Water Down the Drain
By Joe Carpenter, Director of Sustainability
Water took on a whole new meaning during my deployments to Iraq. Prior to these experiences water was simply something that came out of the tap, seemingly unlimited in its availability, and certainly not something to be feared. But then, I learned to consider the difference between potable and non-potable water – most poignantly from a bout of dysentery. I cringe at the thought that I drank water out of plastic bottles that had been sitting out in the sun, exposed to 100+ degree temperatures. Did anything seep out of the plastic and into the water I was consuming?
There are other vivid experiences that have stuck with me from my time overseas regarding the importance of clean, available water. However, one really needs only to look around them to understand the importance of water and how it is affected by human behavior.
The challenge we face
The world may be largely covered in water, but according to the USGS only 2.5% of it is freshwater that is suitable for drinking,and not even all of that is accessible for use. The World Economic Forum has cited “water crisis” or “water supply crisis” as a top risk in terms of the impact (societal / environmental) since 2012 and #17 in terms of risk to business in 2016. Our supply of clean drinking water is threatened by overuse, pollution, and a changing climate. In turn, the inability to access clean water can hurt us not only from a physiological standpoint, but also an economic one.
In my writings I aim to strike a balance that acknowledges the reality of the challenges we face with a focus on what actions can be taken to address them. Regarding water, what can a business do to preserve a resource that we as a species literally cannot live without? Can your business sustain itself without access to this resource?
How your business can help
Typical actions that businesses can take to become more sustainable regarding water are the following: using water efficient technologies for showers, baths, faucets, toilets, and water heaters, along with optimizing lawn care and manufacturing processes. Unfortunately, many businesses either don’t have access to these technologies, or they more commonly don’t control them. As with the case of energy, some sustainability gains require businesses to engage external stakeholders in the process if something is going to get done.
Regardless, in order to make an impact you first need to understand how water fits into the business and its value chain. You may be surprised how much water an organization uses, even if your main processes don’t. Being situationally aware of waters’ connection to your business allows you to develop targeted actions to reduce consumption and impact – this is especially true if one includes their value chain in any water assessment. This analysis may even be as detailed as figuring out that the fruit you purchase in the winter from another geographical location moves water from that area to yours, but this level of granularity is certainly not required (none of it is yet!).
A large part of sustainable water initiatives focus on the efficient use of water, but what happens to water after use is another aspect to consider; especially when a company introduces pollutants into the equation. Polluted water can result from numerous activities such as wastewater generated from a manufacturing process, pesticides used for lawn care entering the water table, or rain than runs over your roof, taking chemicals with it into the sewer. Businesses should be deliberate in how they operate and conscious of 2nd and 3rd order effects across the triple bottom line: people, planet, and profit.
It’s hard to get away from the interconnectedness of all of these considerations (and sustainability in general). What would it look like then if you took a more indirect approach to water – that is, how is your product or service affecting water sources once in the hands of a customer or even thereafter? Now you get into the cradle to cradle and value stream mapping type approaches that I mentioned when I wrote about waste last month.
Water pervades so much, in fact it makes up most of who we are physically. To ignore it is just self defeating from both a personal and professional sense. How will clean water shortages affect your business, your customers? Can you figure out what your water footprint may be and take action to become more water resilient? Like I keep saying, you may not be able to do everything, but thinking about and coming to better understand of your interaction with water is a step in the right direction.
Joe Carpenter is the Director of Operations and Sustainability at CABA. Previously, he served as an Officer in the U.S. Army for nearly 10 years, including three combat deployments, and working for a small manufacturing company in a number of capacities. Joe graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point with a Bachelor of Science degree in Management and from Harvard University Extension School with a Master of Liberal Arts degree in Sustainability; among a myriad of other educational experiences. Joe enjoys spending time in nature, working out, playing video games, watching improv comedy shows, and trying to figure out how things can be “done better.”