News Feature | July 17, 2014

Water Neutrality: A Myth?

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome,

Some experts say that carbon neutrality is a more useful notion than water neutrality, which is nothing more than a vague and increasingly irrelevant idea, in their view. 

"Water is not carbon. Attributes of water are location-specific and as a result, water is not fungible. Water has many attributes, including cost, location, quality (numerous kinds), time, value and values (how people relate to water)," GreenBiz reported

"It is tempting for companies to establish a water neutrality goal. However, actions to reach this goal must be tailored to watershed specific conditions. A uniform set of tactics doesn't translate readily everywhere," the report said.

According to many critics, "water neutrality" has so many definitions it is ultimately a "slippery" term. One water expert took a shot at defining it in the New York Times

“At its simplest, the idea is that a corporation that is trying to be water-neutral will somehow compensate for the water they use in their processing — and on net, not use any excess water," said Peter Gleik, head of the Pacific Institute, a group helping the United Nations develop standards for corporate reporting of water use.  

He added that this is a theory, and putting the ideas into practice could be tricky.

Coca-Cola is one of the largest corporate proponents of water neutrality.

"We’re working to achieve water neutrality by 2020. So far, we’ve replaced 52 percent of the water we use in making our beverages and reducing water usage across our 800-plus bottling plants," Muhtar Kent, the CEO of Coca-Cola, said in an interview with the Harvard Business Review.

Muhtar said that sustainability can no longer be viewed as a nice gesture. It is now a planning imperative. 

Coca-Cola is not alone. Companies around the world are getting worried about water scarcity.

"The concept of 'water risk” is catching on as a way of thinking about potential exposure not just to shortages or deluges, but also pollution, regulatory troubles or increases in the prices of water and water-dependent raw materials," the New York Times recently reported

General Mills, the maker of Cheerios, Pillsbury, and Green Giant products, appears to be on high alert for water issues. 

“When we look at how our business operates, we use a lot of output from Mother Nature, and that stuff doesn’t happen without water,” said Jerry Lynch, the company's vice president and chief sustainability officer, in the report. “You don’t grow plants, cows don’t produce milk without water. So it’s pretty fundamental to our business.”

Water problems are more than a threat, Ernst & Young explained in a recent report. The issue is already affecting many businesses. Research had found that 53 percent of the top 500 companies world-wide have been negatively affected by water problems, costing some companies as much as $200 million. 

"Industries such as beverages, biomass, food, and agriculture, and chemicals that rely on plentiful water are particularly exposed to the risks of water shortages or poor water quality," the report said. 

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