Water stewardship in the supply chain – moving beyond the tip of the iceberg

As interest in water stewardship grows, sustainable management of an organization’s direct water footprint is becoming increasingly common. Organizations of all types, from technology to financial services to academia, are taking the first steps in their water stewardship journeys.

The first step in sustainable water management is getting your house in order, meaning:

  • report and disclose water withdrawals, consumption, discharge and risks;
  • improve efficiency of direct operations; and
  • recycle and reuse water when feasible

Once your water stewardship efforts have addressed direct operations, the next step is to consider the supply chain. For many organizations, this is where most water-related impact is concentrated. Engaging suppliers on water can be a challenge, as often organizations don’t have direct control over the production or management in the supply chain.

While managing water withdrawals, consumption and discharge are vital to a successful water strategy, ensuring that your suppliers respect the human right to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services for all employees should be the first priority. Access to WASH services is not only critical to meeting the UN Sustainable Development Goals, it is also a sound investment for communities. Every $1 invested in WASH returns approximately $4 to the economy.  Progressive organizations have recognized the importance of WASH in the supply chain, and are beginning to invest in WASH to improve worker wellbeing, increase productivity, avoid costs and ensure the social license to operate.

Developing a supply chain water stewardship program can be a daunting task. Following the outline below can make developing an effective strategy manageable:

  1. Develop (or improve) your supplier code of conduct. Develop a code that ensures suppliers provide access to clean water and sanitation, and measure and report levels of water access with both an audit process and clear policies to ensure compliance.
  2. Prioritize suppliers. Start by engaging your direct suppliers. Prioritizing those with the highest annual spend is likely where most of your impact lies and where you will have the greatest influence.
  3. Streamline the data collection process. Rather than developing a custom questionnaire, take advantage of the many sources of supplier sustainability data – such as CDP, EcoVadis, The Sustainability Consortium and The Higg Index – your suppliers may already be responding
  4. Assess water risk in the supply chain. Have high-impact suppliers respond to CDP Water or a similar reporting framework, and help suppliers use these data to better understand water risks and opportunities through these outlets.
  5. Build the capacity of your suppliers. Support your suppliers in understanding current performance and improving management practices.
  6. Work with peer organizations who have the same suppliers or face similar issues. Industry groups like the Beverage Industry Environmental Roundtable, International Council on Mining and Metals and the Sustainable Apparel Coalition provide a precompetitive space for organizations to collaborate on shared water challenges and benefit from the experience of others.
  7. Develop partnerships with local and international organizations that can support your efforts to improve sustainability in high risk basins, provide access to WASH services. Partners can include local non-profits providing WASH services, international NGOs like WaterAid, UN Agencies, local governments or other organizations active in water stewardship.

There are many resources available to help you along your water stewardship journey. These resources include:

  • CEO Water Mandate Toolbox – Connect to resources from the CEO Water Mandate and others that help you advance water stewardship.
  • The Fieldprint Calculator – Understand how management choices impact sustainability performance and connect operational efficiency and sustainability.
  • The Alliance for Water Stewardship Standard – Both a roadmap for action and an independent validation of claims – so companies, investors and regulators can tell who’s just talking the talk, and who’s walking the walk.
  • The Higg Materials Sustainability Index – Collect comparable data from suppliers by measuring impacts of material production in a common way.

For additional information on water stewardship programs,  contact Stefanie Woodward.

WaterAid, CEO Water Mandate, and WBCSD. Scaling Corporate Action on Access to Water, Sanitation and Hygiene in Supply Chains: White Paper, September 2016. 

Hutton, Guy. Water and Sanitation Assessment Paper: Benefits and Costs of the Water and Sanitation Targets for the Post-2015 Development Agenda, January 2015.

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