MillerCoors Sees the ROI in Conserving Water

meterhero-smallThis article is part of a series on “The ROI of Sustainability,” written with the support of MeterHero. MeterHero helps companies and organizations offset their water and energy footprints through consumer engagement. To follow along with the rest of the series, click here.

Sourcing more efficient barley is just one of the ways MillerCoors conserves water.
Sourcing more efficient barley is just one of the ways MillerCoors conserves water.

ROI of Sustainability a few weeks back with a conversation with McGee Young of MeterHero. Young told us that, for him, companies should emphasize two things when making the business case for sustainability: preparing for what will certainly be an uncertain future by focusing on resiliency, and engaging with and developing long-term relationships with customers.

This week, we spoke with Kim Marotta, sustainability director for MillerCoors Brewing Co. For Kim, the emphasis is also on increasing resiliency, particularly with respect to the company’s water supply. The business benefits to corporate responsibility at MillerCoors also involve stakeholder engagement, in its case primarily with employees and the growers that form the backbone of the company’s supply chain. Obviously, ensuring a continuous supply of high-quality water, as well as key agricultural ingredients, is in its strategic interest.

The conversation ranged back and forth over several different geographies, beginning with California. Just a few months ago, I wrote about MillerCoors’ Irwindale, California, brewery, focusing on the new solar installation that facilitated an improvement in the gallons of product per unit of energy. Now, because of the drought, the spotlight is on water.

TriplePundit: Starting with current events, can you tell us what MillerCoors has been doing in California that could impact the drought there?

Kim Marotta: We have been working hand-in-hand for quite some time with the water master there, with the water district and with other stakeholders in that region. So, when Gov. Brown asked for across-the-board water reductions, we had already been working aggressively in that area. Since 2009, we’ve saved over 186 million gallons of water at that [Irwindale] brewery. At the same time, look at what is happening in Texas with all the flooding. We’ve been working at the Trinity watershed near Fort Worth, which supplies 40 percent of the water to Texans.

3p: You’ve been working there to help conserve water. But what can be done to prepare for a flood?

KM: We’ve been involved in a project known as Water As A Crop. Thanks to the success of the pilot, 117 landowners throughout the Trinity River Basin now participate in the Chambers Creek National Water Quality Initiative, and have committed to improving practices on 28,000 acres of land.

MillerCoors sponsors this partnership with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), the local soil and water conservation district, and the local nonprofit organization Trinity Waters. Among other things, they plant tall prairie grass to help with water retention in flood-prone areas. This reduces runoff, topsoil loss and sedimentation. More than $6.8 million in grants have reimbursed farmers and ranchers in the Trinity River Basin for the costs of implementing these projects.

Our employees have also responded to flood recovery efforts. After [Hurricane Katrina], we had a distributor convention in New Orleans. We had a day set aside for volunteers to help with local cleanup efforts.

3p: I suppose that even flooding can contribute to water scarcity if water sources become contaminated as a result. Can you put these water efforts in context of your corporate social responsibility (CSR) agenda?

KM: There are two primary areas: social and environmental. On the social side, we have alcohol responsibility – our Great Beer, Great Responsibility program, where the goal is to reduce drunk driving, underage drinking and binge drinking.

On the environmental side, it’s water. Our company is committed to restoring water back to our watersheds. So, we are working in the watersheds that are the greatest concern for us, whether they are water-stressed or water scarce.

Our goal is to improve both water quantity and quality. In Texas, it’s Trinity; in Irwindale, it’s San Gabriel Valley; and in Golden, Colorado, it’s the Colorado River. The latter includes reforestation efforts with [the U.S. Forest Service] in response to wild fires where runoff impacts both quality and quantity of water. These efforts include both conservation partnerships as well as employee volunteer programs, such as cleanup efforts in local communities where we work. Then, of course, there is the question of reducing the amount of water we use to brew beer and to grow great high-country barley.

Our employees are also tremendously engaged in our efforts in conserving energy, water and waste. We are well on our way toward our goal of making all of our major breweries zero-waste-to-landfill.

3p: What accounts for most of the water used in beer production?

KM: Surprisingly, over 90 percent is in the agriculture supply chain, particularly barley.

3p: So, what measures are you taking to reduce that?

KM: There’s our Idaho Showcase Barley Farm, in Silver Creek Valley, which has now grown to become Showcase Barley Valley. Implementation of best practices there has led to 550 million gallons saved in a year.

3p: Can you explain these best practices?

KM: Turning off the guns on large [irrigation] pivots, using GPS and satellite technology to better understand how much water is needed and when, or changing out nozzles. We’re also piloting a version of the MeterHero app with our farmers to help track their water consumption.

Bill Coors said that, “barley is to beer as grapes are to wine.” So, it’s very important to us that we have high-quality barley. We are hand-in-hand with our 850 barley growers that account for more than 70 percent of the barley we purchase. We have strong relationships with them through our Brewing Materials team. They work with those growers on developing sustainability practices. We have two of our own farms and our own agronomists, [meaning] we can test some of these projects before sharing them with the growers or putting them into practice.

