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How Tech Makes Water Positivity a Reality

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Increasingly, businesses are embracing sustainability and proclaiming ambitious goals to improve processes, add value for stakeholders, and satisfy consumer demand. Major corporations across all industries like AT&TDell, and Target have made serious commitments to becoming leaders in this area. They’ve not only pledged to reduce the social and environmental impacts of their operations– they’ve promised to be net positive. But what does net positive mean?

A standard collectively created by the Forum for the Future, WWF-UK, and the Climate Group, ‘Net Positive’ is described as “a new way of doing business which puts back more into society, the environment, and the global economy than it takes out”. Net positive strives to go beyond reduction in carbon emissions and water usage; it aims for persistent, long-lasting positive impacts from every process a business undertakes (The Forum for the Future, 2021).

Net Positive in Sustainability

Within the context of environmental sustainability, net positive aims to ensure that businesses consider the impact on our planet throughout all of their operations. As opposed to simply minimizing harm, organizations strive to positively impact the environment and uncover new ways to replenish natural resources. Net positive encompasses different parts of a supply chain’s impact areas (upstream, downstream, and operations): water, materials, carbon, and energy. These areas can be measured and assessed by certain pillars, which were also created by the Forum For The Future.

What is Water Positivity

 Source: World Economic Forum

In light of increasing water scarcity, many organizations are undertaking net water positive, or water positivity, efforts — PepsiCo, Microsoft, and Gap to name a few.

PepsiCo, who aims to become Net Water Positive by 2030, describes water positivity in an August press release, as “replenish[ing] more water than the company uses” (PepsiCo, 2021).

There is a general, two-pronged approach taken by companies to achieve water positivity, provided by Bluefield Research:

(1) reduce the amount of water consumed in industrial processes

(2) replenish water-stressed regions with purified process water

PepsiCo’s water positive vision parallels this by adopting “operational best-in-class or world-class water-use-efficiency standards covering more than 1,000 company-owned and third-party facilities” (PepsiCo, 2021). And for those of us who marvel at the idealistic dream of making new water, PepsiCo is quite clear about how it is able to replenish more water than it consumes. In a statement provided to The Guardian, PepsiCo’s vice president for global sustainability says that it plans to “go upstream and partner with local NGOs…to restore the natural system [waterways] that’s been degraded” (Schupak, 2021).

Source: PepsiCo 

2020 sustainability report detailing PepsiCo’s approach to reducing its water footprint introduces the corporation’s investments in membrane bioreactor technology; it allows PepsiCo to produce “high-quality water for reuse at different manufacturing plants” through treating water to drinking standards. Other technological innovations — such as low-water processing in facilities’ corn washing lines and “burst rinsing” equipment, which PepsiCo describes as  spraying beverage syrup tanks, “in 30-second intervals, using less water to achieve the same hygienic degree of cleanliness” as opposed to 30 minute periods — have streamlined water-related operations (PepsiCo, 2021).

Colgate-Palmolive, another leader of corporate sustainability, has yet to announce a water positive goal, however its 2025 Sustainability Strategy describes aggressive targets that will contribute to water conservation. In an August 2020 press release, Colgate listed plans within its water strategy, including “achiev[ing] net zero water at [its] manufacturing sites in water-stressed areas”, and decreasing “manufacturing water intensity by 25% v.s. 2010 levels” by 2025 (Coates, 2020).

The likelihood of Colgate-Palmolive integrating water positivity into its sustainability plans is high, especially considering the company’s innovations that increase efficiency in water and energy usage. Single-step sanitization, for instance, is a cleaning process co-developed by Colgate-Palmolive and Ecolab, which majorly reduces the former’s water manufacturing intensity.

Microsoft has committed to water positivity by 2030. The corporation is tackling the issue via two fronts: reducing water use intensity and replenishing water in water-stressed regions. Investments in new technology will allow Microsoft to integrate water management systems to properly utilize, replenish, and recycle water. One innovation, enabled by technology, is an on-site rainwater collection system and waste treatment plant in California; it ensures that every drop of water is derived from on-site recycled sources. This system, as stated by Microsoft, may “save an estimated  4.3 million gallons of potable water each year” (Smith, 2020).

