Coming Up Short: What Water Conservation Means for Business

by | Jan 4, 2010

Sharon NunesCompanies are increasingly focusing on “green” initiatives such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions and conserving energy. And while these goals are clearly important, many companies are overlooking what could become the most critical green initiative of them all — water conservation.

Though the total amount of water on this planet has never changed, the nature of that water is changing. Everything from where rain falls to the chemical makeup of the oceans is in flux. Immigration, population growth and climate change are affecting the way we all think about our relationship with the world’s water supply. And by 2050, when the world’s population is expected to peak at about 9.4 billion people, it is conceivable that water could become one of the world’s scarcest and most valuable commodities in the world.

Already, a staggering 884 million people in the world lack access to safe drinking water. And, by the end of the year, over 3 million of those people will die from a water-related disease. But water isn’t just a societal issue — it also affects businesses around the world.

Recently, my company conducted a survey of more than 100 public and private sector executives. Their responses concerning water challenges showed some surprising and, in some cases, alarming concerns.

For example, while the cost of treating and delivering water will continue to increase over the next 10 years, many companies do not know how to adapt. About 77 percent of those surveyed felt that water management was extremely critical to their business, yet 51 percent said they lacked formal guidelines for implementing it and an additional 63 percent of executives said they lacked access to integrated water management systems.

When you consider that many industries are water intensive — for example, beverage producers use about 300 billion liters of water a year — these numbers aren’t just surprising, they’re cause for serious alarm. For food processing, it takes 4,800 liters of water to make a single kilogram of pork. That number increases to 15,500 liters to get the same amount of beef ready for the grocery store freezer.

But water woes aren’t just for the food and beverage industries. It takes 10 liters of water to produce one sheet of paper, 91 to make a pound of plastic, 10,855 for a single pair of jeans  — and for one kilogram of leather, 16,600 will be used.

When you consider both current consumption and the predicted future constraints on water, it’s clear that businesses must begin taking steps toward conservation now, and they should consider the following as they proceed.

Make water conservation a priority

Cut costs and consumption by researching manufacturing practices and seeing where improvements can be made. Also make sure employees are encouraged to cut usage in offices.

Show your company’s commitment to the environment by incorporating these practices into your company’s corporate responsibility policies. Consider Starbucks, which landed a spot on Portfolio’s Green 11 list in 2008. While the company uses a significant amount of water to produce its beverages — it takes 140 liters of water to make a cup of coffee — it uses water-saving technology in equipment specifications. Efficient dishwashers, high-pressure water, and employees trained to operate water-efficient tools help to minimize the company’s water consumption.

Involve the community

Involving the company in a program with the local water treatment plant or a local environmental organization will not only prove the business’ commitment to the cause, but also improve its reputation and aid the community.

My company has partnered with the Beacon Institute, a not-for-profit environmental research organization that advances research, education, and public policy regarding rivers and estuaries. This collaboration will result in the first technology-based monitoring and forecasting network for a major American river and estuary. These tools will allow for minute-to-minute monitoring of the New York’s Hudson River via an integrated network of sensors, robotics and computational technology that signals hazards or dramatic changes in this historic and commercially vital body of water.

Also consider sponsoring local events to help educate the community about your commitment to water and how the resource is specifically important to your geographic area.

Reach out to other companies — even competitors

Take advantage of the opportunity to form a partnership similar to the Beverage Industry Environmental Roundtable. Created in 2006, the organization brought together twelve companies—including Coca-Cola, Diageo, Nestle, Anheuser Busch InBev and PepsiCo—to exchange information on water reduction, reuse, drought preparedness and stewardship. The organization also collects and shares data and leading practices relating to water conservation and resource protection.

Continue to set trends

Staying on top of an ever-growing “green” industry is no easy task. But, if you dedicate your company to being a leader in the “green” space, it will eventually pay off no matter what industry you’re in.

For example Levi Strauss & Co. recently partnered with Goodwill to create new clothing labels that encourage consumers to wash garmetns in cold water, line dry when possible and donate to Goodwill instead of tossing old clothing. While it might seem like a small step, it shows that every organization can find away to reduce its environmental impact.


While reducing water consumption and being environmentally responsible might initially be a challenge, keep in mind the work you’ll be doing for your business, society and the planet. There is no substitute for water, so we must make every single drop count.

Sharon Nunes is the Vice President of IBM Big Green Innovations, a program which oversees development of product and service initiatives regarding the environment.

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