13th July 2021
If you deprive your body of water, you will be dead within a week. The survival rate is similar for some of the largest manufacturers who are equally dependent on water to make food, clothing, beverages, electronics, chemicals, computer chips and many more products. Water plays a vital role in manufacturing, but how many companies consider it to be a critical element of sustainability strategy?
Large corporates are increasingly committing themselves to more sustainable approaches in operations. The idea that sustainability and profitability are opposing factors in corporate performance, is now considered an outdated viewpoint. However, enterprises are still often seeing water sustainability as one of the lower priorities in their corporate agendas, and in some instances not considering it at all. Our recent analysis has shown that energy, waste, raw materials, and transport are at the forefront of corporate sustainability discussions.
However, more farsighted manufacturers are starting to see a more pronounced role amongst the metrics for sustainability. Not only does water have an associated carbon footprint, but it is also impacted by the realisation that freshwater resources are facing extensive stresses leading to events of scarcity.
Within a manufacturing facility, water may be used for production (fabrication, washing, cooling, boiling, etc.), sanitation (of the facility, personnel, and equipment), or as a raw material in the product itself. While many people depend on these products, at the same time, many local communities are competing with manufacturers for limited water resources. Producing one T-shirt requires 659 gallons of water which is enough to sustain an average adult for 1.8 years at the recommended consumption rate. Although that may seem like a lot, that number is relatively low for modern manufacturing. A smartphone, in contrast, takes 3,190 gallons of water to produce—enough to fill a small above-ground pool. The computer chip maker Intel estimates it takes 16 gallons of water to produce a single chip, which explains its huge appetite for water in 2011: some 8.3bn gallons from local water systems. Comparatively, the average American uses about 100 gallons of water each day; the average African just five gallons. Needless to say, water management is crucial in manufacturing, regardless of sub sector.
To produce many goods, manufacturers must have a reliable source of clean water, monitor water quality, and ensure recycling and wastewater best practices—one of the biggest by-products of manufacturing. Competition for water is only expected to increase, as highlighted recently at the World Water Week conference in the later part of 2020. For companies in these water-intensive industries, addressing these competing demands and implementing an effective water management strategy has become essential.
There are examples of organisations taking responsibility for their water use. Unilever Since 2008 have reduced the volume of water in their manufacturing sites by 49% per tonne of production and are continuing to optimise operations so they can do more with less, through working with manufacturing excellence networks, industry groups, and supplier expertise they have managed to reduce water consumption, costs, and become more sustainable.
There are currently a host of opportunities that exist to prevent water scarcity and to increase water sustainability. Rainwater harvesting, wastewater recycling, and where geographically possible, boreholes can all be implemented to re-use, recycle, and become more water independent. These opportunities exist not only to enable more sustainable water but often can provide operational expenditure savings and can be used to strengthen sustainability credentials.