Water Stewardship Now Critical for Business Resilience

May 25, 2022

With competition for water resources occurring in many regions of the world, how businesses meet their own needs and those of the communities in which they operate will be increasingly vital for their long-term survival and growth, says Erik Driessen, head of the Northern European office of technology innovation consultancy Isle.

Companies worldwide recognise water is an essential ingredient in their business operations and the lack of access to enough water at suitable qualities is posing a material risk to a growing number of companies around the globe.

Water stewardship means not just looking at direct operations but considering the environmental impact both across the supply chain and on a water basin level. As a technology and innovation focused business, Isle understands cutting-edge water technologies and how they can be used to support clients with internal innovation processes.

Irrespective of which sector they are operating in, water stewardship is crucial for companies wanting to manage the complexities of balancing their own water use with the needs of communities and nature.

Over the last few years Isle has been bringing this expertise - developed in the utility sector - over to the industrial space, working to bring water-saving technologies to multinational companies like Coca Cola, Shell and Proctor & Gamble. These types of organisations are looking for innovative water technologies just as much as water utilities are.

Cutting the cost

In much of the world, water is undervalued and under-priced, and consequently businesses often overlook its actual value to operations. Water risks, ranging from rationing and price increases to insufficient quality and increasing regulations, can disrupt operations, threaten product quality, increase expenses and curtail growth. The overall cost of these risks can far exceed the price paid for water.

To operate successfully in a water-scarce environment, businesses must integrate water stewardship into business strategy and planning.

While assessing, evaluating and producing practical solutions for multinationals is complex, involving multiple factors across a number of sites and throughout the supply chain, using a combination of local water basin datasets, economic techniques and scientific methodologies, Isle is well placed to help businesses assess the value of water across their operations.

As Carles Crespo, Isle’s European business development leader for industrial markets, points out, multinationals often set global targets around their water footprint calling for a saving of x% or a decrease of x% but these figures cannot always be easily applied across every site around the world.

These global, central targets need to be adapted to their local context, including water availability in the area and local legislation, as well as practical issues such as site accessibility.

“You can’t just roll out your global mission and objectives by sharing a few numbers and targets with all your sites globally, because there are so many contextual elements there that need to be taken into account, as well as technologies and solutions that can be applied,” said Crespo.

“We want to work with companies that have the ambition to have a global strategy and global water stewardship targets, but don’t know yet how to organise it and communicate it between these disparate strands. We can give our customers access to an innovation ecosystem by leveraging our global and cross-sector network. There they can learn and share experiences with global water utilities, leading industries and governments.”

Minimising risk

The tangible value of increased water efficiency, reuse and recycling and enhancing their social license to operate is moving more companies to adopt water stewardship strategies. Becoming a water steward allows companies to understand the physical, reputational, financial and regulatory risks of water management – and implement strategies to minimise those risks and promote the business’ long-term sustainability.

Organisations that engage in comprehensive water stewardship programmes manage water better, mitigate water-related risks at their sites and within supply chains more effectively, and build better community relations through shared watershed governance.

By understanding how much water a company uses throughout their operation, where the water is sourced from and how water risks may impact site or product lines and service delivery, organisations are much better placed to face unforeseen supply chain disruptions or increased cost of operation.

Isle has a database of 8,000 technological solutions and speaks the language of the engineers and technicians tasked with onsite operations. What we have noticed is typically there is still a communications and knowledge gap between the technical site managers and sustainability or water stewardship representatives.

Water savings and reuse targets are often driven by overall company goals, objectives, and demands of the brand, but it can be challenging for large enterprises to translate those big ideas into actual tangible targets at site level.

Business level

Until recently the link between full business value and water stewardship has been missing from the corporate agenda. Value creation from a leading water strategy is increasingly important to socially responsible investors and customers who value companies with a clear social mission or focus to their overall business strategy.

Key benefits of stewardship include:

  • Reducing water-related business risk by minimising social, environmental and economic impacts
  • Continuity of supply from myriad sources in numerous locations
  • Drought preparedness - operations and supply chains engaging in water stewardship are more likely to be resilient when droughts occur
  • Cost-savings associated with water efficiency include associated reductions in carbon footprint and energy bills if there is a reduced need for pumping, treating or heating water
  • Strong community engagement - only by working together with local community organisations can water issues be tackled
  • Closer relations with suppliers
  • Corporate reputation – demonstrating to customers, investor, and other stakeholders that the company has identified and has an effective response to managing its water-related business risk through participation in water stewardship
  • Raising reputation with local communities can aid recruitment, planning and reduce the risk of social unrest
  • Demonstrating to employees, the local community and public sector that the company is taking a responsible approach to water in the local environment
Water-less washing

Water stewardship is a collaborative and multi-stakeholder approach that aims to achieve social, environmental and economic benefits, and there are several companies already pioneering new techniques to use less water and make a positive global impact.

One such example is iconic clothing manufacturer Levi’s. During the manufacturing of jeans, the raw denim is finished using a variety of techniques – almost all of which require vast amounts of water. For instance, giant washing machines literally tumble stones with jeans to create stonewashed denim.

In a bid to use less water in the finishing stage, Levi’s developed more than 20 innovative techniques, known as Water<Less. To get a soft feel typically achieved by using fabric softener and large amounts of water, the company began to tumble jeans with bottle caps and golf balls, taking the water out of the wash altogether. Through 2019, 69% of Levi’s products were made Water<Less.

In addition, the company invited 20 competitors to its Eureka Innovation Lab to share all their water-saving practices and open-sourced the Water<Less innovation for others to use in an effort to learn and improve.

Meanwhile in the fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) sector, P&G have developed a way to make laundry detergent, hand soap and shampoo without water. The company have developed dry soaps and cleaners, which come in the form of small fabric-like swatches and foam when users add water during washing or cleaning. These innovative products will reduce substantially the volume of water used in production and be lighter and smaller to package and ship.

Urgent need

Increasingly major water users, governments and citizens understand the urgent need to work together on this issue.

Isle have been working in collaboration with advisory organisation the Water Foundry and Dutch sustainability experts Except to launch a new service to help companies understand all their water-related risks and improve sustainability.

I believe water stewardship should not be viewed as an optional extra - instead using water in a way that is socially, economically and environmentally equitable must now be a core requirement of communities and businesses alike, in order to ensure the sustainability of this vital resource now and in the future.

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