Sustainability Straight Talk: Working Across the Public and Private Sector to Solve the Global Water Crisis

12/12/2016 11:02 am ET

As we gear up for the holiday season, many of us will be sharing close quarters and conversations with family members. Some of us love these family gatherings, some of us find them stressful – but I’m sure we can all agree that there’s an element of “reality check” and straight talk that inevitably happens. For this, I am grateful.

In corporate sustainability, reality checks are powerful. I won’t soon forget Ceres’ rating of WhiteWave’s water management practices in the 2013 Feeding Ourselves Thirsty: How the Food Sector is Managing Global Water Risks report. For a food company committed to “changing the way the world eats for the better,” the perspective that we weren’t leading the sector in water management got our attention. Ultimately, it helped provide perspective that we needed to elevate disclosure around our water strategy and establish a more visible path to improvement.

In the world of corporate sustainability, it can be tempting for companies to focus on successes and progress made, and it is important to account for the enormous amount of good work being done. But publishing WhiteWave’s annual CSR report – even to high transparency standards like those put forward by the Global Reporting Initiative - doesn’t always give us the opportunity to examine where others are leading, and what needs to change to drive ourselves and our industry forward.

When it comes to water management, critical examination is no longer optional. The Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) notes that in 2016, companies around the world may be facing $14 billion in water-related impacts from drought, flooding, and increased water stress — compared with $2.6 billion in 2015. When you consider that agriculture accounts for 70 percent of the world’s freshwater use, food sector leadership in water management is a game-changer.

To effectively address the looming global water crisis, companies need to go beyond operational goals that cut down the amount of water used to create a pound of product. Since 2013, we reduced water intensity, or gallons of water used per pound of product, by 6 percent company-wide. This year we set a goal to further reduce water intensity by 20 percent by the end of 2025. That is a hard, stretch goal for our growth focused business and still, it’s not enough. Companies need to go beyond facility footprint, taking responsibility for the water needs of our communities, supply chains, and the world at large.

This is a daunting task for any organization, and it requires partnerships. Non-profit organizations can provide support addressing water scarcity in communities where companies don’t have the presence or resources in place. The Bonneville Environmental Foundation is WhiteWave’s partner to restore freshwater to critically dewatered ecosystems, rivers and streams through Water Restoration Certificates (WRCs). Since 2009, our work together has restored more than 1.9 billion gallons of water to depleted waterways across the U.S.

Partnerships also help WhiteWave and other food companies to honestly assess our water performance and push ourselves – and each other – to do better. WhiteWave has collaborated with World Wildlife Fund (WWF) to complete a comprehensive Water Risk Assessment using their Risk Filter tool, allowing us to understand risks by location for all of our manufacturing, offices, and locations where we source our raw materials and ingredients globally. Last month, we were recognized by Ceres and WWF as one of the first AgWater Stewards – a group of seven food and beverage companies committing to address water risks across agricultural supply chains. This is not an award – it’s a commitment to setting water management goals and undergoing third-party assessments of company actions. As part of the AgWater Challenge, WhiteWave will expand its water management plan for dairy, soy and almond production by 2018. We will scale projects that restore freshwater systems, such as on-farm groundwater recharge projects, and promote water management policy efforts at the government level. The Challenge holds us publicly accountable for meeting water goals and gives us the opportunity to learn from our industry peers.

This month, CDP recognized WWAV for effective management of water, and we’re working toward leadership classification. I invite you to track our progress and help keep us accountable. Given the global scarcity issues we face, effective water management requires working across the public and private sector. It means partnering with organizations that critically evaluate your water management progress and can provide a third-party view of how you’re moving the needle. That’s a reality check that ultimately benefits all of us.

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