Beverage companies understand the value of water. Food companies, too, are pretty savvy about the fact that we use far more water to produce the food that we eat, than we actually drink. Why is the food and beverage sector ahead of others when it comes to understanding and mitigating water risk? Because they have already had their “a-ha moment”: the realisation that their biggest water risk isn’t at their factories. It’s in their supply chains.
Agriculture accounts for 70% of global water use, and for many food and beverage companies, commodities (sugar, fruit, grains, etc) represent critical ingredients for their products. Yet rarely do these companies directly control the production of these commodities. Rather, they are a part of their supply chains, and increasingly a part of their supply chains where water risk has the potential to materially impact production or brand.
Of course, food and beverage companies aren’t the only ones with water risks along their supply chains. From textiles to mining, all businesses are water-dependent in one way or another.
The good news is that many top companies are taking action beyond efficiency measures to mitigate risk. The bad news is that even top companies struggle with the complexity of water stewardship. With a steep learning curve, there is a risk of pursuing dead-end approaches – or the flipside, simply making claims about stewardship that don’t hold water.
A new platform launched today aims to help prevent both of those bad outcomes. The Alliance for Water Stewardship (AWS) Standard is both a roadmap for action and an independent validation of claims – so companies, investors and regulators can tell who’s just talking the talk, and who’s walking the walk.
Nestlé and General Mills are among the household names that have signed on as AWS founding partners. Carlo Galli, technical and strategic advisor, water resources at Nestlé says the AWS standard will help “assess their performance against a defined set of principles.” Jerry Lynch, vice president, chief sustainability officer at General Mills says it will help the company meet its responsibility to “protect the quality and supply of water upon which our business depends.”
Put another way, it takes water stewardship from theory to practice. Companies using the standard will get an all encompassing view of their water impact: withdrawals, discharges, on-site needs and community requirements. When all that information threatens to overwhelm, the standard lays out clear steps to mitigate risks. And because the issues are much too big for any company to manage alone, the standard also serves as an invitation and guide to inspire collective action. That’s the sweet spot. When the private sector, governments and communities each play a mutually supporting role, we can turn the tide for responsible water management.
As someone who has been involved from the beginning with AWS, I find the endorsements of early adopters like Nestlé and General Mills reassuring. We all know this tool isn’t perfect – there’s no panacea when it comes to a topic as complicated as water. But we also know we can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. We have to take action to safeguard the essential shared resource we cannot live without, and now there’s one less excuse to sit on the sidelines.
By Alexis Morgan WWF’s Director, Global Water Roundtable
This article originally appeared on Guardian Sustainable Business