The safe provision of drinking water is a human right. But this is under increasing threat, not only due to drought, climate change and growing populations, but also increased consumption by consumers and water-intensive industries.
As we go into a climate-uncertain future, businesses need to work together on issues around water scarcity
Water remains one of the most important corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives a business can have. And those transparent about their efforts can benefit from competitive advantage, brand awareness, and improved trust with customers, employees and stakeholders.
How business can control its water supply
But water conservation problems are an increasing risk for businesses themselves. The World Resources Institute says more than a billion people currently live in water-scarce regions and this could rise to 3.5 billion by 2025. Meanwhile, Nasa has found that 13 of the world’s 37 most important groundwater basins are depleting much faster than they can be recharged.
One of the first steps companies can take is changing to a more sustainable supplier. The commercial market of the UK water industry was deregulated in 2017, allowing businesses to change providers, regardless of where they’re located.
However, only a fraction have switched, despite the opportunity to save money on utility bills. Only 36,000 small-business owners in England switched water supplier between April and August 2017, out of a possible 1.2 million. One year on, less than 5 per cent have switched, according to data from Market Operator Services, which operates the new water market.
Deregulation only works when businesses take advantage of it. Aside from price, incentives to switch include driving up customer service and improved efficiencies, including tailored services to meet individual customers’ requirements and added support.
“Coca-Cola’s UK bottler applied for, and was granted, a self-supply licence so they could deal with wholesalers of water rather than retailers,” says Liz Lowe, Coca-Cola’s UK CSR manager. “This cuts out the middleman, improves relationships and is more agile.”
The real potential of savvy water management
There are many benefits to companies operating in water-intensive industries going above and beyond their CSR initiatives. Victoria Romero, Proctor & Gamble’s scientific and sustainability associate communications manager for Northern Europe, says P&G has reduced its water per unit of production by a quarter since 2010, with solutions such as using rainwater and reusing utility reject water that would otherwise go to the sewer.
“Several fabric care plants located in Mexico, Pakistan, Czech Republic and the US have found unique circular approaches to beneficially reuse water from one process and feed water into another process,” she says.
“A recent circular example is the Port Qasim plant in Pakistan, located within a water-stressed region, reusing water used to clean and flush holding tanks back into the manufacturing process.”
Scarce water will cost businesses more and be less reliable, therefore many recognise they must focus on water stewardship for the survival, not just reputation, of their business.
“Water is the main ingredient in all our drinks, without it we wouldn’t exist,” says Coca-Cola’s Ms Lowe.
Businesses with water stewardship CSR initiatives can, therefore, benefit from knowing that the work they’re doing is helping to secure their own future.
“A key benefit is securing the ability of our operations to produce quality beers into the future with sufficient and clean water,” says Andre Fourie, global director for water sustainability at brewer AB InBev.
“In addition, water stewardship protects the local ecosystem and provides the local community with water and public health.”
However, CSR initiatives don’t come without challenges. “Launching good water projects is relatively easy,” says Mr Fourie. “But impacting on watersheds at the scale of the challenge is difficult. Leveraging partners and financing is a major challenge, but also an exciting opportunity.”
How a good CSR initiative can save reputations
In times of increasing consumer expectations, businesses that don’t do enough can face damaging consequences.
In 2007, for example, Coca-Cola was accused of causing water shortages in India. Though ruled to be unfounded, the reputational impact of the allegations “reverberated around the world”, says Ms Lowe.
“It was important to us to make sure this could never happen again. It was a revolutionary moment when we redoubled our efforts around water stewardship and developed thinking that it wasn’t enough to look after our own, we needed to look after the entire community and be viewed as part of the solution, not the problem,” she says.
Collaboration in water-intensive industries
Businesses are seeing the benefits of working together to reach their CSR initiatives. For example, the Courtauld Commitment 2025, led by WRAP (Waste and Resources Action Programme), brings together organisations across the food and drinks sector to cut water waste.
“Water needs to be partnership and collaboration, not just businesses working in isolation,” says Lowe.
“As we go into a climate-uncertain future, businesses need to work together on issues around water scarcity. It’s going to be a huge issue, and businesses that aren’t doing much now will have to address this and start working their way up the water-stewardship ladder.”
Case study: AB InBev
Brewer AB InBev invests in reducing the amount of water it uses to make beers and improving the resilience of the watersheds where it operates, particularly if facilities and local communities share high water risks.
It’s aiming for measurably improved water availability and quality in all its communities in stressed areas and has committed to working with local stakeholders.
It benchmarks and shares efficiency best practices between its 200-plus production facilities, such as technology for treating effluent water, which enables the company to reuse water for non-product production processes, such as cooling tower or boiler water make-up.
AB InBev has partnered with the Nature Conservancy and WWF to provide water security in some of the most high-risk watersheds globally.
Case study: Coca-Cola
Coca-Cola has six manufacturing sites in the UK and three are in areas of high water stress, including in East Anglia, where it sources sugar beet.
The drinks giant focuses on reducing water use in its factories, investing in technology such as cleaning bottles and lubricating conveyor belts with air, and harvesting rainwater to wash floors. Every site also has a risk assessment based on where it takes water from locally.
Beyond its factories, the company has a replenishment strategy and works with partners globally to ensure all the water used in production is given back to nature. It has achieved this every year since 2015.