Setting Sustainability Goals for Water

Water is a major risk to business and 2016 and 2017 brought accelerated adoption of the kind of water management strategies and goals that were most needed. Given the severity of water risks globally, corporate water goals are an essential component of high-impact sustainability goal-setting.

In the last two years, corporate efforts to improve water management practices have surged, but there remains significant room for improvement and wider adoption of water management strategies and goals. A growing number of companies are engaging in goal-setting to some degree.

Transparency of water usage data and the impact of improvement is a key challenge. Without transparency an data visibility it is hard to identify risks, find improvements or tell your story. It starts with basic measurement

If you would look at water goals across the food, energy and finance sectors, you will notice similar trends: The vast majority of goals are quantitative, absolute goals while some are more qualitative in nature. We also discovered that the food sector was more likely to have water-related goals than companies in energy and finance, although these three sectors are critical to addressing water challenges. Food and energy in particular have significant impacts on water withdrawals . According to CDP only 29 percent of energy companies disclosed water-related information to their investors. Of course this indicates to the general public they do not know the data or it is a perhaps embarrassingly high number

Best practices

Water goals are still in a juvenile state compared to other areas of sustainability. Even the most sophisticated water goals fall along a spectrum of internally to regionally focused. Water goals and targets are also somewhat unique in that addressing and minimizing a company’s explicit water footprint is a critical first step that can be incredibly complicated depending on a company’s supply chain or infrastructure.

Best practices still exist in the form of efficiency. However, the most sophisticated programs extend far beyond a company’s direct water usage, and leveraging context-based goals is increasingly essential to meeting the needs of each basin or watershed.

These are key activities to do when setting sustainability goals with regards to Water:

  1. Measure the baseline and understand the water impact.
  2. Do a water-risk assessment. 
  3. Find areas of improvements efficiency, risk mitigation and define the case for change. E.g. reducing inefficient water usage practices
  4. Set quantitative targets for improvement and risk mitigation. E.g. Recycle or reuse at least 90 percent of processing water.

Once that is in place you can expand by looking into these additional activities:

  1. Setting qualitative targets in addition to quantitative
  2. Look further in the entire value chain and work with partners to set goals
  3. Set goals in a local context. E.g. Take a Water Basin or Watershed perspective to understand full scale of the impact and risk

What will 2018 bring

Although water-risk assessments have become more commonly available, we are only just beginning to see them robustly applied to goal-setting. The companies pursuing this raise the bar for leadership on corporate water stewardship and are expected to lead more impact-focused conversations around setting and achieving water goals.

Going forward, we also expect to see stakeholder engagement become increasingly vital to achieving the next tier of progress on water sustainability. This is why local context is important.

2018 will see a greater number of companies setting corporate water goals and companies continue to move beyond internally focused water goals alone. This will bring them into the space of context-based and true systems thinking around water issues.

Start with yourself, learn the local context and start actioning improvements.


Mark van Engelen is founder Nya Sustainability Consulting, a consulting firm helping organizations implement sustainability. Services include sustainability strategy development, zero waste planning, GHG emissions calculating and planning, energy/water management, employee engagement and guidance in B Corp and carbon neutral certification.

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