Will this year’s greenwashing case in New York push companies away from “intensive” ESG scrutiny in the stock market just as firms embrace water positivity? Victoria Edwards weighs the evidence.


THE continuing story of carbon keeps providing salutary warnings for corporates. But whether all businesses are taking the right lessons from it seems to be up for debate.

On the one hand, regulators are acting tough on greenwashing. In February, the New York attorney general filed a lawsuit against meat giant JBS for issues arising from alleged deceptive marketing practices around net zero.

On the other, more companies are choosing to stay private rather than list on the heavily regulated stock exchange. The trend was highlighted by JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon who called out “intensified reporting requirements” like ESG as one of the main reasons.

Whatever the reasons for stock market flight or the eventual findings in the JBS case, this feels like a momentous moment for sustainability at exactly the moment the water positivity movement is poised for public awareness.


Water positivity as a corporate movement

Positivity is to water what negativity is to carbon. It goes beyond ‘net zero’ to the point where a corporate’s wider beneficial effort surpasses its negative impact. And society, the economy and the environment win.

In the case of carbon, this means a corporate which removes or prevents more CO2 in the global atmosphere than it emits itself. For water, it’s a corporate which makes more water available in a water-stressed river basin than it uses in its operations.

After reducing the impact from direct or supply chain operations, the main way this is achieved is through offsetting. In other words, carrying out collaborative projects with other stakeholders to deliver measurable benefits elsewhere.

The measuring is critical, because your claims and efforts need to stand up to scrutiny.


Playing catch-up with carbon

Decarbonisation and carbon-offsetting have developed over decades, with numerous reporting indices and more carbon offsetting options than you can shake a stick at.

By comparison, water offsetting is in its infancy. Until recently there weren’t any easy ways to replenish water at the scale and pace needed to match the impact of water scarcity.

But AI is rapidly improving mankind’s ability to better manage his water environment. AI-led programmes like FIDO Plus enable corporates to quickly support the replenishment of watersheds by partnering with a water utility to reduce leakage, for example.

Rising public concern and the potential for disputes over supplies means more tech like this needs to be adopted at scale. But beleaguered and under-resourced water utilities can’t do it alone. It will take a collective effort.


A watershed for sustainability

This is where corporate water stewardship, for which water positivity is the ultimate goal, is starting to come into its own.

By collaborating directly with frontline utilities and other organisations to tackle entrenched problems such as water leakage, corporates can make a huge difference at a watershed level.

The recent flurry of carbon greenwashing scandals – whether proven, deliberate, accidental or (like disinformation) imagined – could undermine confidence in corporate sustainability just as water positivity is about to get its moment in the sun.

It could not be a worse time for the public to lose trust, or for corporates to put sustainability on the backfoot. Society needs to respond to climate change now and if the cause of corporate sustainability gets set back we will all be losers.


And now for the good news

But where there is risk there is also opportunity. Because the one thing we do know about sustainability is that it sells. Really sells. And we’re not relying on surveys to tell us that. JBS’s own marketing tells us.

And it is why, even if multibillion-dollar companies like Stripe and SpaceX reject the stock market forever, they will not be able to ignore it either. Switched on customers and investors, especially savvy Gen Z and Millennials will continue to demand it.

It will matter more with every passing COP.

If we, as water sustainability practitioners, are careful and assured in our next steps and focus on building trust with demonstrable results, we can still succeed. In this respect, water is the perfect vehicle. It’s visible, measurable and its impacts are almost always felt locally.

And even the most ardent sustainability-sceptic can get behind the idea that replenishing the watershed where your business or value chain operates is as good for you as it is for anyone else, including the environment.


How to avoid a corporate water positivity scandal

So, here’s my top three for corporations who want to avoid a water positivity scandal.

First, science.

Make commitments based on science. In other words, your water usage must be assessed across the entire supply chain and it must be possible to replenish what you say you will with existing or anticipated technology. Technologies like AI can now extract insight from environmental, meteorological and operational data with staggering accuracy. At FIDO, we can assess volumetric utility level leakage using analysis from a sample of verifiable data taken from just a section of its water pipeline network.

Second, action.

Have a bias for action. Unlike carbon, water is visible and its impacts intensely local. Your water stewardship activities must replenish the same watersheds where your or your supply chain’s operations are taking water from, in greater measure and be measurable. The best programmes, like ours, work on the basis of delivering quantifiable verified replenishment that is felt immediately. There’s no faster way of making more quality treated water available instantly than stopping it being wasted. And there are associated carbon benefits to be counted too.

Third, trust.

Bring a bucket. Verify the volumetric benefits you’re achieving so they stand up to public scrutiny and are not just based on estimates. The Volumetric Water Benefit Accounting (VWBA) method developed by Limnotech, the World Resources Institute and others is a transparent way to measure, understand and compare quantified outcomes across projects. We use VWBA as part of our end-to-end audit trail and have been working on increased standardisation. We look forward to the new version, due to be released soon.


A new model for corporate water stewardship in action

Water, United is a new FIDO Plus project including Microsoft, Pepsico and others to replenish the Colorado river basin using the principles I’ve outlined here.

By supporting the deployment of FIDO AI to assess network integrity within partner utilities, and then find leaks and prioritise faster, verified repair work on the largest, corporates aim to more than offset their own operational water use.

Together, we hope to start a catalytic movement which gathers more brands and utilities into its orbit until the combined water saved turns the Colorado’s fortunes around for the benefit of all.

And it seems to be working. A growing list of brands and utilities are signing up. It seems like sustainability is here to stay. If only we could find a better word for it.


If you’re building a water stewardship programme from scratch or looking for a way to meet your water goals with confidence, contact us here.


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