundation (BEF) to help companies balance their water impacts. Another motivation was to support restoration projects relevant to the company’s agricultural supply chain in California, including almond production, and to engage its customers, employees and other leading sustainable brands

Coca-Cola, another early charter sponsor of the campaign, has collaborated with many NGOs to achieve ambitious water stewardship goals that generate both environmental and community benefits. The company is scaling up its impact by engaging a larger network of partner companies in water stewardship. By partnering with companies such as Xanterra Parks & Resorts, Starwood Hotels & Resorts and Cinemark Theaters, Coca-Cola and Change the Course have leveraged the collective power of these brands and, through creative messaging, invited thousands of park, hotel and movie patrons to conserve water. Coca-Cola also teamed up with Waste Management and the Phoenix Open to provide support for key water stewardship projects in Arizona.

For REI, the maker and retailer of recreation equipment, the building of a new distribution center in Goodyear, Arizona, provided motivation to invest in healthier rivers for recreational enjoyment in the state. For example, REI worked with Change the Course, the Nature Conservancy and other local non-profits to support the restoration of flows and habitats in the Verde River watershed north of Phoenix. To help achieve its goal of receiving the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED Platinum Certification, REI balanced its water footprint through the purchase of BEF’s WRCs, which the Council approved to earn a LEED pilot point in 2016. 

Sports leagues and teams have engaged in water stewardship in a variety of creative ways, as well, connecting their fans to the reality that their favorite sports depend on water. The National Hockey League (NHL), for example, runs a "Gallons for Goals" program, which restores 1,000 gallons to a freshwater ecosystem for every goal scored during the regular season. The NHL was the first sports league to support Change the Course, and several teams, including the Anaheim Ducks, Minnesota Wild and Tampa Bay Lightning, matched the league’s commitment to restore water to depleted rivers. Major League Baseball stepped up to bat for water as well, balancing the water footprint of the 2016 All-Star Game and World Series. In 2012 the Portland Trail Blazers became the first professional sports team to balance 100 percent of its venue’s annual water use.

The next horizon

For most companies, it is new territory to use their brands, visibility, supply and vendor networks, and other resources to address water challenges that lie outside of their own operations. Success requires new strategies, partners and projects, which can strain resources and staff.

In helping to build this movement, Change the Course has taken a multi-faceted approach that enables each company to participate in ways that best suit its needs, goals, capacity and experiences. Some may be more interested in public or customer engagement, others in driving water conservation, and still others in directly restoring water to the natural environment. The offering of a diverse portfolio of options has been the single most important factor in enabling Change the Course to partner with over 30 diverse companies and to achieve broad success. 

Companies see both risk and opportunity in society’s growing water supply constraints. A vanguard of companies is testing and exploring different pathways to raise awareness, influence policy and advance on-the-ground projects that build long-term water security for the good of communities, businesses and the environment. 

To celebrate the success of these corporate water stewards, Change the Course is hosting a partner appreciation event Feb. 13, the evening before GreenBiz 17 in Phoenix, Arizona. Sandra Postel will speak at GreenBiz 17 on Feb. 14.