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Is Net Water Positive just Hype?

 
23 Aug 2021  |  Nathan Goldstein

Water is on the corporate brain, big tech players (e.g., Microsoft, Facebook), food & beverage companies (e.g., PepsiCo), and oil & gas firms (e.g., BP), are committing to becoming “water positive” over the next decade.

What does it mean to be “water positive”?

In short, companies that achieve water positivity are replenishing more water than they use. These water positive companies are typically defining water “use” as total water consumption. While the water consumption calculation for companies is enterprise-wide, the water replenishment is targeted at facilities in water-stressed regions of the world where the companies have operations.

Water positive goals differ amongst companies in terms of their ambition, urgency, and scope.

Companies setting a goal of becoming water positive have not all made an equally aspirational commitment. The deadline to achieve water positivity varies, with most setting 2030 as the end date. Oil & gas giant BP, however, aims to be water positive by 2035, delaying the timeline further than most other companies. The definition of water use varies from company to company as well. Facebook has taken a very specific approach, counting only the water that is evaporated on their premises as their water consumption. On the other hand, PepsiCo is counting all the water that is used in operations, but only in water-stressed regions. 

How are companies getting to water positive?

The approach to achieve water positivity is typically two-pronged: (1) reduce the amount of water consumed in industrial processes (2) replenish water-stressed regions with purified process water. PepsiCo is implementing world-class water-efficiency standards at over 1,000 company-owned and third-party manufacturing sites, which it projects will save 11 billion liters of water per year. IKEA is working to prolong the life of its products and materials, through material sharing and reuse, noting that the most water efficient products are those that don’t need to be made. In addition to implementing onsite wastewater treatment to ensure that 100% of its non-potable water use comes from recycled sources, Microsoft is also focusing its replenishment efforts on 40 highly stressed basins where the company has operations. The World Resources Institute’s (WRI) “baseline water stress” score to identify water basins. WRI defines highly stressed water basins as those that have water withdrawals exceed 40% of the renewable supply.

In order to maintain the water positive mantle, companies will have to continuously invest in water efficiency and treatment to keep up with increased production.

Water positivity raises the bar for water sustainability goal setting.

The push towards water positivity is a step up from what had been typical of corporate water sustainability goals – setting a baseline year for water withdrawals and/or consumption, and working towards incremental improvement. In order to maintain the water positive mantle, companies will have to continuously invest in water efficiency and treatment to keep up with increased production.

What’s next?

Since Microsoft announced their 2030 Water Positive goal last fall, many companies have announced their own. As water’s role in the broader ESG discussion grows, more companies are expected to announce plans to become water positive.

If Bluefield’s research on water sustainability target-setting offers any clues, consumer-facing industries will be more likely to make commitments. The companies that have already announced water positive goals are leaders in their industries in terms of market share. This should drive further adoption of water positive goals in those water-intensive industries at the forefront of change.