Son of Five Rivers Blog

For the advancement of Entrepreneurship, Sustainability & the Ecology of Everyday Life

Water: The Future in Sustainability Reporting

With the Western world focused on the economy, climate change, and access to health care, growing freshwater scarcity gets short shrift in the headlines.  But concerns about this precious resource are poised to make it the next big metric in sustainability reporting.

According to the United Nations, freshwater resources of more than half the countries across the globe will undergo either stress or outright shortages by 2025. With only 1% of Earth’s water suitable for human use and consumption, by mid-century as much as three quarters of the earth’s population could face scarcities of freshwater.

Reserves of freshwater are rapidly depleting around the world, and this is expected to significantly impact densely populated areas the hardest.  Compounding this problem is that these are the very regions where many of the raw materials in the products we use every day originate.

While these products may not be filled with water themselves, there is a hidden cost to the goods we use.  In March, Professor John Anthony Allan from King’s College London was presented the 2008 Stockholm Water Prize for his work on this very topic.  Coined “virtual water” back in 1993 by Allan, this term refers to the amount of water needed in the production and trade of food and consumer products. A cup of coffee, for example, has about 37 gallons of virtual water, when you consider the amount of water used to grow, produce, package, and ship the beans. A hamburger ‘contains’ 634 gallons of virtual water.

As companies measurement and reduction of CO2 emissions becomes the norm, other metrics are emerging as critical indicators of sustainability.  There is a finite amount of freshwater on Earth, and excluding the isolated efforts to build desalinization plants, we aren’t making any more.

But are companies reporting their water usage in any meaningful way?

recent report by the Pacific Institute evaluates how global companies recognize, address, and report their water-related risks and practices.  In the study, 139 companies were analyzed in eleven of the most water-intensive industries (apparel, autos, beverages, biotech, chemicals, electronics, food, forest products, mining, refining, and utilities).  While the vast majority of companies in these industries now report water data as standard practice, inconsistencies remain:

  • Only half the reports have information on company water policies or a description of water-management objectives
  • Water measurement methods and definitions remain inconsistent
  • Just one in five reporting companies mentions water risks and challenges
  • Only 30% of the reports provide quantitative targets
  • Merely 1 in 10 reports mentions supply chain considerations in relation to water management, and not one reports data on their suppliers
  • Site-specific information, such as local- or facility-level water performance, is rarely considered or provided
  • Just 1 in 10 reports include water recycling amounts or rates.

Ultimately, companies in these and other industries will need to increase the scrutiny of their water usage, recycling, and supply chain management.  The rest of the world will be paying attention.  We simply don’t have a choice.

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June 20, 2009 - Posted by | A Thought

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