At Ford's annual Trends 2014 conference in Detroit, the auto company focused heavily on sustainability, as it does each year. But, this year was about more than just the future of energy and transportation. Water security and conservation was the sustainability topic that Ford chose to highlight, and they hosted a panel of water experts to discuss the future of this precious resource and its important to business and society.
If you've been thinking about integrating water conservation into your company's sustainability or corporate responsibility plans, here are 10 ways big companies can get started.
1. Look inward first
"Businesses typically look outward first. I think that's a big mistake," said George McGraw, founder of DigDeep, a non-profit that builds sustainable water projects with local partners in the US and internationally.
The point is that any global business should be spending time looking inward at how much water it's currently using and any conservation practices it hasn't yet implemented. This is all about building a base of perception and a base of understanding inside the company.
"Not only in headquarters, but out in the supply chain. We really want to encourage companies to take that local look first, because to have all of those people on board for what that company is going to push out is eventually going to be so much more powerful and sustainable," McGraw said.
2. Change perception before action
No matter what, you have to change minds before you can change behavior. That's why its important — before implementing any regulations or starting to monitor water usage — to raise awareness. It closely coincides with the point above, according to McGraw.
"You can change their behavior with a campaign, but if you don't change their minds, it isn't going to last very long," he said. "So we need to change the frame of reference about the water crisis and see what water is really worth to them, and then go from there."
3. Start by measuring and monitoring
In the world of technology, it all starts with gathering data. Measure your water consumption inside and outside the company processes: employees' usage, department usage, wastewater treatment, water cycles, cleaning processes, etc. Look at team members out in the field, in different geographic locations, and in headquarters. Ask people in the company to monitor their personal usage for surveys. Have a company-wide study performed. One easy way to do it: if you are thinking about becoming a benefit corporation, B Lab has an impact assessment with an entire section on water usage.
4. Look at supply chains
Earlier this months, Ford released its 15th Sustainability Report, which highlighted the company's successes and commitment to water conservation. In it, Ford reports a 30% global reduction in water use per vehicle since 2009. The next step for the automaker is looking at the supply chain to understand who has the largest water footprints.
"Right now, we are limited on supply chain [data]. Our new strategy is to ask our major suppliers to voluntarily report on their water," said Todd Walton, manager of Ford's environmental quality office. "Once we have that information, we can start to track that and then start to assist them and say 'this is what we've done.'"
5. Think about operating systems (not the software kind)
Ford has its own Environmental Operating System (EOS) within the company that has been in place since 2010, which helps them comply with in-company regulations and external regulations. Workers at all the plants understand the environmental metrics that are important to the company: energy, water, waste-to-landfill, and emissions, both VOC (volatile organic compound, which are carbon-based) and others.
Ford determined that these metrics are significant, and since then has worked to conserve water and reduce harmful emissions and waste. The key, Ford noted at the conference, is having an open communication system and making sure everyone knows about the system and its goals, no matter what operating system or procedures you use.
6. Remember local governments
According to the Worldwatch Institute's Vital Signs report in 2013, 1.2 billion people (almost a fifth of the world's population) live in areas of water scarcity, while 1.6 billion face economic water shortages.
According to Ford, in developing countries, up to 90% of sewage and 70% of industrial waste are dumped directly into local water sources.
These types of statistics can only be tackled with compromises between the public and private sectors. It starts with education and awareness, and that means talking with local governments. This is especially important for large-scale global companies that are in these emerging market areas. Building trusted relationships, showing the importance of water conservation, and collaboration will be the keys to water security issues now and in the future.
7. Work towards a common goal
In almost every industry, companies are racing to become the most successful, sustainable business for a changing planet. Because it's all new territory, competitors have to look to each other for advice, assistance, and learning opportunities. Standards for things like electric plug-ins and solar panels must be set before they are mass-produced, which means the environmental managers at companies in similar industries must forge partnerships and build bridges.
Several Ford executives mentioned this at the conference — though everyone wants to offer the best deals individually, they know each other and want to work together as best they can. That also means learning from other people's mistakes, failures, and experiments. So, keep an eye on the clean technology industry's growth as a whole.
8. Think of it as a business opportunity
As the demand for clean water increases, the industry is ripe for business opportunities. Look at water conservation as a way to save money and time. Up front, it is still an investment, but prices of energy efficient technologies are decreasing. And there are many hidden water-use costs that you can save on by becoming more efficient in your business processes. The demand for water will keep rising, so businesses will have to do more with less. Also part of this process involves finding clean water for your supply chains in the future, whether that is through desalination, digging wells, or transporting surface water.
9. Build trusted relationships with partners
The clean water industry is growing rapidly. Working with trusted non-profits, organizations, and charities will continue to be important because they are on the ground, watching the effects of water scarcity. An example is charity: water, which is an organization and crowdfunding platform for water projects that partners with businesses to brings clean water to people in need. The non-profit has big-name donors like Cisco and Rackspace, and community support from people all over the world.
10. Be transparent
There's no way to know about a company's sustainability practices without transparency. Whether you sell green products, practice sustainable living, work with trusted organizations on the topic, or work hard to reduce your environmental footprint, publish the information on the internet for the public to easily find it. More often than ever we are seeing consumers trace where their products come from, so being up front about the company processes — on a website, in annual reports, or through storytelling and social media — will become increasingly relevant.
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Lyndsey Gilpin has nothing to disclose. She doesn't hold investments in the technology companies she covers.
Lyndsey Gilpin is a former Staff Writer for TechRepublic, covering sustainability and entrepreneurship. She's co-author of the book Follow the Geeks.