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Are you blazing a trail or trailing behind?

picture of the world with words about sustainabilityWater has traditionally struggled to become a big part of the conversation when it comes to sustainability. We talk a great deal about the impact of carbon. We talk a lot about the impact of plastics. We increasingly talk about the impact of diets and the food chain. Less people are talking about the impact of water inefficiency.

Consequently, few are feeling pressure to act on water despite numerous warnings from the scientific community that it’s a ticking time bomb. Earlier this year, the Environment Agency Chief Executive spoke of the ‘jaws of death’: the point at which, roughly twenty years from now, water demand (which is going up due to population growth and business development) exceeds water availability (which is going down due to climate change and aging infrastructure).

At this tipping point, where water starts to become a scarce commodity, the laws of economics dictate that prices will rise and both businesses and consumers will sit up and take notice. And that’s the point where it will be too late. Far too late.

That’s why we applaud WRAP and the companies that have signed up to The Courtauld Commitment 2025 Water Ambition. Signatories to this voluntary agreement have committed to monitoring water use and delivering water reductions in operations under their direct influence, as well as to supporting collective action projects in critical sourcing locations. At the time of writing, these trailblazing companies are ABP, Asda, Coca-Cola Great Britain, Coop, Cranswick, Kepak Group, Marks & Spencer, Nestle, Premier Foods, Sainsbury’s, Saputo Dairy UK, Tesco, Tulip and Worldwide Fruit. This is an excellent initiative which demonstrates leadership and importantly, ambition. It’s great to see this high-level commitment from such influential organisations and a sign perhaps that water is slowly becoming a bigger part of the discussion when it comes to sustainability.

Whether or not a voluntary agreement is sufficient however, is a matter of concern. What will it take to encourage more corporate water users to participate in this or alternative programmes aimed at proactively relieving water stress?

High profile leadership would of course help, something that was clearly demonstrated in the way that David Attenborough has almost single-handedly awoken the world to the issue of ocean plastics. So would legislation and financial penalties for corporate water mismanagement but, in the current political context, this is unlikely to be prioritised. These aside, there are two fundamental drivers that will, sooner or later, raise water efficiency higher up corporate agendas.

Firstly, there’s operational resilience. Water is critical to all business operations, with manufacturing a good example of where it is more keenly felt. The textile industry has received a major wake-up call of late, with WWF revealing that 70% of textiles producing countries around the world face significant water risks that could affect their operations. Unfortunately, the issue is not isolated to fast fashion. This is why we are delighted to be working with Coca-Cola and embarking on a journey with Kellogg’s to reduce the impact of its manufacturing operations in the UK. We hope that more companies will follow in Kellogg’s and Coca-Cola’s trailblazing footsteps, as it’s inevitable that many manufacturing sites will grind to a halt when water scarcity hits home.

Secondly, there’s corporate reputation and associated consumer power. Customers’ expectations of their suppliers have never been higher and this has proven to be an effective motivator for action in many sectors. Retail in particular, whether high street or online, is often in the spotlight and seen as the frontline for change through sustainability reporting and consumer education. It won’t be long before there is a national or global benchmark on corporate water use and we welcome this, but why would any organisation wait to be named and shamed?

Much like Kellogg’s blazing a trail in manufacturing, it’s great to see leading retailer John Lewis taking control through self-supply. Kellogg’s and John Lewis are taking unique sector leadership positions and demonstrating ambition around water efficiency. Being proactive in this way will support their ability to:

  • Make their businesses more resilient to the effects of climate change and water scarcity, by futureproofing their operations against restrictions and making them less dependent on external factors.
  • Achieve their sustainability targets and be able to report on their success to investors and consumers. While saving water is a success in itself, it also supports wider reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Lower their bills and increase competitiveness in their respective markets.
  • Be an active part of the solution – something that their local communities and customers will greatly appreciate – in turn building long-term reputational gains.

Businesses could, of course, carry on with their operations as normal, hoping that the work that water companies, regulators and public bodies are doing will be enough to eliminate the probability of water shortages. However that would mean that, at best, they’re looking at inefficient water usage, leakage and unnecessarily high bills which will continue undetected across their portfolio until they decide to take action. Or, at worst, if water restrictions had to be imposed, unprepared businesses would be risking serious disruption to their operations.

Is it overly alarmist to be talking about ‘ticking time bombs’ and ‘the jaws of death’? Our opinion is no: science suggests that these are not overstated prophecies but credible predictions. It’s a shame that terms like this must enter the narrative, but if this is the only way to make water a part of the sustainability debate then so be it.

Only by water companies and water users taking collective action can an impending water crisis be avoided and businesses play a critical role in this. Our advice to them is not to waste any time in taking action to reduce their water consumption – the cost of getting caught unprepared is too high a risk. So, is your organisation a trailblazer or is it trailing behind?