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Financial Times: Conservation: Every drop of effort brings a gush of rewards

By Sarah Murray
Published: March 21 2007 02:17 | Last updated: March 21 2007 02:17

When Paul Bowen visits one of Coca-Cola’s facilities he hands a small plastic cup to the people he meets.

The cup measures water leaks. Hold it under a drip for five seconds and it calculates how much water is being lost from the leak every year. “It’s extremely visual and you’d be surprised how many people go and get a wrench and tighten things down very quickly,” says Mr Bowen, Coca-Cola’s water technologies manager for quality and technical services.

At the opposite end of the water-use chain from the drinks industry, huge water and financial savings are being made through the use of waterless urinals at Stansted Airport.

The opportunity to save water was identified by the National Industrial Symbiosis Programme, a UK-based organisation that helps businesses to find value in under-used resources.

NISP connected BAA, the airport’s operator, with Now2000, whose urinal system uses bacterial detergents to attack bacteria and uric salts.

The initiative will not only save an annual 12,000 tonnes of clean water, but will also save BAA more than £10,000 a year.

While cutting water in their current operations, companies have found that redesigning products and processes can also minimise water use.

Coca-Cola has worked with manufacturers to improve the nozzles its plants use in order to to clean bottles. “They can save 25 to 30 per cent of the water in that particular process. That’s a huge saving for a nominal cost for a piece of equipment,” says Mr Bowen.

As well as looking at water use in their daily operations and those of suppliers, some companies are looking further back in the supply chain for further efficiencies.

For Nike, for example, much of the water associated with the production of its apparel is used by third-tier suppliers – companies producing the materials used by factories to which Nike subcontracts its manufacturing.

“One of the reasons we focus on this is that the discharge of waste water [in textile mills, laundries and dying facilities] is the largest community and environmental impact within app-arel and textile production,” says Jill Zanger, a spokesperson for Nike.

As companies experiment with ways of reducing water use, there is growing recognition of the need to share knowledge.

One tool that helps them do so is the GEMI Water Sustainability Tool*, produced by the Global Environmental Management Initiative, a group of companies formed to help build corporate sustainability strategies.

As well as making the business case for water conservation, the site presents a series of instructional modules for assessing water impact, as well as identifying business risks and opportunities and implementing water strategies.

It also presents a series of case studies featuring the experiences of companies in different sectors.

“We’ve tried to give some simple tools; some rules of thumb,” says Karl Fennessey, GEMI water sustainability work group co-chair and global water technology leader at Dow Chemical. “Because without information you can’t figure out where to focus and where your trade-offs are going to be.”

Another organisation, Business for Social Responsibility – a US non-profit advisory group whose membership includes many multinationals – is developing water tools and performance indicators for industries such as agriculture and the apparel sector.

However, in addition to addressing day-to-day activities, companies should also be looking globally across their operations to identify water risks, says Joppe Cramwinckel, project leader of the Water Working Group at the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD).

“You may think you have a fair allocation but, because of climate change, the total availability of water may suddenly drop,” he says. “We don’t know where that may happen, and it’s a great uncertainty, but you have to ask the question.”

As well as producing a series of water scenarios to inform businesses of the risks posed by the changing availability of water, the WBCSD is developing a mapping tool to help businesses assess their water footprints and risks in relationship to the current and future availability of water.

The idea is that companies can then judge where to focus attention, investing most heavily in conservation measures in facilities that consume most water and that are operating in areas where the water supply is under the most stress.

Mr Cramwinkel, who is a senior executive at Shell, the energy company, says that global governance structures will also be needed to deal with changing water scenarios.

“You might have some sort of water trading mechanism that ensures a more fair allocation of water,” he says

“It’s similar to where we are today with carbon trading.”

In the meantime, he says, companies should look not only at saving water in individual processes but also right across the supply chain.

“The strategic level is very important,” he says. “Because if you don’t sort that out, you get a lot of sub-optimum activities, and they will not bring us what we need.”

*www.gemi.org

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007

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