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Mary Mazzoni headshot

3p Weekend: 10 Corporate Leaders in Water Stewardship

By Mary Mazzoni

With a busy week behind you and the weekend within reach, there’s no shame in taking things a bit easy on Friday afternoon. With this in mind, every Friday TriplePundit will give you a fun, easy read on a topic you care about. So, take a break from those endless email thread and spend five minutes catching up on the latest trends in sustainability and business.

This Sunday, March 22, is World Water Day -- a day to celebrate water and make a difference for those who lack access to it. To mark the occasion, this week we're rounding up 10 companies that are proven leaders in water stewardship.

1. Unilever

Thanks to a lifecycle assessment, Unilever discovered that the majority of its water footprint (85 percent) comes from consumer use of its products. In the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan, the company set an ambitious goal to halve the water associated with the consumer use of its products by 2020. "[T]hat means the domestic water used with our products in seven water-scarce countries which make up half the world’s population," the company said on its website.

Unilever has also reduced water use in its manufacturing process by 29 percent per ton of production, as compared to a 2008 baseline. The company also plans to source all of its agricultural products sustainably by 2020, with water impact being one of seven key indicators.

2. AB InBev

Most of the water Anheuser-Busch InBev uses -- more than 90 percent -- goes into growing the barley and other agricultural inputs used in the brewing process. To address this challenge, AB InBev launched water management pilot projects in key barley-growing regions, including Mexico, China and the American Midwest.

The company is also piloting a farm-level benchmarking tool, called SmartBarley, that allows growers to compare their crop yields and environmental impact side-by-side with their peers. Last year, the company scaled the program to reach more than 1,900 barley growers across Argentina, Brazil, Canada, China, Mexico, Russia, the U.S. and Uruguay. If that's not enough, the company is also a signatory to the U.N. Global Compact CEO Water Mandate and a member of its steering committee.

3. PepsiCo

PepsiCo is a company that has long made water conservation a priority. In 2009, it became one of the first global companies to publicly recognize water as a basic human right.

It saved nearly 3.6 billion gallons of water in its direct operations in 2013, the most recent year data is available. The company is also active in the fight to increase access to clean drinking water around the world: PepsiCo and the PepsiCo Foundation operate water conservation, distribution, purification and hygiene initiatives for underserved communities in China, India, Mali, Brazil, Colombia and other Latin American countries.

4. Levi Strauss & Co.

In advance of World Water Day, Levi's CEO Charles V. Bergh wrote an op/ed for Fortune magazine encouraging other CEOs not to wash their jeans. At-home washing is the largest water impact associated with the company's products, as determined by a lifecycle assessment, and the company launched a consumer awareness campaign in 2007 to encourage shoppers to wash their jeans less frequently. Levi's was also one of the first in the apparel industry to create a water recycling process for its manufacturing.

All this hard work paid off: Earlier this month, the company hit a major milestone with respect to water stewardship: It saved its billionth gallon of water through sustainability initiatives since 2011.

5. Coca-Cola

Through water use reduction and drinking water access initiatives, Coca-Cola proves it's a leader in water stewardship. By 2020, the company hopes to replenish 100 percent of the water used in its finished products, and it's on track to achieve that goal: The company replenished 68 percent of the water it used between 2005 and 2013 -- totaling more than 28.6 billion gallons to date. Coca-Cola returned the water to communities through 509 local water projects in more than 100 countries, benefiting more than 1.9 million people.

The company also aims to improve water efficiency in its manufacturing operations by 25 percent by 2020 (compared to a 2010 baseline). It has improved systemwide water efficiency for 11 straight years -- for an 8 percent total reduction in water use. The company already met its initial goal to improve water efficiency by 20 percent from 2004 to 2012, with a 21.4 percent improvement.

6. General Mills

As a founding partner of the Alliance for Water Stewardship, General Mills has a big reputation to uphold when it comes to conserving Earth's most precious resource. But it appears the company is up to the challenge.

General Mills CEO Ken Powell declared the company’s commitment to water conservation at the the Nature Conservancy's Global Water Summit in Chicago last year, saying: “We know that without healthy water for land, ecosystems and wildlife, agriculture simply does not work. Businesses languish. Economies falter. People suffer.”

Following Powell's statements, the company released a new water policy, which includes the company’s direct operations and its suppliers. It is committed to ensuring that its direct operations don’t “encroach on the human right to water and sanitation in the communities in which we operate,” according to the policy.

7. Marks & Spencer

U.K. department store chain Marks & Spencer has partnered with the World Wildlife Fund since 2004 to support sustainable fishing and forestry. In 2011, the partnership expanded to include water stewardship. WWF will help the chain to identify top water-risk hotspots within its foods supply chains. The company is also a founding partner of the Alliance for Water Stewardship and seeks to further reduce its water consumption under Plan A, the company’s sustainable business transformation program.

8. Tom's of Maine

Natural personal care company Tom's of Maine uses a lot of steam at its manufacturing plant, for everything from heating and cleaning to sanitizing. But the company put a water and steam recycling process in place at its Sanford, Maine, manufacturing plant to reduce its water footprint, and it's already seeing promising results: The company cut water use by 25 percent per ton of product since 2011, with a goal to cut 15 percent more by 2020.

9. AT&T

Back in 2013, AT&T teamed up with the Environmental Defense Fund to develop a framework that can help companies reduce their water use from cooling and manage their water risk. Now, the two are working together to encourage companies in water-stressed regions — Texas (Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston), Phoenix, California (Los Angeles and the Bay Area) and Denver — to adopt the toolkit and cut costs while reducing their impacts on local water resources.

10. Mars

Mars Inc., the parent company behind popular labels like M&Ms, Pedigree and Flavia, acknowledges that its manufacturing processes "use a considerable amount of water." But the company is taking steps to cut back.

In 2013, the company's total water withdrawal was nearly 8 billion gallons. More than half of this total -- around 4.1 billion gallons -- "was directly returned to the environment by Mars at the same or higher quality than when it was extracted," the company said. In addition to replenishing water, Mars aims to reduce its overall water use by 25 percent by the end of this year (compared to a 2007 baseline). The company managed to cut water use by 13.6 percent between 2007 and 2013, and we'll keep our eyes on how they stack up to their lofty 2015 goal.

Image credit: Flickr/Barbara Walsh

Mary Mazzoni headshot

Mary has reported on sustainability and social impact for over a decade and now serves as executive editor of TriplePundit. She is also the general manager of TriplePundit's Brand Studio, which has worked with dozens of organizations on sustainability storytelling, and VP of content for TriplePundit's parent company 3BL. 

Read more stories by Mary Mazzoni