Q&A: A View of World Water Week from PepsiCo

Q&A: A View of World Water Week from PepsiCo

Image CC licensed by Flickr user Just Another Wretch

Our headlines over the last several days have been dominated by water and the ways in which companies are measuring and reducing their use. The impetus: the Stockholm International Water Institute's World Water Week, a gathering of companies, NGOs academics and governments to discuss a myriad of issues related to this precious resource.

Water has long been recognized as a material issue that carries a range of business risks, especially for certain sectors such as food and beverage. Water has taken on even more significance in recent years for PepsiCo, which formally declared access to clean water to be a basic human right in 2009.

The company released its first-ever water stewardship report at World Water Week. To talk more about the report, the human right to water, and happenings on the ground at the event, I caught up with Dan Bena, PepsiCo's director of sustainable development.  Dan Bena

Tilde Herrera: Dan, what are the big headlines coming out of World Water Week this year, what are people talking about, and are there any developments taking place that the business community should be closely following?

Dan Bena: For one of the first times that I can remember, there’s been a remarkable focus on water quality, in terms of incoming quality of water that’s used by a variety of stakeholders and outgoing water quality.  

But more interestingly, and I think germane to PepsiCo, is there’s a lot of focus on how that quality integrates with water as a human right. Last year we came out with public guidelines and support water as a human right. That really has picked up unbelievable momentum, and it’s very evident here on the ground. 

There are multiple sessions that address water as a human right in one way or another. Many of them address quality challenges, because I think that’s in some ways very intuitive for people to hear water quality and think, “Well, you know, obviously people have a right to water that’s safe.” 

But in addition, there is a great dialogue -- and it’s really not a simple dialogue -- about how you implement water as a human right.

TH: I saw in your report that came out this week some of the ways you are implementing that commitment into various facets of your operations, such as your construction guidelines. Are you finding that businesses are becoming more comfortable with that kind of commitment?

DB: You know, it’s really completely mixed. It’s sort of a hodgepodge. There are some private sectors, some companies that are evaluating whether or not they would like to join us in this commitment. There are others who take the position that “We respect water as a human right in everything that we do already, so there’s no need to explicitly state that.” 

And then there is another entire sector, which is really the private water provision sector like the Suezs, which are largely providers of drinking water for communities, they’re really quite concerned about the increasing momentum around water as a human right because they don’t see a line of sight just yet for how they could effectively implement that. 

And the thing that I think has really increased a lot of momentum around this topic is in July when the U.N. General Assembly voted to recognize water as a human right. That was really sort of a milestone achievement, and I think it’s really informed many of the discussions that are happening here.

TH: So what do you think it’s going to take to move that needle forward to get more businesses and more sectors to recognize water as a human right?

DB: You really struck something that I’m so passionate about, because when people, individuals, businesses or governments realize that respecting water as a human right is something that goes far beyond people in developing economies, I think that’s what’s going really move the needle. 

And what I mean by that, Tilde, is many people intuitively will hear “Well, water’s a basic human right,” and they think of what you see sometimes on television commercials or in public service announcements of these poor kids that are literally dying from not having access to water. And that certainly is a very important part of protecting and respecting water as a human right. 

However, it’s not enough. So I think when companies start to realize that they can play an active role within their businesses, within their operations, to support protecting water as a human right, that’s when I think the needle is really starting to move. 

I don’t want to give you any sort of misapprehension. It has not been a particularly simple journey for us here at PepsiCo either, because there’s a lot of education that goes into changing people’s mindsets from this is something that applies in the Indias and Chinas and parts of Latin America, to this applies everywhere in the world, including within our own operations. 

TH: One of the interesting things in your water report was Frito Lay and some of your other efforts to close the loop when it comes to water recycling and water use. In terms of manufacturing, what are some of the lessons that you’ve learned from trying to close that loop?

DB: I don’t know to whom to attribute this quote, but it’s been said for centuries that water is the universal solvent.  So to chemists, that means that water, if left in contact with something, anything, for a long enough period, it will dissolve it. And there’s a really good reason for that. 

And obviously everything is true to degrees, but I would say that more and more, as analytical science improves and as the levels of detection for different constituents in water improves, we’re starting to find things. So more and more in municipalities and academics and companies, if you test water supplies, you’ll find very, very, very low levels of things that are completely safe, but they’re there and they were previously never detected before because the capability never existed. 

The reason that’s important is because as you then go to look at what types of streams are within your plants, within your operations and what you can reuse, you have to make absolutely sure that quality is first and foremost.  That’s sometimes a challenge, because the more you test, sometimes the more you can find. You really need to take a lot of scientific due diligence to understand which streams can be reused and why, and which streams it makes sense to send to a wastewater treatment facility. 

TH: So knowing what you know now, Dan, what’s your biggest piece of advice that you can offer to other companies, in terms of either reducing their water use, or for those that are just starting to take a hard look at water quality?

DB: I’m going steal this from something that I just heard today at World Water Week. There’s this woman, Jan Dell, I’m a huge fan of hers. She’s from CH2M Hill. One of the things Jan said was, “If you treasure it, you’ll measure it. And if you measure it, you control it.”

That is so true. That is the biggest piece of advice whether it comes to water efficiency or energy efficiency or fuel use efficiency.

What we found with water is there is so much low hanging fruit within operations that is just unharvested because people don’t measure all of their water streams. I’m not talking about something that’s complicated. They sell very sophisticated ultrasound measuring devices that you can strap onto different pipes and measure the flow. In reality, all you need is a bucket and a stopwatch. If you know how much the bucket holds, you can go into your plant and you can measure anything and everything that water flows through. When you measure that, you can track it and you can record it. 

It’s an amazing thing about human nature, but once you start to record something, it incentivizes people to want to reduce and improve that. We found that by and large, all over the world, that’s true with our plants.

Image CC licensed by Flickr user Just Another Wretch.