All aboard with saving water

13th May 2013

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  • Business & Industry ,
  • Stewardship ,
  • Natural resources



Penny Walker looks at how organisations can engage different stakeholders with programmes to save water

For drinks company Diageo, agricultural suppliers typically represent more than 90% of its water footprint, so it is important that the company’s water strategy looks beyond its own four walls to consider sustainable water management and risks in the supply chain.

By contrast, what matters most for Unilever in tackling its global water footprint is reducing consumers’ water use when they are doing laundry, showering and washing their hair, particularly in countries where water is scarce. Asking office staff to report dripping taps will contribute to the firm’s water efficiency, but it is much less useful than innovating a generation of products that use less water for cleaning. So you need engage different audiences.

Great questions

The first step in engaging people to improve water efficiency is to understand what is significant for the organisation. Where are its biggest impacts? What are the material risks and opportunities? Start by identifying the big water-related dependencies or impacts in the value chain. Are they in the supply chain? Operational? End use? Or somewhere else?

Consider the organisation’s mission: what is the enterprise seeking to do? How is a hidden reliance on cheap, unlimited access to water putting that mission at risk? Which parts of the value chain would fall over if the price of water rose significantly? What if that water wasn’t available? Or if the water the organisation consumes became a source of local community or political unrest? And where might the business provide something more cost-effective, or of higher quality and greater resilience, if it could do it leaner?

The answers to these questions will tell the environment or sustainability team who they need to engage and what, broadly, it will be asking them to do. To convince people to behave differently, there has to be something in it to motivate them. A great way to discover what will float their boat is to ask them what problems they want to solve.

Who to engage?

Now you have identified the significant water-related issues, consider who can have an impact on them:

  • In the supply chain – product development, technical teams, buyers, strategists.
  • Operations – plant managers, manufacturing staff, facilities management.
  • In use – innovators, marketing.

Once you pinpointed who to approach, the next step is to identify what it is that you want them to do differently or better than they do now. For example, will the biggest benefits to the environment and to the business come from small routine behaviour changes, or from relatively rare but big decisions about capital investment in new plant or infrastructure?

These questions can be explored through analysing data and through creative, honest conversations involving the people concerned. When there is clarity about the focus and who will be asked to do what, the environment team can then strike up a conversation with the stakeholders with an open – but not an empty – mind.

Share with them the analysis of the risks and opportunities, and ask them for their views. This will be an iterative and exploratory phase, where ideas are knocked back and forth to identify the win-win solutions that can help further their own goals, while reducing net water use.

We are an ocean

Environment teams can take one of three areas of focus when looking to save water: individual behaviour; innovation in products, services and processes; and engaging the supply chain.

If the greatest impacts can be made through the hundreds of times that colleagues use water at work every day, then the “six sources of influence” approach (see below) is hard to beat. Begin by being clear about the significant actions that will make the biggest differences. You may need to experiment or pilot these before rolling them out. Asking for too many behaviour changes risks diluting the message.

Once you are satisfied that, say, using the office dishwasher rather than handwashing each mug is the key behaviour to change, put in place at least four of the six sources of influence and then monitor the results and give people feedback on how it’s going.

The problem solvers

Whether they are engineers or in marketing, there are people in the organisation who are born problem solvers. Find the people who love a challenge. Set out the parameters and engage their imagination and expertise to redesign the product, service or process to do a better job with less water.

For some people, the joy and stimulation of getting their teeth into a technical or creative problem will be enough. But the point of this exercise is not just to engage their brains, it’s to change things. So make sure there’s a commitment from those participating to do something with the best ideas: it’s not a training exercise, it’s a planning meeting.

Matthew Neilson, global sustainability manager at Unilever, explains: “We’ve created a number of interventions to drive innovation in areas that will help us deliver our sustainability ambitions, such as reducing the water needed to use our products.

“Typically we run highly-structured, intensive workshops lasting up to two days. A core team is responsible for running the workshop and they must be focused on the outcome we want to achieve, ensuring we have the right people and the right inputs to create the solutions needed.

“This can involve anyone from any part of the business so long as they can contribute to the idea or its delivery. Involving people who will own the activities going forward is critical. As is prioritising the ideas – so you focus on the most tangible opportunities – and ensuring enough time is dedicated to agreeing the actions, owners and timelines to make it happen.”

Upstream thinking

When the biggest risks and opportunities are in the supply chain, it will be harder to engage people. Early conversations with buyers and supply-chain experts in your organisation will focus on whether to switch to alternative suppliers or help existing ones better manage water-related risks.

Assisting current suppliers to use water more wisely involves considering how the costs and benefits of doing so will be shared; there must be something in it for the suppliers too. Ask how they see the situation, and whether they are already addressing it? What help do they need? Can you bring together the wider water system in a catchment-based approach?

This change is likely to be more collaborative and take longer to bring about, as Joseph Maguire, global sustainability manager at Diageo, explains: “Creating the business case for action is vital when engaging your procurement function on addressing water stewardship in the supply chain, which is challenging if the issues you are facing are more medium- to long-term.

“For organisations reliant on agricultural produce identifying suppliers, understanding farming practices (whether the crops rain-fed or irrigated, for example) and evaluating the water risks facing that region are good places to start. However, you will need to go beyond the more immediate, short-term issues to assess and articulate the medium- to long-term view, and bring this to life with your procurement colleagues to ensure it is built into your business strategy.”

The six sources of influence:

Motivation Ability
Individual What motivates your colleagues may be different from what motivates you – perhaps messages about cleaner mugs will win them over more than focusing solely on water use Make sure it is clear to every member of staff how to use the dishwasher
Social Engage people as a group. For example, a kitchen-by-kitchen league table of dishwasher use in the organisation Buy generic mugs for the office, so people can have tea even when “their” mug is in the wash
Structural Set up an annual water-saving award for staff. For example, offering a watersports outing for the office with lowest water use Regular maintenance checks on dishwashers, for example

For more information on the six sources of influence visit:

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