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Water Risk Prompting a New Wave of Innovation

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What if someone said that they could help jumpstart your creativity? What if they said that the very thing that all businesses need to function can enable new thoughts to flow freely?

I’m talking about water. Specifially, corporate water use and risk.

I realize that water is hardly the usual domain of expansive, fun, free thinking. But, it should be. What if instead of boring (but essential) lists of what to do to assess water risk, the innovation part was clear?

Corporate decision-makers still need to start with (the often dry, but essential) initial questions about water risk, overall process steps, and specific guidelines — such as those of the CEO Water Mandate as well as the Alliance for Water Stewardship and Ceres’ “Aqua Gauge”, among others. And business people need to understand where corporate assets and supply chains ‘sit’ within various hydrological systems and the landscapes — a task made easy by WRI’s Aqueduct, Oxford University’s Local Ecological Footprinting Tool, and other existing analytical tools. Once the overall issues and ‘opportunity space’ is understood, business people can dive into planning for work on water risk assessment and mitigation.

Concurrently, though, there should be a broadening of focus to derive inspiration from the innovators. Consider those who are sitting up in their chairs, with the proverbial lightbulbs above their heads. And then become one yourself.

For example, Nike and Adidas have stepped in with waterless dyeing of fabric and apparel. Nestlé touts a “zero water factory expansion” in Mexico with a dairy operation. Coca-Cola has invested in planting trees and restoring watersheds in a range of areas in which it operates. AB InBev has supported work on efficiency as well as restoration through investments in “social mobilization for water conservation in water-stressed areas.” The list goes on.

The innovators reveal sophisticated understanding of the system — both hydrological and business. They evidence an understanding that water clearly does not just come from the tap. (As both an environmental scientist and a mother, I can say that the reason that there are so many children’s books on the water cycle is that it is not intuitive.) Rather, water is part of a hydrologic cycle and watershed-based hydrological systems that function differently depending on the local geology, plants and trees, soils, rainfall, weather, and climate, as well as the diversions put in place — and other factors. Untangling hydrological systems can surface the proverbial spaghetti plate of complicated systems mapping that either overwhelms or bores most people.

The trick for business people is to step back. Understand both the parts and the whole of the system. Scrutinize how both hydrological and business systems can be optimized through innovations (or undercut by specific practices). Immediate efforts can be undertaken to invest in decreasing water waste and increasing water efficiencies, as well as improve overall system function (including the functioning of watersheds through restoration). Then, determine where and when to invest in R&D. This work should seek to innovate problems ‘out’ of the system, such as using less water (or no water) for production processes, considered from a full life cycle perspective and leveraging insights from biomimcry.

Throughout all of these tasks, it is useful to assess corporate facilities and key supply chain partners in their ‘native habitat’ — which gets super-fun. It gets you out into green-walled offices with good oxygen. It can make you think more creatively. It makes you realize that you may not be able to use engineering to solve all water problems. “Green infrastructure” may well be a significant part of the solution — potentially within a blended model. It is notable that proponents of a “grey / green” approach to corporate resilience now include Royal Dutch Shell, Dow Chemical Company, Unilever and SwissRe, as laid out in a 2013 report.

As you consider corporate water risk and opportunity, think like an aikido master. How can you anticipate and avoid impacts, through redirection? Think like R. Buckminister Fuller and innovate solutions. And think like Jerry Garcia, of the Grateful Dead, who said: “Somebody has to do something, and it's just incredibly pathetic that it has to be us.” 

It has to be all of us. But it’ll be fun. And it’ll get our creative juices flowing.

With more than 20 years of experience working on sustainability issues in North America, Europe and Africa, Sissel advises companies and leads BSR’s work on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.

Before joining BSR, she worked for Forest Trends in various leadership positions, including… [Read more about Sissel Waage]

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