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
Professor Biswas is a leading authority on water, environment and development-related issues. He has been an advisor and confidant to Presidents, PMs and Ministers of 19 countries, six Heads of UN Agencies, two Secretary-Generals of OECD and several heads of IGOs and MNCs. He was also Director of Canada’s Department of the Environment. Asit co-founded the International Water Resources Association (IWRA), the World Water Council and the Third World Centre for Water Management and currently sits on the International Advisory Board of Pictet Asset Management and the Indian Institute of Technology and is Strategic Advisor to Singapore International Water Week as well as Distinguished Visiting Professor to the University of Glasgow. Asit is a distinguished Academician. With 950+ publications, his h-index of 44 makes him an ‘outstanding scientist’ and a Research Gate score of 41.89, puts him into the top 2.5% of all scientists across all disciplines globally. He founded the International Journal of Water Resources Development and is the author or editor of 88 books; his works have been translated into 41 languages. He has also seven Honorary Doctorates plus numerous prestigious global environment and water awards, ranging from the Aragon Environment Prize to the Stockholm Water Prize; Canada even named him Person of the Year in 1996.
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Cecilia Tortajada
Author: Cecilia Tortajada
Dr Tortajada is a leading international authority on urban water and wastewater management. She currently focuses on ensuring water future in terms of food, energy and environmental governance and ensuring water security through coordinated policies, which include water and natural resources management and water reuse. Dr Tortajada has advised major international institutions like FAO, UNDP, JICA, ADB, OECD, IDRC and GIZ, and has worked in numerous countries in Africa, Asia, North and South America plus Europe. She received the prestigious Crystal Drop Award and has been the only woman President of the International Water Resources Association during its 50 years of history. Dr Tortajada is currently a member of the OECD Initiative on Water Governance and juror for the Finnish Academy’s Euro One Million Millennium Technology Prize. She is also the Editor‐in‐Chief of the International Journal of Water Resources Development; Associate Editor of Water International; member of the Editorial Boards of the International Journal of Water Governance, Journal of Natural Resources Policy Research, and Urban, Planning and Transport Research Journal; as well as Editor of book series with Routledge, Springer and Oxford University Press. Cecilia has also authored and edited over 40 books by major international publishers. Her work has been translated into Arabic, Chinese, Farsi, French, German, Hindi, Japanese, Mongolian and Spanish.
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