Companies and water: the new social responsibility

@Sharon Pittaway- Unsplash

The acceptance of sustainability as an economic asset is spreading among companies. It transforms the concept of social responsibility and brings economy closer to citizens. Water use efficiency is increasingly present in sustainable business growth strategies and is critical to attain the SDGs.

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Companies are therefore essential tools for change.They are fundamental to guarantee each one of the 17 SDGs by 2030. © Nathan Dumlao-unsplash.

Beyond financial profit, companies are organizations that, by means of production processes, provide goods, services and work to people. Either public or private, they directly link civil society with nature, which provides the raw materials and energy to achieve this. This relationship is what moves the world and the social responsibility of companies, also known as CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility), defines and proposes ethics to carry it out. In recent years, environmental sustainability has become a part of CSR and the Covid-19 pandemic, the worst global crisis in living memory, has made it urgent.

Companies are therefore essential tools for change. They are fundamental to guarantee each one of the 17 SDGs by 2030 and beyond that, to provide a sustainable future in view of the uncertainty presented by climate change, environmental degradation and demographic imbalances.

In recent years, the environment has been gaining in importance in business activities by leaps and bounds. The pandemic has provided a new perspective to the relationship between health and nature and in a short time, most companies have realized that it is not possible to imagine a world in which the wellbeing of people is disconnected from the preservation of the natural capital.


The new social responsibility in the green economy

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The environment has been gaining in importance in business activities by leaps and bounds© Rob Morton-unsplash.

The acceptance of sustainability as part of the production and consumption models is one of the distinguishing features of green economy, which implies the adoption of collaborative socioeconomics that is fully integrated in the social fabric companies belong to. In a relatively short time, and increasingly so, companies have begun to forge closer ties with civil society and to base their growth strategies and their relationship with governance on this union.  

ESG (Environmental, Social and Corporate Governance) criteria and the promotion of SRI (Socially Responsible Investing) are now becoming an integral part of strategic, management and production planning decisions. Increasingly more companies are evolving on the basis that there is a positive correlation between sustainability and financial profitability, solvency and social prestige.

According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), in order to attain the 17 SDGs by 2030, the public and private sector must invest between 1.7 and 3.4 trillion euros worldwide. The benefits of this huge investment are high: it is estimated that the attainment of the SDGs can generate more than 380 million jobs all around the world. Without a business network that is fully committed to sustainability, this cannot be achieved. This is what currently defines the planetary framework of sustainability: it must be an economic asset and a basic philosophy of corporate social responsibility.


Water, increasingly at the forefront

In this race to mitigate climate change, the reduction of greenhouse gases (GHG) has been one of the key objectives, especially after the serious warnings issues by COP 21 at the end of 2015, and the conclusive reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which, shortly after the Paris summit, lowered the limits of global atmospheric warning from 2ºC to 1.5ºC to avoid the worst consequences of the climate crisis.

Thus, the carbon footprint, the parameter universally used since the 1990s to assess gas emissions, was established as the key reference to develop sustainability. Over the last few decades, however, another rate has progressively gained importance in the planning of sustainability: the water footprint, the measurement of the amount of water used in the supply chain of a product or service.

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The reduction of greenhouse gases (GHG) has been one of the key objectives to avoid the worst consequences of the climate crisis. © Tasos Mansour-unsplash.

The water footprint not only includes the water incorporated into the products or services themselves, but also the water that has been polluted, returned to another basin or to the sea and the one evaporated in all processes. The water footprint thus links end consumers, producers and retailers. In a world threatened by the imbalance in the access to water and with serious doubts as to whether it will be possible to treat all wastewater (currently only 20%), considering the water footprint of any economic activity is the core of a change of paradigm in the management of water resources and the general sustainability of the planet.

And companies are incorporating it. As with carbon footprint, leading companies are realizing that they must include the water footprint in their strategies and are increasingly recognizing that traditional approaches for water management are not enough. The assessment of the water footprint of a company offers a new perspective to develop an efficient water strategy and provides an opportunity to develop social responsibility and strengthen the ties with consumers.


Success stories that have become benchmarks

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Some of the companies which have led the change towards water awareness have been the ones in the tourism industry. © Jared Rice-unsplash.

Corporate concern about water is not a recent development. Some companies showed some signs of concern in the 1970s, when pollution levels and hydric stress became evident in the world. Some of the companies which have led the change towards water awareness have been the ones in the tourism industry. Over the last few decades, they have developed sustainability as a growth strategy that, although temporarily cut short by the pandemic, is seen as a key factor in global economic recovery and the attainment of the SDGs by 2030. Many leading companies in the industry have developed a scaled green economy model that is ideally suited to address climate change and allows wealth to be distributed ethically towards people and the environment. This is made possible by the spectacular increase in potential clients who are environmentally conscious and demand destinations with a minimum impact on the environment and respectful with the local culture.

On the other hand, architects, urban planners and tourist resort builders are mutually inspired by ideas for “zero water discharge” and energy self-sufficient buildings. Tour operators, which were among the first to include the carbon footprint in their products and services, are incorporating the water footprint as a key factor in the development and communication of their social responsibility.  

Water management is also invaluable as a tool for creating a culture of sustainability. A very special example is the initiative Let’s Make a Deal, driven by the Foundation, which was pioneered by Diamond Resorts in 2018. It was a revealing experience of the key factor played by the tourist industry in the challenge of raising awareness on the use of water: each destination is able to extend it to all actors, professionals and guests, who are involved in transferring good practices to everyday life.


Towards a new concept of profit

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Water footprint allows companies to realize where and when water is used, to save water, and to detect critical hydric stress or pollution points. © Wolfgang Hasselmann -unsplash.

These experiences are an example of how sustainability in the use of water and the consideration of the water footprint must be added to business strategies, along with the calculation of the carbon footprint and all other factors defining sustainability. The water footprint allows companies to realize where and when water is used, both in the production of their products and in the supply chains. It is another asset, which provides both financial, environmental and, certainly, social benefits. It allows companies to save water, to anticipate administrative requirements, to improve efficiency, to detect critical hydric stress or pollution points and, as a consequence, to promote leadership and the value of the brand among their clients, suppliers and collaborators.

Covid-19 has accelerated the need among companies to achieve social and financial profitability. This is one of the positive aspects of the socio-economic disaster of the pandemic. With sustainability, companies can transform and strengthen a fragile social fabric, which the pandemic has made us realize is more fragile than we expected. Businesses will do this, because transformation takes place among the citizens who make up the companies and who are the object of their activity. And they are changing. The sooner they do, the better.

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Water use efficiency is key to sustainability. © NRCS.