Global sustainability investment group Ceres has launched a new effort to engage 72 of the world's largest companies to encourage them to tackle water-related financial risks and drive the large-scale reforms needed to protect global water systems.
Launched last week, Ceres described the Valuing Water Finance Initiative as the "only global investor-led initiative aimed at moving companies to respond to the global water crisis."
The group said the initiative will offer comprehensive and ambitious guidelines for investors to help them consider and manage the "full suite" of water-related risks, including water availability and quality, board oversight and public policy engagement.
Institutional investors which have already committed to the initiative include leading pension funds, mainstream asset owners and socially responsible investors.
Ceres said that through the investors signed up to the campaign, it is engaging some of the world's largest companies spanning multiple industries and sectors to encourage them to adopt water management best practices.
For example, it is targeting leading food and drinks brands such as Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Diageo and Heineken, as well as Nestlé, Unilever, Kellogg's and Danone and some of the world's largest restaurant chains, including McDonald's, Domino's and Chipotle.
In addition, some of the world's biggest fashion brands, including Adidas, Burberry and Levi's, are also being engaged through the initiative, alongside global tech giants such as Apple, Microsoft, Amazon and Google owner Alphabet.
Ceres said the aim of the initiative was to raise the profile of freshwater as the world's most precious natural resource and highlight its essential role in industries, communities and ecosystems.
Ceres said the aim of the initiative was to raise the profile of freshwater as the world's most precious natural resource and highlight its essential role in industries, communities and ecosystems, while providing investors with the tools required to "make the case" for prioritizing water risk.
The initiative calls on companies to prioritize a set of six science-based, actionable targets, which have been called "Corporate Expectations for Valuing Water." Ceres said the targets have been informed by scientific evidence that aligns with the United Nation's 2030 Sustainable Development Goal for Water (SDG6).
Specifically, the initiative encourages companies to commit to protecting both water quantity — urging them not to affect water availability in water-scarce areas across their value chain — and water quality.
Ecosystem protection is also promoted, with companies advised not to contribute to the conversion of natural ecosystems critical to freshwater supplies and aquatic biodiversity and encouraged to actively work to restore degraded habitats that their businesses depend upon.
In addition, companies will be encouraged to promote access to water and sanitation, where they contribute to the social, economic and ecological resilience of communities they interact with across their value chain.
And corporate boards and senior management are to be encouraged to oversee water management efforts with companies also urged to ensure all their public policy engagement and lobbying activities are aligned with sustainable water resource management outcomes.
The private sector must recognize water's importance for their institutions and investments lest they further expose themselves and society to increased material water risk.
"The water crisis is playing out across the U.S. and around the world in many ways, from severe drought and pollution to inadequate access to safe drinking water, all of which disproportionately impact our most vulnerable communities," said Mindy Lubber, chief executive office and president of Ceres.
"The private sector must recognize water's importance for their institutions and investments lest they further expose themselves and society to increased material water risk. We are grateful to see so many investors signing on to the Ceres Valuing Water Finance Initiative at its launch, but we need more investors to step up and join us in supporting the Corporate Expectations for Valuing Water and engaging with the companies they own on water stewardship."
Investors which have committed to the initiative will look to ensure that companies they invest in engage with the Valuing Water Finance Initiative.
"The world's freshwater supply is under severe stress in all regions, which poses risks not just to local communities, but also to those companies reliant upon water across their value chains," said Anne Simpson, Ceres board member and global head of sustainability at Franklin Templeton. "Investors have a critical role to play in helping companies assess those risks, and to respond to the opportunities ahead as we build resilience to climate change.
Institutional investors cannot meet their fiduciary obligations without factoring water into their engagement strategies.
"The Valuing Water Finance Initiative reflects investors' fiduciary duty to generate sustainable risk-adjusted returns on behalf of the millions of people who rely upon those investments for their financial security. Benjamin Franklin wisely commented that 'when the well is dry, we know the worth of water.' We are perilously close to that point and as fiduciaries must act."
Her comments were echoed by John Anzani at the Local Authority Pension Fund Forum, who warned investments could be at risk if companies fail to step up efforts to protect water resources. "The global water crisis has been exacerbated by industrial and agricultural systems that pollute freshwater resources," he said. "If these risks are not mitigated, the potential financial impact on companies and their shareholders is huge.
"Institutional investors cannot meet their fiduciary obligations without factoring water into their engagement strategies. It's never been more imperative that companies achieve sustainable water management through intentional use, pollution reduction, governance and other strategies."
Ceres said the new initiative builds on a library of investor-centric water-related resources, including the Ceres Investor Water Hub, Ceres Investor Water Toolkit and The Global Assessment of Private Sector Impacts on Water — a report released earlier this year that reveals how industry practices are driving critical threats to global freshwater systems and undermining the functioning of global freshwater systems that underpin global economic and societal stability.
Ceres said it worked with an advisory council of investors, including members of the Valuing Water Finance Task Force and other investor and NGO partners on the creation of the initiative.
Ceres said it also worked with an advisory council of investors, including members of the Valuing Water Finance Task Force and other investor and NGO partners on the creation of the initiative. Task Force members included ACTIAM, AustralianSuper, California State Controller Betty T. Yee, New York City Comptroller Brand Lander and PGGM Investments.
Ceres said it is calling on further investors to join the initiative and has invited interested parties to register their interest online.