Many businesses at sea when it comes to water stewardship

sea waves illustration

While most companies with more than $1 billion in annual revenue recognize that water conservation is critical, more than half still don't have a holistic plan to reduce their consumption. That was the high-level takeaway from a recent study undertaken by water and energy services company Ecolab in collaboration with GreenBiz Group.

That revelation is concerning because industrial applications use 40 percent or more of drinkable water in high-income countries and are siphoning off increasing amounts of water in developing economies as their economies evolve, underscoring concerns over scarcity, according to Ecolab.

Research organization CDP likewise recently reported a troubling irony in its 2018 global water report, "Treading Water": While 75 percent of the roughly 300 organizations it surveys on an ongoing basis are reporting water risk exposures as part of their overall disclosures about corporate sustainability — and more are setting targets to reduce their usage — there has been a "worrying" rise in the number of companies that are reporting higher withdrawals. The walk doesn't match the talk.

"The U.N. projects the world will see a 40 percent freshwater deficit by 2030 if we stay on the current track," said Emilio Tenuta, vice president of corporate sustainability at Ecolab. "Water scarcity is a function of quantity (‘Do you have enough water?’) and quality (‘Is the water you have good enough to use?’)"

The good news, according to the Eco-lab-GreenBiz survey, is that close to 90 percent of businesses are poised to take more specific actions within the next three years. And 59 percent of the respondents agreed that water concerns have become a growing business risk, which amounts to heightened scrutiny from external stakeholders — notably investors focusing more explicitly on environmental, social and governance risks.

"From experience and from surveys conducted with GreenBiz in 2017 and 2019, we know that there is a growing sense of urgency about water in the business world. Most companies have a water reduction target, but many lack the tools and expertise to achieve them," Tenuta said.

Realizing water conservation goals

Part of the disconnect between strategy and implementation on the ground can be explained about the practical issue of where strategy is set, often in some headquarters location, and decisions are actually carried out, usually in the field far close to the actual problem.

Consider that the Ecolab-GreenBiz research found that while 75 percent of water goals are set by corporate sustainability teams (whose views were represented in the survey), only 64 percent of respondents felt that their ideas were well aligned with the facilities managers and staffs that need to put them in motion. That’s actually fewer than those surveyed one year earlier on a similar set of questions, which is not a step in the right direction.

That's where some of Ecolab's tools — notably the Water Risk Monetizer and the Smart Water Navigator — come in. Both are online dashboards and services that are free and can be used by any company, according to Tenuta.

"The Water Risk Monetizer helps you determine the real value of water, beyond what's on your water bill, and puts a [dollar] figure on it, so you can make smart business decisions about water," he said. "The Smart Water Navigator assesses your water management at the facility level and gives you a practical guide on how to improve them, tailored to your location and industrial sector."

Ecolab, which has annual sales of about $15 billion, used information from more than 3 million customer locations around the world to help inform the design of these resources. Its customers represent the food, health care, energy, hospitality and industrial sectors.

The Smart Water Navigator assesses management at the facility level and offers practical improvements tailored to location and industry.
So, where will things actually stand three years from now? If you poke into the flood of corporate sustainability reports — and new commitments — disclosed this spring, updates related to conserving water runs through many. Here are just two recent examples:

Procter & Gamble in April said it became the first company to "self-verify" a manufacturing site for sustainable water management practices under the framework developed by the Alliance For Water Stewardship. The site’s conservation practices exceeded P&G’s 2020 goals several years ago — and then went on to surpass those for the 2030 horizon. Water conservation remains a key priority.

And in mid-May, Walmart expanded a pilot program in Dallas region with internet of things company Apana meant to help set goals around water conservation in its stores. The solution uses data gathered in real time using sensors and meters along with cloud software to help alert managers about unusual consumption patterns that could signal an issue.

Both examples might seem just a drop in the bucket, considering the magnitude of the issue, but at least more companies are paddling in the right direction.