It’s Time for Transformational Corporate Water Leadership

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Water is high on the 10-year risk list. Too much, too little, contaminated, pure – “water crises” is identified in the recently released World Economic Forum’s 2015 Global Risks Report as one of the most likely and most impactful risks over the next decade. It shares the stage with climate change, extreme weather events, biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse – all of which involve water.

According to RBC research, the Canadian sectors most likely to be affected by pending water challenges include power generation, mining, semi-conductor manufacturing, agriculture, and food and beverage. RBC anticipates that many companies will face increased costs related to water supply, management and compliance with ever-tightening water-related regulations. The bank also foresees business disruption due to water issues such as significant storm events and flooding, increased competition for finite freshwater supplies and reputation risks for water mismanagement.

But the real devil is in corporate supply chains. Companies whose suppliers depend on water for their harvesting, extraction, manufacturing or production could be equally threatened if supply chain water use is not proactively managed. Expect insurers, bankers and investors to ask companies they insure, lend to, or invest in to assess, disclose and manage their water impacts and dependencies along the value chain.

To help companies get ahead of these issues I partnered with Alexis Morgan, lead advisor, Water Stewardship and Standards, WWF to adapt my CBSR research into the Qualities of a Transformational Company to water stewardship. With this tool we hope to empower companies to become transformational corporate water leaders.

Transformational companies commit to operating beyond their organizational boundaries, bringing their capacity, scale and influence to create solutions to systemic social issues. Transformational corporate water leadership involves committing to substantial reductions in water use in company operations and value chains and collaborating with stakeholders to improve watershed conditions.

Transformational Corporate Water Leadership

Sustainable purpose Core business strategy addresses water challenges and invests in measures that protect and maintain the water resources upon which the company depends.
Customer offerings Reduce the embedded water impacts of products and services; provide product and service offerings that address water scarcity, water pollution and require less water in their use and disposal.
Solutions oriented Pursue business opportunities that create solutions to water scarcity, quality, governance and freshwater ecosystem issues.
Restorative Go beyond reducing impacts and engage in restoration efforts (in particular to the companyu2019s source waters); invest in the natural systems that will help to keep the business operating in the long term.
Long-term vision Adopt bold long-term water stewardship and watershed management goals that take into account the energy-food-water security needs of present and future generations for the company and others in the watershed.
Governance & culture Adopt an enterprise-wide water stewardship commitment/policy and strategy with board level oversight. The policy should acknowledge the human right to water and sanitation and the imperative for functioning freshwater ecosystems. Integrate water goals into executive and staff remuneration and water valuation considerations in business-decision making (e.g., capital investments, siting new facilities, due diligence, etc.)
Enlightened leadership CEO and executives are engaged in promoting water stewardship in regions and markets. Have CEOs sign on to key global platforms/initiatives such as the CEO Water Mandate.
Employee engagement Engage employees as water ambassadors at work, at home, and in the community. Help employees understand and reduce the water impacts of their consumption (e.g. food, clothing, electronics, housing, etc.).
Inclusive Promote and engage in efforts to support equitable access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene. Ensure operations do not compromise the right to water and sanitation of local communities.
Closed loop Reuse and repurpose chemicals, waste by-products and wastewater to close the loop on liquid waste during production and provide end-of-life solutions for products to minimize water impacts.
Resource productivity Based on a deep understanding of corporate value chain impacts and risks, develop and implement a water and wastewater use efficiency plan to substantially reduce total usage, increase recycling and reuse, eliminate wastewater discharge and use alternative water sources such as rainwater harvesting. Encourage development of, invest in and use new technologies to achieve these goals. Reinvest water savings in watershed management initiatives.
Value chain influence Understand water impacts and both up and downstream water risks in the value chain. Engage suppliers and business partners in efforts to improve their water practices including capacity building to analyze and address watershed risk and regularly report on water progress.
Stakeholder accountability & transparency Disclose material water risks (including dependencies and impacts), mitigation strategies and progress of the company and its supply chain partners. Provide product-level information on the water-energy-material impacts of products to customers.
Customer engagement Engage with consumers to help them reduce the water impact of product use and consumption and become water ambassadors.
Industry standards Lead or join industry association initiatives to set and advance water stewardship in standards for the sector.
Multi-stakeholder collaborations Lead or join local multi-stakeholder collaborations with civil society, business, academia and government to improve watershed conditions. Engage and partner with catchment neighbours on community water projects.
Finance community Proactively engage with the finance community on the value of water and water stewardship practices. Issue green bonds to finance corporate water efforts.
Public engagement Engage the public on the importance of water stewardship and their role.
Public policy advocacy Advocate for effective public policy solutions on water stewardship in partnership with civil society. Be transparent in dealings and conversations with governments and other public authorities on water issues.

buttonUltimately water issues are shared issues – companies can’t act solo. To improve watershed conditions, companies must collaborate with stakeholders up and downstream of their operations, wherever their biggest impacts and dependencies lie. By following these guidelines for Transformational Water Leadership companies can position themselves, their suppliers and customers and whole communities for success.

The article was orignially published on Coro Standberg’s Website
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Coro Strandberg is principal of Strandberg Consulting, a firm that helps companies and industry associations integrate sustainability into business models and strategy.