CSR and Sustainability

Five questions for Stuart Orr on water risk, sustainability and opportunity

Stuart Orr and Guy Pegram have written a new short eBook on water sustainability.

Business Strategy for Water Challenges: From risk to opportunity‘ is published by DoShorts.

I sent Stuart a few questions about the book and his views on water sustainability.

TW: We’ve been hearing a lot for years about ‘water crises’ and the need to focus on it. Are we making serious progress in terms of policy and action in the countries with which you are familiar? 

SO: I think the short answer is no.

There’s lots of talk and even some good policy on the books, but the failure of implementation remains the biggest issue. This lack of political will shouldn’t be surprising – water remains somewhat invisible to policymakers as they drive other agendas.

Take energy production: with the drive to reduce carbon emissions, water concerns take a back seat. And since it’s a cross cutting resource – touching on agriculture, energy, health, transportation – it’s everyone’s job and no one’s job.

The good news is that there is change, with clear signals for water goals coming out of the Sustainable Development Goals process and a new focus on water and investment/reform from development banks and even private sector finance. And finally, because business is identifying water as a substantial risk, it is moving up the agenda. We have to accept that this is helping our cause a great deal.

TW: What about big business? Nestle’s chairman Peter Brabeck says the water crisis is bigger than climate change, in the short term. But is there much real action outside the big companies with vulnerable supply chains?

SO: First, I wouldn’t agree that it’s just big companies reacting. And second, I think many are reacting for the wrong reason.

In my experience, the small and medium-sized companies – the links in the supply chains of large companies – are the ones who really understand water risk. They are embedded in local communities and don’t have the luxury of pulling up stakes.

There is some fantastic progress with small companies, sometimes in partnership with the big guys, but often alone. Many large companies are grabbing the spotlight, positioning themselves to look good on water, but often with little substance. You can decide for yourself who they are, but capturing the accolades for ‘doing good’ will always be a goal for some companies.

Weeding out those who are in it for green business awards from those who see long-term systemic risk is part of the process.

I certainly have to spend that time to know who is actually willing to work hard and be pushed and who is not.

TW: Has the UN CEO Water Mandate succeeded, or is it just a club of companies who were taking action anyhow?

SO: WWF has engaged the CEO Water Mandate since 2008 and we see it as a very important initiative to support business. Many of the companies involved are engaging in their own work or in other industry groups, but the Mandate uniquely provides solid guidance to steer companies through what is sometimes a very confusing space.

Water is a new topic for many companies, and responding to water challenges is significantly different from carbon. So the Mandate’s guidance on accounting, disclosure, public policy and collective action are incredibly helpful for business. The feedback I have heard from members is very appreciative.

TW: Your organisation, WWF, has partnerships with many companies on water stewardship. How do you know when a partnership is working? What are the measurables?

SO: In fact, we have very few relationships on stewardship for some of the reasons I mentioned above: We want to find the best partners who are in it for the right reasons. It’s true that we work closely with H&M, for example, because they are a sector leader and we believe that together we can make a real difference in their business and bring much of the textile/fashion sector with us. We mapped WWF priority river basins where H&M has a significant presence.

By focusing on these production centres, we can engage beyond H&M’s supply chain and really start to shift the industry’s role in managing water sustainably. There are many ways we measure progress, but counting litres ‘saved’ is probably the least significant. Because in the end, we are not here to make companies more efficient, that’s not our job.

We are pushing them much further into collective action and policy dialogues with other stakeholders and government. We are concerned with process and governance level indicators. But generally we know that if it’s starting to seem easy, or that we know all the answers, we’re doing it wrong.

TW: Your new short book has lots of practical tips on what companies can do on water, what would you say the five key takeaways from the book are?

SO: The book is written for people who haven’t really engaged the water topic yet. Hopefully it will help sustainability professionals as they begin their own company journey on water challenges. So I think the top five takeaways would be

1) Understand your risks, not just your footprint
2) Plan accordingly (look at our progression ladder)
3) Take your time to get this right – engage, ask questions, learn
4) Avoid gimmicks and “quick wins” – they’re just a waste of time
5) Play the long game – this issue is not going away

Business Strategy for Water Challenges: From risk to opportunity‘ is published by DoShorts.

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