Working on What Matters: 6 Lessons in Corporate Water Stewardship

Jan 18, 2016 10:15 AM ET
Bob Reich is Global Environmental Stewardship Manager for DuPont.

Over the past two decades, companies have taken a limited view on water stewardship programs by largely focusing their efforts on water use reduction within their manufacturing operations.  Impactful corporate water stewardship must focus on operations in water-scarce or stressed locations because water is a shared resource, vital to the local communities that support the company’s operations.   

DuPont’s water stewardship journey began over 15 years ago, and there are 6 key lessons we learned along the way. 

  1. Water Risk is Business Risk.  Addressing water issues in the communities in which a company operates is more than being a good neighbor.  The imperative is also to reduce business risks, such as:
  • Risk to operations due to lack of availability of water
  • Risk to cost of operations due to rising cost of scarce water
  • Risk of losing “permission to operate” due to real or perceived site impacts on water in the community or region
  • Health risk to employees and contractors due to lack of availability of healthy drinking water and sanitation, especially in their homes and communities
  • Reputation risk or opportunity to the site and the company due to the manner in which the company or site manages its water and engages in community water issues
  1. It’s Not How Much; It’s Where.  Most companies focus on their sites that use the largest amount of water.  Other companies, like DuPont and Procter & Gamble, began to narrow their focus toward operations in locations assessed to be water-scarce or stressed.  Why place your emphasis on large water operations located in areas where water resources are abundantly available?  Reducing water at such sites may benefit your company-wide percent reduction may benefit, but have you reduced anyone’s water risk?  You need to assess where the risks truly lie.
  2. There’s Good Science Out There.  Use It.  DuPont’s assessments were greatly aided by the development of excellent, data-rich, water mapping tools, including the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) Global Water Tool, and more recently the World Resources Institute (WRI) Aqueduct Water Risk Tool.  These tools can help you narrow your focus for more in-depth understanding of your potential problem areas.
  3. Their Water Risk is Your Water Risk.  With the recognition that achieving meaningful impact requires focus on locations under stress, enlightened companies have begun to understand that often there are more significant water issues affecting their businesses beyond their plants’ fencelines.  To some extent this is because many have already picked the low-hanging fruit, and often have implemented significant additional actions for on-site water conservation.  Now, greater opportunities to reduce water risk to the business lie in two other areas: communities or regions in which the industry has operations (our focus here) and the value chain.
  4. There Are Good Partners Out There.  Collaborate.  Water is a shared resource.  As a result, good corporate water stewards must also have a shared objective with the stakeholders in the community:  keep water available and clean for all who use it.  By working with local stakeholders, companies can create shared value, decrease local water stress and make lasting community partners.  And working with communities and stakeholders can lead to more efficient and more powerful results than expensive internal projects.  Such stakeholders may include local, provincial/state and national government agencies, NGOs, local community organizations, other corporate water users in the areas, and others.  Stakeholder engagements must result in agreement on respective roles, the shared priority over water issues and the identification of potential programs or projects to address issues.
  5. 2-4-6-8, Set a Goal and Communicate.    Once a company has determined which of its operations are located in areas assessed as water-scarce and engaged with local stakeholders, it’s important to set meaningful goals.  Some may be internal, but transparency helps support engagement with local communities – and society at large.  For example, as  part of our slate of 2020 Sustainability Goals, DuPont is stepping up to the challenge of collaborative action to reduce shared water risk through our new Water Stewardship Goal:

    – All sites evaluated to be in high water-risk locations will establish water risk mitigation plans and complete priority implementation objectives by 2020.

    To achieve this goal, approximately 20 of our sites in high water-risk areas will be moving forward to engage stakeholders and identify appropriate on-site and collaborative off-site efforts that will make a difference in the local water environment.  Ultimately a company must decide how large a set of programs it can afford to engage in.  But in doing so, it needs to try to quantify the portion of the impacts that it will be making, with a goal of at least making beneficial impacts on the same order of magnitude as its water use or consumption.  Coca-Cola’s Replenish program provides an example of how this can be quantified.

Yes, it’s time for companies to look beyond its fencelines and help the communities deal with their water risk concerns -- their risks are our risks.

Bob Reich has been the Global Environmental Stewardship Manager for DuPont for the past eight years.  Prior to that Bob spent 30 years working on water issues in DuPont’s Environmental Engineering group.