Creative Commons

Creative Commons

Corporate water strategy is undergoing a major business model shift. Previously seen as a simple regulatory hurdle, a heightened level of global water risk combined with an increase in stakeholder transparency and more socially and environmentally responsible consumers have corporations turning to water stewardship.

“You can’t do anything without water, so regardless of what you manufacture, you need water,” Will Sarni, Director and Practice Leader of Water Strategy and Social Impact Practice at Deloitte Consulting LLP, says. “If you don’t have water, you have business disruption, you have reputational risk and regulatory risk, so it is much more complex and has the potential to create a lot more value than previously thought with climate change and greenhouse gas emissions.”

Historically, companies have framed water as a “compliance issue,” Sarni continues. The difference between modern water stewardship and an outdated water management approach lies in the recognition that water risk affects the length of the corporate value chain, particularly in industries highly dependent on water, like manufacturing, energy, mining and agriculture.

The Pacific Institute identifies three categories of water-related business risk: physical/operational (too little water, too much water, water unfit for use), reputational/stakeholder (how stakeholders view companies due to real or imagined negative impacts) and governance/regulatory risk (risks related to public water governance or ineffective, poorly implemented or inconsistent water-related policies and regulations).

A strategic approach to water stewardship not only ensures long-term corporate value, infrastructure, environment and shareholder reputability, but offers a number of potential business opportunities. Because water risk is a dynamic issue with such a broad range of consequences, effective water stewardship requires collaboration between businesses, government agencies, NGOs, environmental think tanks and research groups.

The First Drop

Swapping water risk for reward begins with mitigating operational water risk–scarcity, flooding or contamination–through effective water management. The industrial effects of a sustainable water stewardship system range from production costs to product value. Quality, quantity and regional availability all factor into an effective balance.

“When we look at water risks—the flipside being value creation—they’re physical risks,” Sarni explains. “Do you have enough water when and where you need it, the right quality and reputational risk and regulatory risk? If you don’t address those risks then you’re impacting your value as a business and it manifests itself in the social license to operate business disruption because of lack of raw material.

“[The cost and price of water] is the first paradigm that has to change. First of all, we have never matched the actual cost of the water with the ability and the means needed to deliver water. It has been out of alignment,” Bryan Stubbs, Executive Director of the Cleveland Water Alliance, says. “That being said, for the first time, businesses are realizing the value of water as part of their process at an increasing rate.”

Dan Henkle, President of the Gap Foundation and Senior Vice President of Gap Inc. Global Sustainability, understands that the global clothing retailer requires water at every stage of production. “If you think about everything from growing cotton to making fabric to laundering our product to finishing our product, it is in every single thing that we do,” he says. “At the same time, our business relies on people, and people need water to lead healthy and productive lives. So we are working to take an integrated approach to the benefits water stewardship has to the environment, society, and our business.”

While the direct effects of sound industrial water management are immediate, Sarni says the greatest inherent value in water stewardship practices lies in stakeholder response. “[Water] is a basic resource input for companies, coupled with the fact that stakeholders care to varying degrees how you manage your resource that is ultimately shared with other parties,” Sarni explains. “That’s really what the value is all about.”


The Trickle Down: Quenching the Stakeholders

The Information Age has brought an immeasurable amount of company data to the public arena, creating an insatiable appetite for corporate transparency. We’re witnessing a rise in socially and environmentally conscious stakeholders invested in ethical consumerism.

Water-related reputational risks “can be pretty extreme” in a crisis, according to Heather Rippman, Senior Research Associate at The Pacific Institute. While crises like the California drought tend to accelerate corporate realization around the need to act outside of their own facilities, she advocates for a more proactive approach: “The physical and regulatory risks are not unforeseeable, and technologies and other options to respond to the risks do exist.”

A call for corporate data is increasingly common from shareholders looking to confirm that their investments remain principled. According to CDP’s Global Water Summary 2015, 38% of companies responded to investors’ request to disclose water-related data. Naturally, the proxy voters representing the shareholders are influenced by how effective a stewardship strategy appears to be.

“This year more than 600 of the largest companies in the world used the CDP system to disclose information and take action to improve water security,” Cate Lamb, Director of Programs at CDP, says. “Reporting not only has the benefit of increasing shareholder confidence amongst the 647 institutional investors that are actively asking for this water data through CDP, but also helps them to identify real commercial advantages.”

As investors start considering the effect of water stewardship beyond the bottom line, they require more comprehensive analyses of those figures. “You try to get an aggregate view of not only kind of your geographic exposure, but also your industry exposure,” Monika Freyman, Director of Investor Water Initiatives at Ceres, says. “Certain industries have kinds of water risk, so doing an aggregate portfolio analysis is also something that investors are starting to move to do.”

Après Moi Le Deluge: Stewardship Through Governance

The conceptualization and integration of corporate water stewardship policies stem from a network of roots—stakeholder input, industrial demand, environmental concerns, etc.—but they’re implemented in the boardroom.