3p: What kind of things have they done?

KM: In one project in San Luis Valley, in Colorado, we looked at final irrigation and peak-harvest and found an opportunity to harvest earlier, which means cutting off irrigation as much as a week sooner. This could potentially save 2 billion gallons in the San Luis Valley alone.

3p: How does the interaction on this sustainability journey work between you and the growers?

KM: Our growers are experts, and we have experts too. We share best practices. There is learning together back and forth. We’ve also been working with University of Idaho and the Nature Conservancy in understanding final irrigation needs.

Nature Conservancy has done variable rate irrigation in Georgia using GPS-based systems. They agreed to share their knowledge with us. It was applied in Idaho, and they helped work with the growers to put many of these practices in place. That work in Idaho has blossomed into the Showcase Valley, where we have saved over 550 million gallons. Now we are working with them in California.

3p: Bringing us back full circle. What’s going on there?

KM: We started the California Water Action Coalition a year ago, also with the Nature Conservancy as a lead partner, along with the Pacific Institute, EDF, General Mills, Coca-Cola, Campbell Soup and various water utilities. The Nature Conservancy not only brings expertise, but they are also great conveners and help us manage stakeholder relationships. There are 80 to 100 stakeholder groups involved who agreed to form this coalition.

3p: So, what are the biggest challenges you face when implementing new programs like these?

KM: The need is so large, but you have to start so small. You really need to be patient. We talk about doing it grower by grower, whether you’re talking about Texas, or Idaho, or Colorado. You’re spending the time, doing the research, looking at the final irrigation, getting the result, doing it again the next year. You want to just go full steam ahead, but you have to be so patient, and learn, make mistakes, learn more, get some best practices and then move forward.

3p: How have things changed since you’ve been with the company?

KM: Many years ago, these learnings were happening in just a small part of our team. What’s been great now, if you fast-forward to 2015, sustainability is one of the top five goals for MillerCoors. So, it’s not just our team carrying the water (no pun intended); it’s part of our business and everyone owns it, which is great. It took some time to get there, to get the hearts and minds aligned. It wasn’t like that several years ago. It’s good to look back and reflect.

3p: You’re saying now that everyone has their objectives aligned with that goal, everyone has ample reasons to support it, whatever their personal feelings might be. That suggest that there was some inertia.

KM: We were a brand new company back in 2008. And right when we were formed, sustainability was chosen as one of the top goals. We had a CEO and a senior leadership team and plant managers that were really committed. But it does take some time to get everybody across the business looking at the opportunities, working together, embedding it in their day-to-day and really understanding how it can be good for business and good for the environment.

Even when you have people on the same page, you have to start slowly. You can’t go to 850 growers in the supply chain, each with their own soils, climates and so on, and say: “Here’s a quick one-size-fits-all solution so we can save water.” We have to do this community by community, grower by grower, crop by crop — so it’s a slow process.

3p: I know from my time in the corporate world that people have individual objectives that they have to satisfy, that they’re going to be evaluated against as employees. If someone comes along with a request that doesn’t align with those objectives, it’s not going to get the same priority, correct?

KM: That’s right. But it’s even more than that. Back in 2008, we were focused on brewing beer and working to grow this brand new business. So, we might not have realized that if we’re going to reduce our energy use, we’re still going to be able to produce really great beer. We can do both, but it took a while to realize that.

If you tell people we’re going to reduce energy by 15 percent, they’re going to say, “That’s great, but I’ve got a job to do and I’ve got to keep my eye on that.” It takes some time for people to realize that you can do your job well and reduce energy, or water usage or waste.

3p: I wonder if it’s just a matter of concentration. When we were kids, we learned how to ride a bike. Then after a while we got so we could ride with one hand. And then later we learned to ride with no hands. But you pretty much have to start with both hands on the handlebars. Likewise, if you’re a new business, you need to get the basic things figured out before you can start taking your hands off the bars, so to speak.

KM: Definitely. I like that analogy.

Image credit: MillerCoors

RP Siegel

RP Siegel, author and inventor, shines a powerful light on numerous environmental and technological topics. His work has appeared in Triple Pundit, GreenBiz, Justmeans, CSRWire, Sustainable Brands, PolicyInnovations, Social Earth, 3BL Media, ThomasNet, Huffington Post, Strategy+Business, Mechanical Engineering, and engineering.com among others . He is the co-author, with Roger Saillant, of Vapor Trails, an adventure novel that shows climate change from a human perspective. RP is a professional engineer - a prolific inventor with 52 patents and President of Rain Mountain LLC a an independent product development group. RP recently returned from Abu Dhabi where he traveled as the winner of the 2015 Sustainability Week blogging competition.Contact: bobolink52@gmail.com