Water - central to food companies sustainability goals.

Water - central to food companies' sustainability goals.

Following just-food's in-depth look at how food companies are aligning sustainability objectives with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs), Ben Cooper examines how food companies can engage in UN SDG 6, which aims to ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all by 2030.

If making a telling contribution to the Global Goals agenda on water were simply a question of food companies maximising total water efficiency across their operations, the industry would be well on the way to meeting that expectation.

However, to be successful, food companies' water strategies have to take account of the fact that water is a locally defined resource. Indeed, the degree to which a food company has progressed from setting global targets on water usage and efficiency to include more targeted, location-specific aims and interventions could be said to define the robustness of its water strategy. 

By the same token, effective engagement in UN Sustainable Development Goal 6 (UN SDG 6) "to ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all" will depend on a company's capacity to tailor its actions on water according to local context.

UN SDG 6 and the food industry

UN SDG 6 is the primary water objective of the Global Goals agenda but clearly represents much more than one of 17 goals. Ensuring universal access to safe water must be seen as an essential and defining goal of the UN's 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development as a whole, with critical relevance to numerous other SDGs, including those relating to poverty, health, education, building sustainable communities and reducing inequalities. 

The primacy and prevalence of water security within the Global Goals agenda is to a significant degree mirrored in the sustainability and risk profile of food companies.

Owing to its exposure to water risk, the food sector has generally placed water stewardship towards the top of the sustainability agenda. Prominent food multinationals, such as Unilever, Nestle, PepsiCo and General Mills, are leading the way in corporate engagement on water issues, while the sector as a whole can justifiably lay claim to being among the most advanced in its approach to water.

So, rather than redefining food companies' water strategies, the Global Goals agenda on water provides a new broad frame of reference that enables the industry's water challenges and solutions to be viewed in a global context. 

Megan Maltenfort, senior corporate social responsibility manager at Campbell Soup Company, says the Global Goals "offer a new lens through which to look at how our local, regional and national efforts ladder up to broader impacts".

A common framework

There is also a sense that the Global Goals have provided a common framework to support cross-stakeholder dialogue.

The SDGs are a framework for stakeholders to "orient around", says Peter Schulte, who leads the development of key online resources for the CEO Water Mandate, an initiative set up by the UN Secretary-General and the UN Global Compact, in partnership with US sustainability think tank the Pacific Institute, to mobilise business leaders to prioritise water stewardship.

Schulte says businesses, governments and NGOs tend to talk about water in different ways. At meetings at the World Water Forum, held in Brasilia in March, he found "the SDGs to be a really helpful common language for all. It's kind of like an anchor point for all these sectors working together".

Underlining the point, Ruth Romer, private sector advisor at water NGO Wateraid, says UN SDG 6 has provided a "really useful framework for having conversations with businesses". 

The significance of water for food companies is underlined by the sector's engagement in the CEO Water Mandate. The food sector represents the largest contingent in the initiative, boasting some 18 out of the 140 endorsing companies, followed by the beverage sector with 16 signatories.

Since the launch of the UN SDGs in January 2016, Schulte says the CEO Mandate has sought wherever it can to align its reports and online tools, such as its Water Stewardship Toolbox and Water Action Hub, around the SDG framework. "One of my big projects is the Water Action Hub, which is an online water stewardship partnership platform, and every project on there is categorised by the SDG 6 target in particular that it's focused on," Schulte adds.

Roberta Barbieri, vice president, global sustainability at PepsiCo, says global frameworks like the CEO Water Mandate, the UN Global Compact and the Global Goals themselves, "are an important inspiration and a vital means of coordinating efforts across sectors and industries".

Water context is key

A critical distinction between water and carbon emissions or many other sustainability metrics is that company-wide statistics and efficiency ratios only tell part of the story. Water issues have to be addressed according to local contexts and actions prioritised on the basis of water stress. 

The Global Goals have come into being at a time when food companies' water strategies are increasingly being informed by context. It is clear that effective engagement in the Global Goals agenda on water depends heavily on food companies taking a context-based approach to water. 

A recent report from US sustainability non-profit Ceres suggests the food and beverage sectors are well ahead of others in terms of setting context-based water targets but this approach is far from being the norm. 

According to the Turning Point report, which analysed the sustainability performance of over 600 companies spanning ten sectors, 90% of the food and beverage firms assessed set quantitative, time-bound targets to manage water impacts, but only 38% set targets focused on areas of the value chain with highest water risk. 

Companies which include the development of individual water stewardship plans for particularly vulnerable watersheds in their water strategies, as General Mills has done, will be well placed to engage in the Global Goals agenda on water. General Mills has so far identified eight priority watersheds and has committed to develop specific water stewardship plans for these catchments by 2025.

For Jeff Hanratty, applied sustainability manager at General Mills, a context-based approach provides focus to a company's water strategy. "Carbon released in Cincinnati is the same as carbon released in Shanghai. Water is not like that, so one of the most important things a company can do is focus their effort," Hanratty tells just-food. 

"We've looked all around the world, 36 different sourcing regions, over 41 watersheds, and we've narrowed it down to eight. Not that everything beyond the eight isn't important. We've just provided a focus. Our ambition is that those places we've prioritised will have a sustainability plan in place by 2025, and that builds context, and that's what the SDGs are looking for, some context in what you're doing."

Focus on agricultural supply chains

In relation to engagement in the Global Goals agenda on water, there is no more critical context to consider than food companies' agricultural supply chains which account for the lion's share of a food company's total water footprint. "For food companies, when looking at their indirect water footprint, the water from their suppliers, particularly in agriculture, is by far and away the biggest slice of their impact and water use," Schulte says.