PepsiCo Water Plant, Source: ICE Water Management

Moving From Promise to Reality Through Innovation

An article by Amanda Schupak for The Guardian acknowledges PepsiCo’s, as well as Microsoft, Facebook, and Google’s, commitment towards water positivity, but questions these pledges. There appears to be a general consensus that the definition of water positive is vague— Schupak states that “companies’ plans differ in detail and scope.” Each organization that pledges to be water positive seems to define the term at its own discretion. People “are concerned that these voluntary pledges can lack precise definitions and accountability mechanisms”, adds Schupak (Schupak, 2021).

Bluefield Researchs blog post titled, Is Net Water Positive just Hype, also discusses the ambiguity surrounding water positivity. Organizations that are water positive, author Nathan Goldstein says, classify “water ‘use’ as total water consumption…. [where] water consumption calculation for companies is enterprise-wise,” and “water replenishment is targeted at facilities in water-stressed regions of the world where the companies have operations.” Additionally, like Schupak, Goldstein mentions that “water positive goals differ amongst companies in terms of their ambition, urgency, and scope” (Golstein, 2021).

Regardless of your perception of net positivity, it’s clear that the only path to making net positivity feasible is through technological innovation. The frequently vague and aspirational nature of net positive goals, while often decried as PR greenwashing, can mostly be attributed to the fact that it requires technology that is in development or doesn’t yet exist. As the examples provided from Microsoft, Colgate-Palmolive, and PepsiCo demonstrate, these emerging technologies are gradually enabling those organizations to reduce, track, and revolutionize their impact.

Innovation enables net positive and net positive water strategies in two ways:

  1. The development of novel technologies, processes, and materials. For instance, a porous concrete that could help Microsoft restore groundwater or ceramic membranes that can make water treatment and desalination more efficient. These innovations can fundamentally change how entire industries operate, especially as the technologies are brought to scale.
  2. Making existing operations more intelligent. Organizations have made tremendous investments in instrumenting their physical infrastructure for connectivity with IoT. Advances in big data and artificial intelligence mean organizations can make existing operations more efficient. Manufacturers can see enormous reductions in resource consumption through better analysis and predictive modeling. For large organizations, analytics enables visibility which enables net positive activities, such as balancing production at one site vs consumption at another in a high-risk watershed. And when it comes to holding companies accountable, having more complete and accurate data across the enterprise ensures organizations will demonstrate that they are making real and concrete progress towards their sustainability goals.

Governments and corporations have accelerated investment in both these areas. The rise of technology accelerators, such as the 100+ founded by AB Inbev, is just one example of a collective effort to drive sustainability. Furthermore, many of the largest global organizations continue to invest in R&D to develop the next generation of green technologies. In the meantime, the rise of more intelligent operations through the use of big data and AI is something that’s attainable now and in which every organization should invest. By simultaneously reducing the cost of operations and resource consumption, being sustainable is not only ethical and economical, but a good business practice. More importantly, as industries continue to invest in sustainability, resulting data will ultimately tell companies, their customers, and the public whether they’ve made good on the promise of net positivity.

Resources

Coates, C. (2020, August). Water commitment. Colgate. Retrieved December 17, 2021, from https://www.colgatepalmolive.com/en-us/who-we-are/stories/water-commitment

Goldstein, N. (2021, November 17). Is net water positive just hype? Bluefield Research. Retrieved December 17, 2021, from https://www.bluefieldresearch.com/is-net-water-positive-just-lip-service/

PepsiCo. (2021, August 17). PepsiCo announces “Net water positive” commitment. PepsiCo, Inc. Official Website. Retrieved December 17, 2021, from https://www.pepsico.com/news/press-release/pepsico-announces-net-water-positive-commitment08172021#:~:text=(NASDAQ%3APEP)%20announced%20its,operating%20in%20high%2Drisk%20watersheds

Schupak, A. (2021, October 14). Corporations are pledging to be ‘water positive’. what does that mean? The Guardian. Retrieved December 17, 2021, from https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/oct/14/water-positive-pledge-corporations

Smith, B. (2020, September 22). Microsoft will replenish more water than it consumes by 2030. The Official Microsoft Blog. Retrieved January 7, 2022, from https://blogs.microsoft.com/blog/2020/09/21/microsoft-will-replenish-more-water-than-it-consumes-by-2030/ The Forum for the Future. (2021). What is net positive? Forum for the Future. Retrieved December 17, 2021, from https://www.forumforthefuture.org/net-positive

Kristina Hoo

Kristina Hoo