Role Of Businesses In Water Conservation

By Asit Biswas, Cecilia Tortajada 18 July, 2019

With Singapore's industrial water challenges, Prof Biswas & Dr Tortajada share what Unilever & Nestle are doing on water

Industrial water use & future demand is a priority for Singapore with estimates showing it doubling by 2061; need to look then how MNCs are managing water
At Unilever & Nestle it is a board issue & means setting aggressive targets; Unilever saved EUR105 mn by reducing water & Nestle is innovating towards zero water factories
But challenges remain in changing human behaviours on new less water intensive products and for Singapore with many SMEs; the challenges is great but doable

This article was first published in the Business Times in June 2019; see the original article here.

World Environment Day has been celebrated every year on June 5 since 1974. Its objectives are to encourage environmental awareness and promote actions for environmental protection.

This year in Singapore, there is an additional event on June 6-7. Singapore International Water Week (SIWW) has invited 180 leading water professionals from all over the world to discuss how industrial demands for one of the world’s essential resources, water, can be reduced.

Worldwide, industry accounts for about 20 per cent of total water use. The balance is used by agriculture (70 per cent) and the domestic sector (10 percent). However, in recent years, the percentage of global water use for agriculture has been decreasing and the industrial water use has been increasing.

For a land- and water-scarce city-state like Singapore, with limited agriculture, industry accounts for the lion’s share of water use. Current estimates see industry’s total water requirements doubling by 2061. Industry will represent 70 per cent of total water use. Concurrently, water imports from Malaysia, which provide around 50 per cent of its current water needs, will come to an end. Thus, like in Alice in Wonderland, Singapore will have to run faster to stay in the same place in terms of water security.

“While all countries must manage industrial water demands in the future, for Singapore, it has become a priority consideration”

While all countries must manage industrial water demands in the future, for Singapore, it has become a priority consideration.

On World Environment Day, it is appropriate to review how major multinational companies such as Unilever and Nestle are managing water demands from manufacturing their products, and the water required by consumers to use those products.

The two MNCs have existed in some form or another for over 130 years. They have successfully elevated environmental conservation to a board level issue.

Need to look then how MNCs are managing water demands…

…for Unilever & Nestle it is a board issue & means setting aggressive targets

Take Unilever, which Bloomberg Businessweek put on the front cover of its Sept 4, 2017, issue with a provocative title Is Unilever the last good company? Under its dynamic and environmentally conscious CEO Paul Polman, Unilever pledged to reduce its environmental footprint by half by 2020 compared to 2008, while doubling sales. In a 2010 Financial Times article, Mr Polman expressed a heretical view: “I do not work for the shareholder, to be honest; I work for the customer.”

By the end of 2018, Unilever achieved its 2020 water targets. It reduced water abstracted by its factories by 44 per cent compared to 2008. In 2018, it reduced its total water abstraction by 7.2 per cent, compared to 2017, and lowered its water intensity by 7.2 per cent per tonne of production. This saved 22 billion litres of water per year compared to 2008.

Using less water meant significant savings in energy because less water had to be pumped, and heated, and less wastewater was generated which had to be treated. Since 2008, water conservation saved Unilever’s energy cost by 105 million euros (S$161.7 million). Its investments in water efficiency had an average payback time of just over two years.

Unilever saved Euro 105 million by using less water

We visited Unilever’s factories in Thailand. We were impressed that its employees – from the factory managers to three rungs below them – were committed to environmental conservation. Such targets have become part of their annual KPIs.

Nestle, under the leadership of Peter Brabeck-Letmathe – first as CEO and then as chairman of the Board – has changed it environmental performance. During his leadership, Nestle formulated and implemented a new concept: Creating Shared Value (CSV). Simply put, this meant that Nestle would create value not only for its shareholders but also for individuals, families and communities all over the world.

Nestle’s CSV included four specific water goals: continually improve water efficiency and sustainability across all its operations; advocate for effective water policies and stewardship; engage with its agricultural suppliers to improve their water management practices; and raise awareness on water conservation across its entire water chain. Mr Brabeck was the most effective and visible global business leader in promoting water conservation. His successor, Paul Bulcke, both as CEO and then chairmen, has continued to further decrease the company’s water footprint.

