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Companies say they want to use less water–they’re just not doing anything about it

Even though the majority of large companies acknowledge that the increasing shortage of fresh water is a global problem, only around half have a real plan to reduce their own consumption.

Companies say they want to use less water–they’re just not doing anything about it
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Across the world, over 2 billion people struggle to access fresh water. By 2050, the UN estimates that number could swell to 5 billion. Addressing the global water crisis requires a multifaceted approach, from advancing technology to purify and recycle wastewater, to cutting down pollution that contaminates drinkable water. Large corporations, which consume 40% of all water used in the developed world, have a significant role to play.

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They are not unaware of this responsibility. According to an annual survey conducted by the research organization GreenBiz and the water tech company Ecolab, 74% of large corporations agree that addressing the growing water shortage should be a priority. But in sourcing feedback from 86 U.S.-based companies spanning technology, agriculture, manufacturing, and healthcare, with revenues of at least $1 billion, the survey partners learned that 44% of those companies said they have no plan in place to actually achieve water-reduction goals.

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This is a problem, says Ecolab’s VP of sustainability Emilio Tenuta, and points to an issue in the way that companies set and manage sustainability goals. In conducting the survey, Ecolab and GreenBiz learned that while the majority of companies have corporate sustainability teams that set water-use reduction targets, they don’t do enough to translate those goals out to their facilities, where the majority of water usage occurs. “Some companies would set goals of, say, a 25% reduction in water usage along with a $1 million growth in revenue,” says Tenuta. “But what does that actually mean for people at the facility level, who rely on water to produce things affordably and quickly?” It’s not enough, clearly, for a company to set sweeping water-use reduction targets without implementing a clear strategy for how every part of their operations can reach them. Only 64% of companies with water-reduction goals said they felt their corporate sustainability teams were doing enough to actually inform facilities managers of those goals and tactics to reach them. And around half of corporations surveyed said they didn’t even employ smart water management technology on-site to understand where the majority of water waste occurs.

Ecolab has a clear business motivation to get more companies adopting smart water technology: That is, after all, one of the company’s main business areas: Recently, Ecolab rolled out its sensor monitoring technology at Samsung’s Austin-based manufacturing plant. The tech enabled the facility to identify excess water usage and inefficiencies, and reduce its water use by 73.8 million gallons last year. It also developed a free tool, the Water Risk Monetizer, which helps companies conceptualize the importance of water to their operations, and understand how water issues in their area could affect their business. In San Antonio, for instance, Ecolab helped Microsoft learn about how stressed their local watershed is, and encouraged the company to switch to recycled water instead of fresh for its operations to alleviate its burden on the supply. Last week Ecolab also launched a free online tool, the Smart Water Navigator, which businesses can use to perform a basic assessment of their water use, and receive a personalized guide to steps they can take to ramp up efficiency.

The availability of a free tool like Ecolab’s, Tenuta says, will not solve the water crisis on its own. But it should wake companies up to the fact that it’s easier than they likely assume to gain insight into their water usage and what upgrades they can make to become more sustainable. “If you don’t measure something, you can’t manage it,” Tenuta says. According to the same Ecolab/GreenBiz survey, 88% of the companies surveyed said that they would pursue action to manage their water usage in the next three years, and analyzing their current practices is a necessary first step. With businesses exerting such a significant impact on water consumption in the developed world, Tenuta says, they need to ensure that they’re taking responsibility for their impact by focusing on actually reducing water usage–not just saying that they will.

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About the author

Eillie Anzilotti is an assistant editor for Fast Company's Ideas section, covering sustainability, social good, and alternative economies. Previously, she wrote for CityLab.

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