Less than 3 percent of the Earth’s water is drinkable, and only 0.30 percent of that freshwater is readily accessible. And the one-two punch of climate change and a rapidly growing population has resulted in water scarcity around the world.
In addition to the environmental and social impacts, there is an economic case for being far more judicious about how water is used and treated. The World Bank, for example, estimates that water scarcity could cost some regions as much as 6 percent of GDP – and droughts will wreak havoc on developed and developing nations alike.
As this perfect storm brews, companies that invest in wastewater treatment and recycling will find they can enhance their bottom line. In addition, these forward-looking companies can gain the trust of local communities, especially if their operations are located in areas at risk of drought and water scarcity.
Corporate water programs vary by location and company, as the complexity of water does not allow for any one-size-fits-all approach. TriplePundit profiled two companies with very different business models. One is among the most recognized clothing brands on earth; the other is well known for its breakfast cereals and other marquee food brands.
“Water is very location-specific,” Jeff Hanratty, applied sustainability manager at General Mills, told TriplePundit. “So wastewater is complicated, as it depends on the product involved and the local regulatory environment. Then there are logistics: Some large cities in which we operate, like Los Angeles, can handle [the company's water footprint]. But in a city like Reed City, Michigan, where our plant uses a lot of the local water supply, it’s a different story.”
And as each plant within General Mills’ operations is different, whether it mills flour or cultures yogurt, Hanratty explained that best ideas for wastewater treatment often emerge at the local level. “In many cases, it all gets started with a champion at a plant,” he told 3p. “Someone at a plant may have a passion for sustainability, or thinks of a creative idea for water reuse. And it often begins with a problem – perhaps we can’t just discharge into the local sewage treatment system, or the way the plant has been running is too expensive.”
While the company makes it clear that its executive team is open to ideas, General Mills is a publicly-owned company accountable to shareholders. So, a wastewater project must ensure 100 percent compliance and show a return on investment. “Any time we launch such a project, we need a payback,” Hanratty said bluntly.
One example of General Mills turning wastewater into a resource can be found at its Greek yogurt plant in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.
Greek yogurt has become popular, and profitable, in recent years, but it takes three gallons of milk to create one gallon of Greek yogurt. (Regular yogurt, in turn, requires a gallon of milk per gallon of yogurt.) The result is massive amounts of whey, which until two years ago was trucked and spread onto local farmland at the rate of at least 15 truckloads a day.
But since August 2015, that leftover whey has been processed in an anaerobic digester, which generates methane biogas providing 10 percent of the plant’s electricity requirements. Excess heat from the system is redistributed across the Murfreesboro plant, reducing its natural gas needs by 10 percent. As a result, the plant saves $2.4 million in energy costs annually, while preventing 9,000 metric tons of emissions from entering the atmosphere.
“Another benefit from this system is that, after that water is treated, it’s then used by a local golf course, which means [the golf course] is no longer putting pressure on the local aquifer,” Hanratty added.
General Mills has retrofitted other plants to capture waste heat from water in Covington, Georgia, and Cedar Rapids, Iowa. But again, each plant requires a tailored solution for wastewater, while energy-efficiency solutions can scale across the company at a much faster rate.
“With energy, you can do a boiler project at half of the plants; after all, saving carbon in Cincinnati is just as good as saving energy in China,” Hanratty told us. “Water, however, is a much more complex story.”
Water is also complicated for Levi Strauss & Co. As is the case with many apparel companies, much of its water footprint occurs early in its supply chain and the company does not own the factories where its garments are manufactured. That means addressing water management requires industry cooperation, as there is only so much control Levi's can exact on its suppliers.
“One of the biggest challenges is the fact that we don’t own most of the factories making our products, which means we share factories with other brands, including smaller, local brands, who may not have the same high standards when it comes to wastewater,” said Michael Kobori, vice president of sustainability for Levi Strauss & Co. “This also means our leverage with the factory owners can be diluted, especially if we don’t make up the majority of their business.”
Levi Strauss hoped to address this problem by collaborating on a new industry-wide wastewater standard with the Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals group, or ZDHC. By implementing standards at an industry level, the company claims this effort could drive more sustainable change, including in regions where the company has no manufacturing presence.
But Levi Strauss is hardly passing the buck, as it insists it is working with suppliers to improve their wastewater performance. Levi's sourcing team in north Asia partnered with one of its vendors, Crystal, to boost its recycled water program. In the past, Crystal dedicated some of its industrial laundry machines to only use 100 percent recycled water – but that policy imposed limitations on the types of products it could put in the machines without having any affect on its fabrics’ quality.
To that end, Crystal recently agreed to upgrade its equipment and piping systems so the company’s machines could use various ratios of recycled and freshwater (such as 75 percent recycled and 25 percent freshwater versus 100 percent recycled). As a result, the company dramatically increased the amount of recycled water used in the manufacture of Levi Strauss garments by increasing the range of products that could be made with some portion of recycled water. “It’s also a great example because this work was initiated by our sourcing team, not our sustainability team, which shows how Levi Strauss & Co. is embedding sustainability throughout the business,” Kobori said.
For a company with products manufactured across an outsourced supply chain, not within its internal operations, having a clearly outlined policy on wastewater is a start. One could say Levi Strauss' approach is like the carrot and stick method. The company issued what it calls global effluent guidelines. From Levi Strauss & Co's point of view, this policy involves many carrots. Suppliers that follow these guidelines will benefit by cutting costs, while eliminating many reputational risks -- and, in the end, attracting even more business.
And the stick? The risk of losing business to another vendor that agrees to follow these standards. “This is an investment that our suppliers must make if they want to do business with us as a global leader on sustainability,” Kobori insisted. “More progressive vendors are willing to make this investment to be more cost competitive and more attractive to global brand customers."
Directives on wastewater treatment cannot just follow a top-down approach; partnerships between corporate executives and those who work day-to-day on the shop floor are crucial if a company hopes to succeed in reducing its water footprint.
Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010, and became its Executive Editor in 2018. He is also the Director of Social Media and Engagement for 3BL Media. His previous work can be found at The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. Kaye is based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas. He's lived in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay, and has traveled to over 70 countries. He's an alum of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California.