Companies conserving water surprised by savings

Beer giant SABMiller and others are now eager to reduce water use after realizing cash savings in addition to environmental impact, report says.

It currently takes SABMiller, brewer of Miller Genuine Draft and other beers, about 4.5 liters of water to make one liter of beer, according to its company sustainability manager. SABMiller

Water is not only the next big environmental issue, but also the next savings opportunity, according to several companies.

A survey conducted by research analyst Ethical Corporation in May 2010 found that 99 percent of corporate sustainability managers saw water becoming a top priority for businesses in the next 5 to 10 years. The report "Unlocking the Profit in Water Savings" found that 52 percent of sustainability managers ranked "water stewardship" within the top five most important issues they now deal with.

But more interesting is the hard data supporting the trend. Companies have found that saving water equates with saving money even when including initial infrastructure investments, according to the report.

The report, which included interviews with global giants like Unilever, Kraft, Coca-Cola, and Shell, found many companies surprised by water savings outperforming estimates after they initiated company water conservation projects.

Sainsbury's, for example, a leading U.K. supermarket chain, has saved 1.6 million pounds (about $2.4 million) since fixing leaks, installing sensors on urinals, and reducing toilet water capacity, according to Ethical Corporation.

Whitbread, a U.K. company that owns hotel and restaurant chains, saved 350,000 pounds ($519,000) annually after installing low flow-faucets and shower heads, urinals with sensors, and dual-flush toilets in some of its properties. But initial company estimates had been that the changes would save between 93,000 or 80,000 pounds annually. Now the company has decided to implement more water conservation initiatives.

In conjunction with the report release, Ethical Corporation also released a podcast interview with Andy Wales, head of sustainability for SABMiller, the brewing giant that includes the brands Miller, Foster's, and Grolsch.

"Our internal target is to improve our water efficiency by 25 percent by 2015," Wales told Ethical Corporation's Toby Webb during the interview. "At the moment, it takes us just under four and a half liters of water to make a liter of beer, which is better than the brewing industry average. But we need to go much further, so our 2015 target is that 25 percent reduction to 3.5 liters for a liter of beer."

Wales said SABMiller is also looking at ways to help its suppliers save water, which includes farmers growing barley or hops in regions where water is predicted to become a scarce commodity.

Wales noted that his position within SABMiller is integrated with capital planning and not just a silo department, giving him and his team more power within the company to actually initiate change. He said this type of model--giving actual economic power to those looking into sustainability issues--is the key to change in government as well as business.

"Water is a critical resource that underpins economic growth, underpins social development, and obviously underpins environmental protection. And yet, the discussion of water issues, of water as a resource, is often stuck in the environmental ministry," he said. "Those ministers are very good ministers, but they are not the most powerful in the government. We need to get finance ministers, energy ministers understand what the impact is of water for the growth of their country."

Both the report and interview underscore what companies and sustainability experts have individually been saying about water being the "oil of the 21st century." In January 2010, for example, Jackson Family Wines of Kendall-Jackson fame, announced it would be cutting its winery water usage by 70 percent. It also proposed that if just 35 percent of California wineries implemented the same technology, it could save the state 1 billion gallons of water annually.

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