Water – Why drinks companies must think global but act local - Sustainability Spotlight

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When it comes to sustainability, water is always near the top of the list for drinks companies. This month, sustainability commentator Ben Cooper considers recent efforts in this area by several sizeable drinks groups.

More than most other industries, water plays a major role in drinks

More than most other industries, water plays a major role in drinks

With World Water Day having taken place late last month, water is not surprisingly the prominent topic in the sustainability sphere at the moment. And, this is a special year.

The United Nation's annual day of observance for global water issues celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, and a new ten-year water strategy - Water Action Decade 2018-2028 - has been launched.

Water Action Decade will support UN Sustainable Development Goal 6, which aims to ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all by 2030. Companies from every industry are seeking to align their sustainability commitments with the UN SDGs, and there is much they can do in terms of water stewardship.

Earlier this month, Suntory announced it had become the latest beverage company to sign up to the CEO Water Mandate, a coalition of 141 companies aimed at reducing water risks and supporting wider work on water stewardship. The Japanese group joined the likes of Anheuser-Busch InBev, Carlsberg, Heineken, The Coca-Cola Co, Diageo and Pernod Ricard.

The drinks industry in particular has a complex and delicate relationship with water. Producing beverages is a fairly water-intensive process, and companies have to take into account the impact their facilities have on local watersheds. Food and drink producers will also often have significant water challenges in their agricultural supply chains. Whether in their supply chains or around their processing plants, climate change means water security and water scarcity are becoming ever more pressing issues.

Drinks companies also have a further specific factor to consider, when it comes to water: In many instances, it is a vital ingredient as well as a crucial resource for processing purposes. For the drinks industry, more than for any other sector, water stewardship is about security and quality.

Recent announcements from Pernod's Chivas Brothers division and Beam Suntory speak directly to this facet of water stewardship for beverage companies. On World Water Day itself, Beam Suntory announced it is to partner with Bernheim Arboretum & Research Forest to develop a natural water sanctuary on Bernheim grounds immediately adjacent to the Jim Beam distillery.

Launched initially as a one-year agreement, the Natural Water Sanctuary Alliance will protect water quality, restore wildlife habitats, and reintroduce native plants and trees, the company said. "Great Bourbon starts with great water," said eighth-generation Beam distiller Fred Noe.

In his recent exclusive interview with just-drinks, coinciding with the launch of A-B InBev's new 2025 sustainability goals, group CEO Carlos Brito made a similar point: "We've learnt a long time ago that sustainability is our business," he said. "We're brewers - without water, there's no beer. So, it's not something that's nice to have, it is our business."

Earlier in March, Chivas announced it had appointed Jessica Fennell, a PhD student at the University of Aberdeen, to undertake a research project to identify natural solutions to reduce and manage the impact of water scarcity and rising water temperatures during prolonged warm and dry periods. In particular, the project will seek to identify the best locations for 'nature-based solutions', such as ponds or wetlands for infiltration or tree planting for shading to manage water flow and temperatures for distilleries.

Many years ago, I (just about) enjoyed the soggiest holiday that even Scotland could offer, including the customary visit to a distillery. The welcoming presentation featured a film featuring beautiful lochs, glens and mountains. As it began, a deep, mellifluous Scottish voice proudly intoned: "Scotland, land of water."
None present would have taken issue with that.

The point behind the promotional film and the Chivas research project is much the same. The production of high-quality Scotch depends not only on a consistent, but also a consistently high-quality water supply. That water stewardship is a focus of attention for Pernod even in Scotland vividly underlines the ubiquity of the water issue.

Dr Ronald Daalmans, environmental sustainability manager at Chivas, agrees that Scotland has little to worry about in terms of water scarcity but emphasises that even in the home of Scotch, periodic, location-specific water scarcity can be an issue, while generally-rising water temperatures, predicted as a result of climate change, will also bring challenges.

The research project stems from the possible impact of Pernod's The Glenlivet distillery, following expansion, having to use more surface water in the future as opposed to spring supplies

"Spring water supplies tend to have a much more steady temperature," Daalmans explains. "That's important because we have invested a lot in energy-efficient technologies that rely on exchanges of heat. That means our process water needs to be at quite a steady temperature."

Using more surface water could mean it arriving at a higher temperature, potentially resulting in higher usage of both water and energy usage.

"The reason for the research is to understand if we can use land management techniques to make the water take a longer route," explains Daalmans, "and probably have more of it come out through spring supplies, which would then have a much more stable temperature."

Daalmans stresses that there is no intention to create any intellectual property from the project. Anything learned from the project will be shared openly. "We do a lot as an industry together. Although we compete on the shelf, we all rely on each other, certainly for blended whisky. When you look behind the scenes you realise actually everyone is interconnected. We share a lot on environment, so the intention would be that that [the research] would be available to others to use if they're in a similar situation."

Unsurprisingly, water stewardship is also one of the key pillars of A-B InBev's new sustainability programme, launched the day before World Water Day. Like other major corporations, the brewer has recognised the need to increase the location-specific element in its water strategy by committing that 100% of the communities in which it operates classified as being in high-stress areas will have "measurably-improved water availability and quality" by 2025.

What such context-based approaches underline is that water is a locally-specific resource, and that has to be the critical factor determining water stewardship strategies.

Of course, strong commitments from the top, not to mention global strategies, are important but, ultimately, effective water stewardship will always come down to what is happening at the local and regional level. What may appear to be minutiae, when viewed in the context of giant corporations like A-B InBev and Pernod, really matter.

"You might be able to make some high-level commitments in terms of reductions, responsible use etc. But, in terms of actually addressing your real risk, it's becoming increasingly clear that issues are very location-specific," Daalmans concludes. "You need to understand more about where it comes from, how it gets to you and the techniques you might employ to manage it."

The commitments embodied by Water Action Decade, the CEO Water Mandate and individual company initiatives, as welcome as they are, only mark the beginning of what is an enormous collective undertaking.

The hard yards of achieving UN SDG 6 lie ahead and must be traversed as climate change metes out far heftier challenges than it has to date. Drinks companies will be expected to play their part.

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