Water Conservation: A Way to Make Waves in Your Industry

Conserving water drives efficiency and also helps companies save money. Here’s how
Apr 12, 2016 11:35 AM ET

It’s no surprise that water is at the core of the United Nations’ new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), given its connection to health, climate change and resiliency. The SDGs seek to improve water quality and to substantially increase recycling and safe reuse globally by 2030.

Increasing the efficiency of water consumption at the industry level will help address these goals and also reduce scarcity issues. From using stormwater to flush toilets to installing low-flow nozzles where appropriate, conserving water will drive efficiency and also help companies save money. Here are some ways businesses can get started.

Goals drive progress

When an executive leadership team champions a target for water use reduction, it can drive progress throughout a company’s operations. The goal reinforces the commitment to environmental stewardship and underscores how that resulting efficiency drives business value.

Once established, each facility commits to hitting a certain reduction figure. Individual plants often see their efforts combine to make a broad impact on a company’s savings.

General Motors’ global manufacturing team consists of nearly 190,000 people – two-thirds of its total workforce. Those employees account for about 85% of GM’s water use at 171 plants around the world.

The challenge is giving those employees the tools needed to drive progress and efficiency. GM uses a scorecard at every plant to measure environmental factors such as water use throughout the year, which is featured right alongside other business metrics like safety, productivity, quality, responsiveness and cost.

At plants, teams of about six people meet specific goals for their work area in relation to water savings. Using budgets specifically for conservation projects, these teams track monthly usage and enter those figures into a global database. If the plant doesn’t meet its water savings goal, the plant manager could end up with a lower paycheck.

GM is not alone in seeing the value of conserving natural resources.

Apple’s Maiden, North Carolina, data center uses a cooling system that reuses water 35 times for a 20% reduction of overall water consumption at the building. At facilities with less dependable rainfall, the computer and smartphone maker uses irrigation systems that monitor soil moisture, resulting in a 40% reduction in landscape watering.

Amazon installed water filtration stations at its Winchester, Kentucky, customer service center, allowing associates to refill reusable containers instead of purchasing bottled water. This eliminated the use of 30,000 plastic water bottles each year, and it saves more than 55,000 liters of fresh water annually that would have otherwise been needed to make the bottles.

Ripple effect of employee engagement

Having metrics in place is a good first step, as that empowers employees when environmental performance may not necessarily be in their job description. Getting everyone involved feeds overall efficiency, as people begin to feel ownership. Then, they start to suggest ideas and alternative processes that use fewer resources.

Internal recognition – from a manager praising performance of individuals to executive manufacturing leadership honoring team achievements – can be powerful as it generates pride throughout the workplace. Other ways to achieve this is by highlighting employee ideas at staff meetings or publicizing them in company newsletters. Some facilities also create a “wall of fame” where suggestions are posted for all to see.

Leveraging data

Data is another key to improving water efficiency. Do a study to determine each process’ water usage. Have meters measure the flow of water in a pipe to confirm how much is being used and whether it’s an appropriate amount for the job. And make sure to conduct local environmental assessments and watershed due diligence.

The best water conservation tactic is not to waste any at all. The ideal scenario is a zero-liquid discharge rate whereby all water is consumed within the process and gets treated and re-treated as it cycles through. Recycled water may power other manufacturing processes. The resultant lower usage of water from local sources helps to prevent overexploitation of groundwater.

As the cost of water increases, the business case for efficiency projects strengthens. The result: ideas that may have been penciled out five or 10 years ago make perfect financial sense today.


This content is paid for by General Motors