Accounting For "Context" In Corporate Water Strategies

Linking Site-level Water Strategy And Corporate Objectives

16 Apr 2021 by The Water Diplomat
GENEVA, Switzerland

WWF Chart

Rylan Dobson and Alexis Morgan of WWF write in a Guest Blog for The water Diplomat:

Take a moment to tell us about your corporate water strategy. No wait, let us guess: your water strategy involves a target to reduce water use and meet some pollution discharge targets, and perhaps some community efforts to support WASH or restore some nature?

That plan probably describes 80% of the corporate water strategies we come across. The good: it is promising to see more companies developing water-specific plans. The not-so-good: there are still very few water strategies that account for the local nature, or context, of water.

What do we mean by accounting for context when it comes to water strategies? Using water wisely is generally a good thing – we can all agree upon that. But does it make sense to spend a lot of money driving water use efficiency in a basin where water is abundant? Is that the best use of limited corporate funds to advance sustainability efforts? Will those efforts have a material benefit on the freshwater systems in that place? Maybe, but we would argue, probably not. Rather, companies need to focus their limited resources in the places, and on the topics, that will make the biggest difference. In other words, they need a contextual water strategy.

We are beginning to see some steps in the right direction. More and more companies are beginning to focus their water efforts on “water stressed basins”. While we would argue that there is a strong need to go “beyond water stress”, it is a promising start.

However, a contextual water strategy won’t go very far if we don’t link it to a broader corporate strategy. The water challenges that we collectively face won’t be solved by small incremental improvements by individual actors. Solving these challenges requires the repeated mobilisation of substantial collective resources, highly focused at a local scale. Corporations cannot be expected to carry the full burden of this response, but their contributions should be proportionate to the value which they derive from water. Corporations often struggle to establish a robust business case for investments into water and basins – meaning addressing water remains more of a CSR activity, aimed at mitigating select risks, rather than driving value.

By understanding how the local context of water materially impacts operational performance, it is easier for a corporation to better describe the strategic role that water plays in the achievement of broader corporate strategic objectives. Furthermore, understanding how water affects customer geographies paints new pictures about how water’s context can be mobilized for sales. Without this direct connection between local context and broader corporate objectives, it is unlikely that a corporation will be able to motivate for, and better allocate the use of, the scarce resources of a corporation, which are needed to both mitigate local water risks and capitalise on local water opportunities – both inside and outside the fenceline.

Since 2009, with the release of the Planetary Boundaries framework, there has been a growing global trend in corporate sustainability to embed “science” and situational context into corporate sustainability performance. To support our partners and other corporations establish more meaningful water strategies, WWF, together with our partner H&M Group, is publishing two linked guides. These guides aim to help corporates ensure their water strategies are (A) rooted in context and (B) linked to their overall corporate strategies. We also believe that contextual water strategies set the stage not just for more meaningful contextual water targets, but also (in the near future) science-based water targets.

The Guides:

The first guide “Putting Water Strategy Into Context” suggests a set of steps to help companies understand the strategic value of water within its value chain. It uses that platform to develop more meaningful actions and targets to ensure efficient allocation of scarce internal resources. The authors suggest that once established, the system would maximise the ability of corporations to create value beyond the corporate board room but for nature and people, as well.

The guide leans on systems already developed by the water stewardship community rather than propose any “new” terminology or frameworks. It aims to “motivate for broader internal uptake and investment in water stewardship”. The guide refers to existing frameworks and attempts to link these to larger corporate strategies.

The second guide “Contextual Water Targets”, focuses on setting larger and more stringent corporate water targets. It aims to incorporate both contextual and science-based targets and explains how the site-level targets can and do fit with corporate-level targets. The new guides contend that “corporate contextual targets need to both explicitly account for the local context of sites and contribute towards corporate strategic objectives.”

When taken together, the guides offer strategies that account for local water usage and context and align these targets with global sustainability best practice. They also enable corporations to establish more strategic goals and apply scarce internal resources more efficiently.

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