“I think that the fields of corporate responsibility and corporate water stewardship in general are evolving,” Rippman says. “Companies go through an evolution in their understanding and approach to water stewardship.” Through this evolutionary process, we’ve seen the creation of sustainable management, particularly in industries with high water dependency.

“The mission of my function is two-fold,” Nelson Switzer, Head of Sustainability at Nestlé Waters North America, explains.“This is done in two ways: First by embedding the principles of sustainable development into our daily decision-making; and second, by helping ensure we create shared environmental, social and economic value for the communities in which we live, work and serve.

As the Executive Director of the Cleveland Water Alliance, Stubbs has witnessed the governance issues involved in water stewardship firsthand, particularly through the passage of the 2008 Great Lakes Compact, which bans the diversion of Great Lakes water outside the basin unless a community located partially within or straddling the basin has exhausted all available options for getting water and has been granted approval by all Great Lakes Governors.

Recently, a Wisconsin town called Waukesha applied to source water from the basin because they’d “bluntly, fouled their didn’t look at long term planning of growth and its impact on slowly replenishing aquifers, leading to high levels of radium,” Stubbs says. How do you meet a community’s need for fresh water while maintaining sustainable water policies? “It takes some pretty unique partnerships. In our case, it is taking leadership at the state level, leadership at the watershed level and leadership at the infrastructure level. Those are unique bedfellows.”

The Triple Bottom Line

Inevitably, the social and environmental effects of corporate water strategy extend far beyond the bottom line. Nascent technologies and tactical management strategies benefit the corporation, the community and the surrounding environment.

“The availability of abundant, clean water for all is fundamental to achieving sustainable development, including the avoidance of dangerous climate change,” Lamb says. “If given proper attention and consideration, water security can be transformed from a limiting factor into an opportunity to drive energy efficiency and clean power generation.”

The only global environmental disclosure agency, CDP’s 2015 Global Water Report listed a number of multinational companies incorporating stewardship strategies into their line of production.

  • In the United States, the western drought raised water costs in Marriott International’s California, Arizona and Nevada hotels. To reduce the amount of water used, they introduced low-flow bathroom fixtures and increased the amount of drought-tolerant landscaping. The Sierra Vista Medical Centre in California also installed drought-tolerant landscaping with low-flow irrigation devices, which conserved a little under a half-million gallons of water in a single year.
  • Alcoa Inc. is anticipating future droughts in Australia with the development of new residue filtration technologies. Water is extracted from residue generated from the alumina refining process, and once operational, the system will have the capacity to recycle 317 million gallons of water annually. The French hygiene and forests product company SCA rerouted the Iton River around their Honouville plant in France to avoid potential pollutants in the case of a leak. In doing so, the company restored the wetlands around its plant to increase biodiversity and potentially welcome back such species as the yellow-bellied toad.
  • Water scarcity in Thailand’s Yom River Basin has disrupted production at Premium Tobacco, leading them to replace floor irrigation with drip irrigation. In Brazil, after a period of water scarcity, Carrefour stores relief on water trucks for their water supply which increased their normal costs by about 330%. They created an action plan including an awareness campaign to share best practices with all 72,000 employees, and 70 stores have installed hydric intervention technology like digital water meters and leak detection devices.
  • From 2000 to 2014, Ford reduced its water use by 62%, or more than 10 billion gallons, achieving its 2016 water reduction goal two years ahead of schedule.
  • Over the last five years, Nestlé decreased its water consumption per ton by 10% in the U.S. using water-saving technologies pioneered at the company’s Jalisco, Mexico dairy factory to create the first “zero water” facility projected to save 63 million gallons of water annually. Planned investments in conservation measures combined with additional efficiency measures are projected to save 144 million gallons of water per year.
  • Over the last decade, The Coca-Cola Company has replenished the equivalent quantity of its annual global water use with community projects and infrastructure improvements, watershed support, reforestation and the treatment and recycling of 145.8 billion liters in local supplies. This September, through their partnership with USDA, Coca-Cola replenished one billion liters of water through the restoration and protection of damaged watersheds on national forest land, which provides drinking water to more than 60 million Americans, support approximately 200,000 full- and part-time jobs and contribute over $13 billion to local communities annually.

No industry can advance without a strategic approach to water management, regardless of the sizable advancements they may aspire to. Stubbs witnessed this firsthand when he took the stage as a panelist at a smart city conference in Austin this June alongside four other city officials.

“They talk about how smart they can make their cities and how they can drive economic output, but the fact is, 46% of the water they treat goes toward the manufacturing of goods that we buy. If you don’t have the water regularly available, that’s going to be a limiting factor,” he says. “So you could have the smartest city in the world, but if you don’t have enough water to cool your cooling towers for your databank, what’s the point?”


Christopher P. Skroupa is the founder and CEO of Skytop Strategies, a global organizer of conferences.