Why corporations need to invest in sustainable water management

Albert Cho is Vice President for Strategy and Business Development at Xylem. Firmly committed to improving water resource management, Cho was recently invited to join the Aspen Institute’s prestigious First Movers program, through which he intends to promote Xylem’s work in the area of water resilience.

By Isabelle Kliger

What does it mean to be part of the Aspen Institute’s First Movers 2014?
The Aspen Institute is an influential non-profit institution that promotes values-based leadership around the world. Its leadership programs include First Movers, which focuses on developing business leaders for a sustainable global society. As a First Movers Fellow, I look forward to promoting the great work people at Xylem are doing on the issue of urban resilience to water-related risks.

You recently wrote an editorial for the Guardian. What was it about?
My piece addressed the issue of a “social contract” between communities and corporations over industrial water consumption. A social contract is a term used to describe the ways in which communities create norms for self-governance, including institutions for managing shared resources, such as water. Going forward, I believe the most successful companies will actively promote responsible, sustainable water management.

Why is there conflict surrounding water management?
Powerful global trends are disrupting established patterns of water supply and demand and forcing communities to reconsider how they allocate water. As the threat of climate change continues to grow, we are being forced to reevaluate supply and demand to ensure that we have enough water to sustain growth. With industrial activity accounting for 20 percent of global water consumption – it takes nearly 4,000 liters of water to manufacture a pair of blue jeans and 182,000 liters to manufacture a car – it is easy to see why pressure on corporations is growing.

What can companies do?
Companies should ensure that managers responsible for operations and sustainability are actively seeking to improve water productivity and wastewater management. Ultimately, investments in recycling water, improving water efficiency or protecting local ecosystems benefit the company, as well as the community. Further, companies with significant water needs can give back by improving local access to clean water and sanitation.

Any good examples?
In 2005, Coca-Cola was accused of aggravating water scarcity by using too much water in drought-prone parts of India. The company responded with a global campaign to improve water management, partnering with organizations like the World Wildlife Fund, USAID, The Nature Conservancy, CARE and UNDP. It also launched projects to improve access to water and sanitation and raise awareness about water issues in India.

Another example is Unilever’s factories in India and Turkey, which started production in 2013. When fully operational, each aims to consume just half the amount water that was required by similar factories five years earlier.

And, of course, my favorite example is Xylem itself. Our people do fantastic work with Watermark to develop clean water supplies in disadvantaged communities and support disaster recovery. Through the Essence of Life program, we’re building innovative technologies to help smallholder farmers improve their own livelihoods through irrigation. It’s part of what makes Xylem an inspiring place to work, and a respected partner in communities around the world.

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