Nestle committed to reduce direct water withdrawals per tonne of product, for every product category, to achieve 35 per cent reduction between 2010 and 2020. By 2018, it had reduced water withdrawals by 29.6 per cent. In some product categories like confectionery and powdered liquid beverages, it had reduced water requirements by 55 per cent during this period.

Between 2002 and 2017, Nestle India reduced its water consumption per tonne of product manufactured by 51 per cent, and cut its wastewater generation by 51 per cent.

Nestle’s most innovative idea is zero water factories. In 2014, in its new milk plant in Lagos de Moreno, Mexico, it installed condensate recovery units from milk (about 88 per cent water), it processes instead of abstracting water from outside sources. As a result, this plant is saving 1.6 million litres of water per day, about 15 per cent of its entire water requirements of Mexico.

Nestle is innovating towards zero water factories

Similar savings in other milk plants are already being achieved, or will soon be achieved, in six plants in Brazil, and one each in Mossel Bay, South Africa, India, Pakistan, China and Modesto, California.

Behavioural Challenges

Technological and management changes are comparatively easy to implement. Changing human behaviours is far more challenging.

In 2007, Unilever launched Comfort One Rinse fabric conditioner which reduced water use in handwash laundry by two-thirds. If all potential users in South Africa and Asian developing countries used the product, it would reduce annual water use by over 500 billion litres. Sadly, even those who used the product did not believe one rinse would remove washing residues. People preferred to rinse clothes two times, or even three, to be psychologically assured the clothes are clean.

Another MNC, Proctor and Gamble, started in 2019 a new line of laundry detergents, soaps and shampoos that require very little water to manufacture. These cleaning products come in small fabric-like swatches that dissolve and foam in contact with water. In addition to saving a significant amount of water during their manufacture, swatches are light to package and ship. However, consumers’ acceptance is the big unknown. Would they be convinced that this new generation of cleaners are as good and effective as existing traditional ones?

Changing human behaviours hard…

…new water reducing products not received well by customers due to social norms

Technological advances may trigger major behavioural challenges in the future. Within the next five years, we are likely to see commercial introduction of self-cleaning fabrics. However, for thousands of years, we have become used to cleaning our clothes. Will there be a psychological and emotional acceptance of self-cleaning clothes that will also reduce water consumption?

Major MNCs such as Unilever and Nestle have decided that if they want to survive and thrive, water conservation has to be a priority consideration. Such companies have taken aggressive steps to reduce their water use, and this will continue in the future.

Singapore has mostly small and medium-size (SME) firms. Water rarely accounts for more than 2 per cent of production costs of any product. It will be a challenge to convince thousands of SMEs to consistently reduce their water demands.

With many SMEs, Singapore’s water challenge is great but doable

For a country like Singapore, a good option has to be reducing industrial and domestic demands significantly by aggressive policies so that water demand in 2060 does not double, but can be kept within 20-25 per cent more than existing water use. This will be challenging but doable.


