Today’s Brands Address Global Water Crisis with Win-Win Strategies

21 Sep 2015|Leslie Pascaud

Fact: It takes a staggering 2,900 gallons of water to produce a single pair of jeans.

A few short years ago no one seemed to notice or care how much water it took to make things. But as the world has gotten thirstier, our water-wasting practices are coming back to haunt us. Today, 1.2 billion people, or almost one-fifth of the world’s population, live in areas of water scarcity and, according to the UN, this number will climb to almost two billion by 2025. Water use has been growing at more than twice the rate of population increase in the last century and climate change has exacerbated the problem.

Another more encouraging fact is that there is still enough fresh water on the planet for all seven billion of us. But, as the UN notes, this water is distributed unevenly and too much of it is wasted, polluted and unsustainably managed.

Until recently, richer nations have been less affected by water shortages; but the last few years of drought in California and Texas have put water on the radar in middle America. In China, the problem is more acute. The Yongding River, which once fed Beijing, has run dry along with 27,000 other rivers that have disappeared due to industrialization, dams and drought. Even worse, China’s own state media reported last year that nearly 60% of the country’s underground water is polluted.

Industry is the number one culprit in the water crisis and companies are under increasing scrutiny for their practices. According to an analysis conducted by engineers at Carnegie Mellon University, agricultural and industrial processes use a staggering quantity of water: It takes about 270 gallons of water to produce $1 worth of sugar; 200 gallons to make $1 worth of pet food, and 140 gallons for $1 worth of milk. Water is also a key input into the production of energy. Every kilowatt hour of electricity we use consumes on average 25 gallons water. According to Earthworks, the water used to fracture 35,000 wells in the United States each year is equivalent to the annual water consumption of 40 to 80 cities, each with a population of 50,000.
The good news is that citizens, governments and businesses are waking up and acknowledging the importance of water stewardship. Corporate investments in innovative water-saving technologies are growing.

Here are five ways in which companies are pioneering potential avenues of water stewardship and, at the same time, boosting their bottom line:

1. Reducing water used in the supply chain. The best way to address water scarcity is by using less at the source. Levis Strauss was well ahead of the curve in 2011 when it launched its Water-Less initiative with a goal of reducing water used in garment-finishing by up to 96%. It also did an excellent job of marketing its efforts. In March, the company announced it had saved one billion litres of water since the launch and is now shooting for 80% of its products to be Water<less by 2020. Nike and Adidas have followed suit, investing in DyeCoo, a Dutch company that has developed an innovative waterless system that uses supercritical carbon dioxide instead of water in the dyeing process. Another example of innovation comes from the recycling industry. Plastic recycling processes use a lot of water. Ak Inovex from Mexico has developed a new green technology using recycling beads that “wash” and grind plastic containers without water. In addition to water savings, this process reduces production costs by half by eliminating the need for energy-intensive dehydration and cooling.

2. Reducing or treating water pollution at the source. 3.4 million people die each year from water-related diseases Globally, one of the biggest water quality problems is eutrophication due to agricultural runoff. This waste seeps into and pollutes our underwater reservoirs. Livestock farming is a major cause of this pollution. Bion, a New York-based waste treatment company, has patented a technology combining mechanical, biological, chemical, and thermal processes to capture waste and convert it into clean water for irrigation and solids for fertilizer and energy production. The technology also eliminates the pathogens found in water and can therefore help to curb a massive contributor to antibiotic resistance at its source.

3. Recycling water. Efforts in the past to entice people to drink recycled waste water have run up against what experts call the “yuck” factor. Brewery Bear Republic, a California based kraft brewer, decided to embrace the waste. While they haven’t (yet?) put the stuff in their beer, they have adopted an innovative system called the EcoVolt from Cambrian Innovation to recycle and supply about 10 percent of their water requirements. The system uses a bioelectric process to treat water while extracting all the waste. The outputs provide 25 percent of their hot water heating, 50 percent of their electrical needs, and up to 25 percent of the water they need to clean their facilities.

4. Making products or services that require less water in-use. Although industry is responsible for the bulk of water waste, individuals can also make a real dent in water conservation. Outdoor watering accounts for almost 30 percent of our water use, according to Environment Magazine. But toilets (19 percent), washing machines (15 percent), showers (12 percent), and faucets (11 percent) also use substantial amounts. Certain washing machines use about 40 percent less water than others, so Surf and Electrolux have teamed up in India to communicate the benefits of choosing a water-saving machine. In the US, on-demand car cleaning service Wype positions itself as the Uber of waterless car washing. Available via mobile app, Wype comes to the user and cleans waterlessly, conserving 38 gallons of water. With every completed Wype, the company donates a gallon of clean water to Charity water.

5. Educating/incentivizing consumers to save water. Many of us are familiar with OPower’s method of swaying consumers to use less electricity by showing energy use vs their neighbors directly on monthly statements. WaterSmart does the same thing with water use. “Home Water Reports” are sent to utility customers via direct mail or email with information on how much water they are using, A smiley, neutral, or worried water droplet icon lets them know how they are doing compared to neighbors. The reports also include personalized tips for reducing water use, resulting in a reduction of 5% consumption on average. Shokubutsu Hana, a personal care brand from Japanese company Lion, found an ingenious way to combine water clean-up with education. It recently mounted the first ever ‘Water Billboard’ in the Pasig River. The billboard was made of a system using Vetiver plants (Chrysopogon zizanioides), which can clean up to 8 thousand gallons of water per day. Made to float on water, the billboard didn’t just communicate HANA’s message – it actually cleaned wastewater in the rivers where the billboard was placed.

As a new water mentality seeps into the public psyche, forward-thinking brands and businesses will need to use their best technological chops to address the pressing water crisis. Brands that think their water impacts have no consumer relevance will quickly discover, as did Coca Cola in India and Nestle in Canada that people are increasingly recognizing the intrinsic value of this vital resource. Smart players will find creative ways to leverage their water conservation investments to improve their bottom line while building trust with consumers and improving their brand image in the process.

Written by Leslie Pascaud, Executive VP of Added Value’s Sustainable Innovation Practice.

Follow Leslie on Twitter.

Image source: Thinkstock

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