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The water footprint versus the water handprint

Handprint image on fogged window

Corporate water stewardship is dominated by water footprint strategies such as replenish, water neutral, water positive, etc. While carbon and climate strategies lend themselves to a strategy to become "neutral" or "positive" with respect to emissions across a company’s value chain, this does not translate well to water. 

The reasons are straightforward: Carbon is fungible (a ton of carbon in the U.S. is the same as it is elsewhere), and carbon does not have multiple dimensions, unlike water, which has economic, environmental, social and spiritual dimensions. 

A couple of articles have been on my mind and finally coalesced around this topic of water footprint as limiting to a corporate water strategy. 

The 2017 Environmental Law Institute article "Big Data’s Big Handprint," by Stephen Harper from Intel, discusses the value of big data’s handprint as having a positive impact on solving problems such as energy and climate. 

The article makes the case that the information communication technology (ICT) sector is part of the solutions to energy and climate issues. It offers a broader view beyond exclusively focusing on the water footprint of the sector. 

But the key point is that while there is a focus on the energy, water and carbon footprint of data centers, the "bigger, more positive story regarding big data and the environment concerns the opposite of the footprint. The handprint, the positive environmental impact, of big data and the Internet of Things ecosystem concerns how they can reduce the footprint of other economic sectors and society as a whole." 

The article cites the 2015 "Smarter 2030 Report" regarding ICT and climate change, which concludes that "projects that widespread application of the right ICT technologies could produce a 20 percent reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 compared to business as usual. The handprint of ICT applications, on average, is seven times their footprint."

Imagine thinking this way about water. What if we focused on the environmental and social impact of ICT and other sectors in solving water — their handprint — and not just on their footprint? 

Reducing water use and participating in collective actions for conservation within watersheds are table stakes.

The second article, "From Corporate Water Risk to Value Creation," which I coauthored with former Anheuser-Busch InBev water executive Bert Share, frames why water stewardship has stalled. In the article, we made the case that water stewardship is stalled because it is transactional and not transformative. We continue to build out this thinking and business case for going beyond current stewardship strategies. 

One of our key points is that water stewardship, to date, has been framed as an investment to mitigate water-related risks, rather than an opportunity to grow businesses while simultaneously improving the well-being of communities and the environment. Unfortunately, corporations spend more money and allocate greater resources on growth strategies versus risk mitigation strategies.

A key part of most stewardship strategies is the focus on water footprint targets, whether in operations or across a value chain. This focus on a corporate water footprint limits both the potential value creation to a company and also the positive impact strong water stewardship could have on society, employees and other stakeholders. 

The impact that a corporation can have on contributing to solving water challenges (such as scarcity, quality, access to water, sanitation and hygiene, and conservation) goes beyond reducing its water footprint through replenishment or by encouraging replenishment, "water positive" behavior and collective action within a watershed or across its value chain. Reducing water use and participating in collective actions for conservation within watersheds are table stakes. Companies and industry sectors, for the most part, don’t leverage what they do best to solve water challenges. 

For example, there are lessons to be learned from the ICT sector in how it positions the sector as having a positive impact in addressing energy efficiency and carbon emissions that goes beyond reducing their own footprint.

A few examples are the Digital Energy and Sustainability Campaign (DESSC), which mobilizes the ICT sector on solving energy and sustainability challenges; the recently launched Digital Climate Alliance, which intends to promote digital solutions for climate solutions and innovation; and the Global Enabling Sustainability Initiative (GeSI), which quantifies the positive impact that the ICT sector has in energy efficiency and reduced carbon emissions. Another interesting example is from BASF, detailed in its "Value-to-Society: Measurement and monetary valuation of BASF’s impacts in society" (PDF).

Adopting a corporate strategy that quantifies the positive contributions that certain products and services have in addressing the water quality and availability would drive more creative and impactful solutions to water scarcity, poor quality, access to safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene. This is out-of-the-box thinking compared with current water stewardship strategies and narratives focused on reducing water footprints and collective action programs.

I propose that the concept of water footprint should be replaced by the "water handprint," a phrase that better captures the full value of corporate contributions that solve water challenges and unlock innovative thinking.

I suspect thinking of impact in those terms would drive greater corporate investment in water strategies and innovation as opposed to water stewardship, which is viewed primarily as reducing risk and/or a corporate social responsibility initiative.  

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