Home American fashion company Companies are committed to being “positive for water”. What does it mean? | Environment

Companies are committed to being “positive for water”. What does it mean? | Environment


One of PepsiCo’s largest food manufacturing plants is located in the constantly water-stressed Mexico Valley watershed, which provides water to 21 million people in Mexico City and its surrounding suburbs. The aquifer flowing under the city is so exhausted that the metropolis is sink as the water table drops, and the pipes that bring water from distant rivers and lakes are in poor condition.

“The city can’t provide the water we need, so we truck it,” said Roberta Barbieri, vice president for global sustainability at PepsiCo. It is a costly solution to an unsolvable problem – water scarcity is not sustainable from a human or commercial point of view. Pepsi has therefore promised to reduce its water consumption in the region and replenish what it uses. By treating wastewater on-site, for example, the plant can reuse 80% of the water it draws from the tap or truck. “We are striving to reach that level 100%,” said Barbieri.

These efforts are part of the company’s “water positive” commitment to put more water in the areas where it operates than it withdraws.

The past year has seen a flurry of promises from big companies. Microsoft, Facebook and Google have all pledged to replenish more water than they use in their direct operations by 2030. PA set a target year for 2035, and Difference for 2050.

These commitments come at a time of enormous pressure on the world’s water resources, exacerbated by the climate crisis. More … than 1.7 billion people live in river basins that are being depleted from overexploitation, and the UN predicts a 40% scarcity of freshwater resources by 2030.

The impacts of the water crisis on businesses are increasingly clear – threaten semiconductor production in Taiwan, scuttling plans for a brewery in Mexico and sending investors competing for water rights in the Colorado River Basin. “Sustainable water supply is no longer a given,” said Kirsten James, director of water for the non-profit sustainability organization Ceres.

Zenwen Dam in southern Taiwan, March 2021. The island experienced its worst drought in decades this year – a crisis that threatened an already acute global semiconductor shortage. Photograph: Sam Yeh / AFP / Getty Images

The Positive Water Commitments aim to help businesses align with UN goals for people to have adequate access to clean drinking water while securing their own water supply. It’s also a question of reputation, said Colin Strong, director of corporate water management at the World Resource Institute. Companies working in areas of water scarcity don’t want to be seen as making the problem worse.

But while experts say it’s encouraging to see companies making commitments on water, some fear those voluntary commitments may lack precise definitions and accountability mechanisms.

What does “positive water” mean?

There is no formal definition of “positive for water,” Strong said, and the companies’ plans differ in detail and scope.

What differentiates positive water from just saving water is the emphasis on areas where water security is an issue and the overcompensation of consumption in those places. “Water security is a hyperlocal issue,” said Simon Fischweicher, head of North American businesses and supply chains for the environmental nonprofit CDP.

Once companies identify areas where water scarcity is a problem, they look for ways to reduce their water use and compensate for what they use. “The goal is not to use the minimum amount of water, it’s to minimize the negative impacts associated with water use, and those impacts can vary widely,” Strong said.

Pepsi’s snack factory in Mexico City is one of 99 manufacturing facilities the company has in high-water risk areas. The company has a range of strategies that it believes will reverse its impact on the watershed.

For example, after water has passed through pipes and tanks to pass from Pepsi to Mountain Dew in a Mexico City bottler, it is treated to safe drinking standards and then trucked to the plant in Mexico City. the company in the industrial area of ​​Vallejo, where it is used to wash potatoes to make Sabritas crisps. The project halved the demand for fresh water at the Sabritas plant, according to PepsiCo.

The company is also funding environmental restoration work in other parts of the watershed, where Nature Conservancy plants native conifers to protect the waterways. “We don’t produce new water – because nobody can do it – but what we can do is go upstream and partner with local NGOs… to restore the natural system that has been degraded, largely by human influence, ”said Barbieri.

Microsoft, Google, and Facebook have built or are building wastewater treatment plants in some of their offices to recycle water for flushes and sprinklers. However, most of the water use by tech companies goes to cooling their data center equipment, some of which is located in drought-prone regions of the western and southwestern United States.

Google began using reclaimed wastewater almost a decade ago at its data center in Douglas County, Georgia. Microsoft is now doing the same in Washington, Amsterdam and Dublin. It also tests waterless cooling systems, such as immersing computer servers in a fluid that boils the heat they generate, or drive data centers into the ocean, to release heat into the seawater.

Microsoft's Northern Islands data center is mined from the seabed off the Orkney Islands in Scotland.
Microsoft’s Northern Islands data center is mined from the seabed off the Orkney Islands in Scotland. Photography: Jonathan Banks

Like PepsiCo, these companies fund the work of local nonprofits and public services to improve the health and resilience of local watersheds. Projects include removing water-monopolizing invasive plant species, purchasing agricultural land to assume and withdraw their water rights, capturing stormwater to help replenish depleted groundwater aquifers, and reforesting areas. destroyed by forest fires.

Facebook has invested in 14 restoration projects in high water stress areas where it has data centers, which it estimates will replenish 3.2 billion liters of water (in 2020 it sent 3 billion liters to its data centers). Last year, the company said it restored around 2.3 billion liters.

To ensure that the calculations verify any given commitment and that the benefits are sustainable, public oversight and interim milestones are essential, James said: “We can’t have a commitment in 2050 and keep our fingers crossed that it goes. to be met.

BP’s commitment requires the company to achieve 20% of the path to positive water by 2025. Pepsi, Microsoft and Gap track annual progress by completing CDP’s Standard Water Safety Survey and including water in annual sustainable development reports.

Hoping for a cascade effect

To truly avoid draining the planet’s finite supply of freshwater, companies must look beyond their own operations, to their supply chains, James said.

This is especially important for industries that are historically big polluters and heavily dependent on natural resources, such as agriculture, food and beverage, fashion, semiconductors, and mining. “For most businesses, the majority of their impact is in their supply chain,” Strong said.

Some companies have larger plans. Pepsi includes manufacturing plants owned by the company as well as third parties in its Positive water objective 2030, and claims to have increased water use efficiency by 14% across its agricultural supply chain in high water risk areas.

Corporate commitments to be positive for water “are good and important on paper,” said Michael Kiparsky, director of the Wheeler Water Institute at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law, but there is a lot that companies can do more.

“If these companies are really serious about water, then they would support attempts to improve water governance,” Kiparsky said. These may be policies regarding rights of access to water, guaranteed drinking water, or improved infrastructure such as pipelines and treatment plants.

“I don’t think these companies are going greenwashing,” Kiparsky said, “but there’s so much more they could do for water if they’re really serious about it.”