Therefore, sustainable agriculture programmes and goals relating to the sustainable sourcing of agricultural commodities will bear directly on the contribution food companies can make to UN SDG 6.

As part of its Performance with Purpose 2025 Agenda, PepsiCo has set a context-based target for water efficiency in its agricultural supply chain. The company is aiming for a 15% improvement in water use efficiency in its agricultural supply chain in high water-risk areas by 2025.

"Water is a critical resource for our business at every stage of our value chain. Agriculture takes up around 70% of the world's freshwater consumption, so the crops we source represent our greatest water impact," Barbieri says, stressing the link between water stewardship and PepsiCo's sustainable agriculture programmes. 

"PepsiCo is committed to sustainably sourcing our direct crops, like oats and potatoes, by 2020, and to sustainably sourcing our indirect crops too by 2025. Water efficiency is part of this picture. Some crops, like oats, can be grown using only rainwater, so are naturally water-efficient. For others, we are working with farmers to increase water use efficiency through training and by using techniques like drip irrigation in place of more water-intensive methods."

Meanwhile, Maltenfort points to Campbell's goal, set in 2012, to reduce water use per pound of tomatoes by 20% by the end of 2020. "By working with farmers to install drip irrigation systems and other technology, we achieved that goal three years ahead of schedule in 2017," Maltenfort says. 

"Drip irrigation not only conserves water, but it also protects water quality by reducing nutrient runoff into waterways."

This example underlines how sustainable agriculture initiatives allow food companies to contribute to the improvement of water quality as well as helping address scarcity issues. 

There are six targets under UN SDG 6. UN SDG 6.1 relates to universal access to safe and affordable water, while 6.2 pertains to achieving adequate sanitation and hygiene for all, and 6.3 to improving water quality and reducing pollution. UN SDG 6.4 addresses the need to ensure sustainable withdrawals and supply of freshwater and "substantially reduce the number of people suffering from water scarcity".

Hanratty says in General Mills' priority watershed in Northeast China both quality and scarcity are issues, but in its other priority watershed in China, in the Shanghai area, water scarcity is not a problem so its sustainability plan will be aligned with SDG 6.3. 

Another of General Mills' priority watersheds is along the river Ganges in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh state, from where General Mills sources some of its wheat.

With regard to the Ganges, General Mills is only in Phase 2 of the four-stage approach it is taking to the eight priority watersheds, involving analysis and action planning. However, Hanratty says the needs of this area are likely to reflect all six target areas under UN SDG 6. 

While the majority of company water programmes are focused on water scarcity and quality, Romer believes food companies have a significant role to play in the achievement of UN SDG 6.2 which sets the aim of achieving adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all by 2030. 

While issues such as water scarcity and quality are often discussed in the context of risk mitigation and the business case, Romer says the business case for companies supporting the UN SDG agenda on hygiene and sanitation is equally strong.

"The more progressive food companies think about water more holistically," Romer says, and a holistic strategy will recognise the business benefits of the water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) piece. 

As part of our Performance with Purpose 2025 Agenda, PepsiCo has set the goal for 100% of its manufacturing employees to have access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene. The company is a signatory to the World Business Council for Sustainable Development's WASH at the Workplace Pledge, which contributes to the implementation of SDG 6. Meanwhile, the CEO Water Mandate and Wateraid are among the partners supporting Wash4work, a collaborative programme aimed at boosting corporate engagement in the UN SDG 6 WASH objectives.  

Optimising engagement through partnership 

An interesting facet of the UN's Global Goals is that the last of the 17 SDGs does not pertain to an endpoint in itself but seeks to "strengthen the means of implementation and revitalise the global partnership for sustainable development".

In a sense, the emphasis on partnership in the Global Goals resonates with what food companies have learned during their own sustainability journeys, and no area underlines this more persuasively than water.

"It is only through multi-stakeholder collaboration and by leveraging the expertise that exists in different sectors of the economy that we can meet the aims of the UN Global Goals on water," Barbieri says. "The same is true of PepsiCo's 2025 Agenda goals. We benefit from a number of partnerships with some of the world's foremost experts on water stewardship. These are fundamental to our progress." 

For example, PepsiCo is partnering with the NGO, The Nature Conservancy, on several water replenishment projects in water-stressed regions in the US and Latin America. Meanwhile, in Latin America and the Caribbean, it has collaborated with the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) to support the implementation of the Hydro-BID modelling tool, which allows governments to manage water resources more efficiently by analysing and predicting water availability, taking into account competing water needs and the impact of climate change.

General Mills is also partnering with the Nature Conservancy in its priority watershed programme. Hanratty, who has particular responsibility for collaborations with other actors within the company's priority watersheds programme, also calls out the Nature Conservancy's Water Funds as the sort of partnerships that could support engagement in the UN Global Goals agenda on water. These funds enable downstream water users to invest jointly in upstream land conservation and restoration to secure improved water quality and regulate water supply.

A unique contribution

The coming years will see companies from all sectors engaging with the Global Goals agenda on water in many varied ways. However, food companies are unquestionably in a position to make a particularly valuable contribution. 

Their huge exposure to the water issue through their agricultural supply chains represents a daunting sustainability challenge. Equally, it means their interests are more closely aligned with the Global Goals on water than those of any other sector. 

"Food is at the top of the list in terms of the industry sectors that have an opportunity to make a contribution here," Schulte says.

While acting to secure the long-term sustainability of their agricultural supply chains, food companies also have the opportunity to make a "huge, transformational contribution" to the achievement of UN SDG 6.