Jonquil Hackenberg explains why brands are starting to treat water usage in line with other areas of sustainability.
With more than two billion people living in water-stressed countries across the globe, water is clearly a humanitarian issue. It’s also a business one. It’s a critical input for industries such as agriculture, consumer packaged goods, energy and mining, life sciences, manufacturing, technology and textiles. All rely on an unending supply of clean water to make products or deliver services.
Yet water scarcity is growing, and the availability of clean water is reducing. Consider Taiwan’s recent drought, which has harmed advanced microchip production, impacting global supply chains despite that country’s chipmakers’ success reusing and saving water in industrial processes.
In addition, consumers want brands to be responsible stewards of increasingly scarce environmental resources. With rising wealth, social media savvy and the ability to drive ‘buy-cotts’, conscious consumers can drive change at scale.
In response, we’re seeing organisations start to act on water usage in the same way they have in other areas of sustainability. The issue is that water is often seen as a consequence rather than as an area of opportunity. An added complication is that water exists within a complex ecosystem, actions are siloed and data of the overall footprint of water is not available.
Brands have a clear opportunity to help drive the conversation around water and speed the innovation of new solutions. And there is money available to spend on innovation, thanks to the rise of corporate environmental, sustainability and governance (ESG) initiatives, socially focused investment funds and high-net-worth donors.
So, what can brands do to spearhead water as an important part of their sustainability strategy?
Make water part of your ESG commitment: If you’re not already doing so, add water to your ESG goals. Publish your commitments and track progress, as Unilever and P&G are already doing.
Map your water ecosystem: Water use doesn’t occur in isolation. Brands need to map its usage at both a granular and holistic level – across products, processes, plants, geographies and industries, among other variables. Only by measuring usage across the value chain can brands identify opportunities for change. Mapping the ecosystem also enables organisations to identify and connect with other innovators to achieve a bigger impact.
Address water problems regionally: Brands share water supplies with other industry companies in key geographies. Using an ecosystem map, they can identify ways to collaborate, share resources and reduce impact. Similarly, economic and environmental regulators need to work together and simplify requirements to spur regional innovation.
Agree on metrics and measurement tools: Global brands can create mandates and set metrics for their partners to follow, much as they’ve already done with packaging. Technologies such as blockchain, QR codes and digital fingerprint IDs can help brands measure water consumption down to last-mile delivery, while also increasing accountability across partners.
Educate consumers about their water usage: Consumers view water as ‘free’ when there are hidden costs in production. Brands and water providers can educate consumers about how much water is used for common processes, such as manufacturing jeans, producing fast fashion or making coffee. With this knowledge, consumers can make different choices, if they so desire.
Reduce water consumption: Industries use vast amounts of water in industrial and other processes, which burns cash, energy and chemicals in both its use and in subsequent wastewater treatment. Brands can identify ways to reduce water usage as well as decrease the wastewater or other environmental impacts they create. For example, PulPac has developed dry moulded fibre packaging. This eliminates the plastic packaging waste that often pollutes waterways, while reducing brand’s CO2 footprint and water usage compared to wet moulding processes. Similarly, Veolia Water Technologies, a wastewater treatment specialist, is using advanced technology and analytics to optimise its treatment processes.
Create more usable water: Water innovators are pushing the envelope to create more usable water, whether that is desalinating seawater, converting wastewater into reusable water, or providing new water sources at the point of need by making greywater potable. For instance, Desolenator uses solar technology to create pure water from seawater (or other local water sources). Water Source Australia provides an Internet of Things (IoT) platform that helps local water providers purify and monitor water to ensure it’s safe for consumption in communities where scarcity is an issue.
Achieve an audacious goal: By rethinking processes, products and partnerships, brands can help drive systematic change towards achieving net-zero water consumption or even becoming water-negative, leveraging alternative sources of water, minimising water and returning water to its original source. For example, Microsoft has made myriad changes to become a water-positive company by 2030.
Businesses need to consider their water footprint and how to reduce and optimise it, and now is the time. More than 180 companies have already signed the UN Global Compact’s CEO Water Mandate to improve water stewardship.
We’re helping to lead the charge on water sustainability by partnering with brands to adopt circular economy principles, develop innovative new business models and drive greater value from their initiatives. Together, we can improve water access and equity around the world and for generations to come.