Further Reading

  • Can Loop’s 21st Century Milkman Fix Plastic Plague – Called the 21st Century milkman, is Loop’s circular shipping platform the answer to our planets massive plastic problem? Corporate Knight’s Adria Vasil explores
  • 5 Reasons Plant-Based Will Be Unleashed In Asia – Are you ready for Asia’s plant-based revolution? David Yeung, Founder & CEO of Green Monday, shares 5 reasons its coming soon including that it is only a matter of time before the current global food system collapses
  • Organic Agriculture Can Fight Climate Change – Organic agriculture is so much more than no pesticides as CEO of Go Organics, Spencer Leung, shows with lower GHG emissions, reduce energy & mitigating climate risks to farmers
  • Recycled Organics: Protecting Water In Sydney’s Food Bowl – CORE is protecting Sydney’s foodbowl with its Sustainable Amendments for Agriculture (SAFA) Program based on using recycled organics, which benefit the land & farmers. CORE’s Chief Executive, Christopher Rochfort, expands
  • Water-Energy-Food Security Nexus In Asia’s Large River Basins – The water-energy-food security nexus is complicated but as Maija Taka, Marko Keskinen & Olli Varis show, the tensions can be alleviated. Plus, they share 3 WEF cases in Asia’s largest river basins
  • Beyond The Wall & Into The Watershed – Reducing your own factory’s water use is all well & good but what do you do when your basin is being impacted? Ecolab’s Ting He, Nestlé’s Qi Zhang & AWS’ Zhenzhen Xu provide examples on how to move into the watershed
  • Dell’s Water Stewardship – Dell is not only reducing water use in its supply chain but also managing water as a shared resource at a watershed level through water stewardship. Find out more from their Jason Ho
  • Treading Water: Corporate Responses To Rising Water Challenges – From setting water targets to engaging value chains, companies are improving key aspects of water management but incremental action is no longer enough. CDP’s James Lott brings us key findings from their latest report
  • Water Stewardship: The Impact To Date – A new report finds there has been little evolution from business -as-usual in regards to water management. What behaviours need to change? How can this be achieved? We sat down with report authors James Dalton from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) & Peter Newborne from the Overseas Development Institute (ODI)

Asit Biswas
Author: Asit Biswas
Prof. Asit K. Biswas is the founder of the Third World Centre for Water Management in Mexico, and currently is the Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School for Public Policy in Singapore, University of Wuhan, China, and Indian Institute of Technology, Bhubaneswar, India. Formerly a Professor in UK, Canada and Sweden, he was a member of the World Commission on Water. He has been a senior advisor to 19 governments, six Heads of the United Nations Agencies, Secretary General of OECD and also to many other major international and national organisations. He is a Past President of the International Water Resources Association, and has held important positions in several major international water and environment‐related professional associations. Prof. Biswas is the founder of the International Journal of Water Resources Development and has been its Editor‐in‐Chief for the past 28 years. He has been the author or editor of 81 books (6 more are now under publication) and published over 680 scientific and technical papers. His work has now been translated into 37 languages. Among his numerous prizes are the two highest awards of the International Water Resources Association (Crystal Drop and Millennium Awards), Walter Huber Award of the American Society of Civil Engineering and Honorary Degree of Doctor of Technology from University of Lund, Sweden, and Honorary Degrees of Doctor of Science from University of Strathclyde, Helsinki University of Technology, and Indian Institute of Technology. Prof. Biswas received the Stockholm Water Prize in 2006 for “his outstanding and multi‐faceted contributions to global water resource issues”, as well as the Man of the Year Award from Prime Minister Harper of Canada, and the Aragon Environment Prize of Spain. In 2012, he was named a “Water Hero of the World” by the Impeller Magazine, and also as one of the 10 thought‐leaders of the world in water by Reuters. He is a member of the Global Agenda Council on Water Security of the World Economic Forum. He is regular contributor to many national and international newspapers on resource and development related issues and also is a television commentator in three continents.
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Cecilia Tortajada
Author: Cecilia Tortajada
Dr. Cecilia Tortajada is Senior Research Fellow, Institute of Water Policy, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Singapore. The main focus of her work at present is on the future of the world´s water, especially in terms of water, food, energy and environmental securities through coordinated policies. She has been an advisor to major international institutions like FAO, UNDP, JICA, ADB, OECD and IDRC, and has worked in countries in Africa, Asia, North and South America and Europe on water and environment-related policies. She is a member of the OECD Initiative in Water Governance.She is a past President of the International Water Resources Association (2007-2009) and an honorary member of the IWRA. Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of Water Resources Development, Associate Editor of Water International, member of the Editorial Boards of the Journal of Natural Resources Policy Research, International Journal of Water Governance, Urban Planning and Transport Research Journal, Frontiers in Environmental Science and IWRA (India) Journal, and editor of book series on Water Resources Development and Management of Springer. She is also editor of Springer Briefs on Case Studies on Sustainable Development and on Water Science and Technology; and member of series Advisory Board of Springer Briefs in Earth Sciences, Geography & Earth System Sciences. She is the author and editor of more than 30 books by major international publishers. Her work has been translated into Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Japanese and Spanish languages.
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