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How to be a water-wise business
Written by: Stephanie Hodgson | Edited by: Raechel Kelly
Environmental legislation and policies are changing all the time, especially as they concern water usage and wastewater disposal. Two main reasons for this ever changing landscape are freshwater scarcity and pollution. Your business must comply as a minimum but it is in your best interest to become water smart now and here’s why.
You can reduce operational (think: utility) costs. You may also reduce your carbon footprint and thus your environmental performance--two increasingly important indicators for brand trust. You may demonstrate leadership and even generate PR related to your water saving efforts. Such efforts may also open up opportunities to build relationships with local communities. All of these things will help to maintain or improve brand reputation.
On the other side of the coin, your water saving efforts may help reduce risk. You may not see water as a commodity but it is a vital resource which is neither infinite nor abundant. As global competition for resources continues to increase and interruptions in fresh water supplies become more frequent, the water-wise business will be better positioned than those pretending water is both infinite and abundant. Growing worldwide demand for fresh, clean water will most certainly put pressure on your business in some way at some point so it is key to plan ahead.
Lucky for you, there’s a lot you can do right now to transform your business. Whether yours is a one woman rodeo or a team of five or a newly expanded operation with a dozen locations, this guide is for you. Whether you are in the hair and beauty industry or in hospitality or in IT or in tourism, this guide is also for you. We have compiled a list of things businesses of all sizes and serving a wide variety of needs can do to minimise their water usage and wastewater generation:
- EDUCATE on the global water crisis
- AUDIT water usage
- MONITOR water usage and wastewater
- ENGAGE with stakeholders along supply chain
- UNDERSTAND emissions to water
- FOLLOW produce life cycles
- RECYCLE wastewater
- CAPTURE rainwater
- INSTALL water saving devices
- TRAIN your staff in water efficiency
- BONUS tips
1. EDUCATE on the global water crisis
We would argue that the most powerful thing you can do and that you should do first is to educate yourself and the people in your business about water. And we’re not talking about H20 or hydrogen bonding or capillary action. We’re talking about the global water crisis. Yes. There is a global water crisis. Explaining it is beyond the scope of this guide but we highly recommend you watch this explainer video:
Explained | World’s Water Crisis | Netflix
We also wanted to give you a few examples, some of which are in the above video, that help to illustrate the crisis we are in. One is when the (legislative) capital of South Africa almost ran out of water. Entirely. It’s the first major city to nearly do so and [happened] due to the combined factors of decreased rainfall, population growth and increased water consumption. That drought in 2018 caused widespread disruptions to agriculture, tourism, industry and the daily lives of all Capetonians. It happened to a large, modern city and it can happen anywhere.
Learn more about Cape Town’s Countdown to Day Zero
Another way to appreciate the water crisis is to understand the water in things. In other words, how much water it takes to make some everyday food and products. A standard cup of coffee, for example, has a water footprint of 130 litres. That is because it takes nearly 20K litres of water to produce a kilo of coffee beans. An apple is about 125L. A hamburger–wait for it–is about 1650L of water.
The Guardian | How much water goes into producing our food and drink?
The water footprints of various textiles are similarly astounding. You can read the tags on the clothing items you buy and it will say whether it is made from cotton or nylon or spandex or what percentage of each. But it will likely not tell you how much water was needed to produce it. Cotton, for example, is a very thirsty material. According to World Wildlife Federation:
“Amazingly, it can take 2,700 liters to produce the cotton needed to make a single t-shirt. This is the unseen or ‘virtual water’ we consume every day.”
And then there are microplastics. This is yet another crisis and we’ve included it here because, just like nutrients and minerals, microplastics are transported and dispersed by and in water. When a plastic water bottle is thrown in a river and it travels out to sea, it will slowly but surely break down into smaller and smaller pieces. These do not degrade like a branch or a banana peel, breaking down into their component molecules and elements which then reenter biological systems or else become sediment (think: ocean floor).
Instead, plastic in water simply floats about, breaking down into smaller and smaller and smaller pieces but always remaining as plastic. Plastic of all sizes gets eaten by fish of all sizes. It enters the food chain via our oceans and seas and then eventually our food chain as well. Yes. We eat plastic.
National Geographic | You eat thousands of bits of plastic every year
Read all you can on the water crisis, the water in things and microplastics. You may be surprised by what you learn. In fact, we wouldn’t be surprised if you were but that’s not your fault. These critical issues are not being given the coverage they should. They’re apparently not as newsworthy as when the Kardashians aired their last season or when Brangelina divorced. It’s as if we actually need to run out of water (or nearly, as Cape Town did) to really wake up to these crises.
AUDIT water usage
Your business’ water supplier may offer you a water audit to see how efficient your water usage is. Some may offer this for free. Some may even offer a personalised water management package to get the best water efficiency plan for your business. Take advantage of such an audit to get external expert advice.
MONITOR water usage and wastewater
Whether or not you opt to have a third party come into your business to assess your water usage (as in above), you would do well to monitor your own water usage, as well as waste water generation, in your direct operations. Think about your production and manufacturing. Think about usage in your canteen or kitchen. Think about your start-up and washdown routines. Leakages also are a great place to see where you could save water. And you should also think about water usage and wastewater across your supply chain (see next section).
You may choose to track your water usage with regular water meter readings, and not necessarily rely on your bill as these may differ. Be sure to check your meters at night or when no water is being used to find leakages. Be sure to install water submeters which will give you an even clearer picture of your business’ water usage and which will help you to identify potential areas of leakage or inefficient areas.
ENGAGE with stakeholders along supply chain
We recommend understanding where water is critical and/or used in high volumes along your supply chain. It is crucial to find out whether any part of your supply chain is vulnerable to water impacts so you can identify potential risks, current and future. Consider these questions:
- Are any of your suppliers located in water scarce areas?
- What actions are they taking in managing their water usage and wastewater?
- Do they have any water saving or efficiency measures or technologies in place?
- What are the water-related risks to your business along your supply chain?
- What are your contingency plans when these risks surface?
UNDERSTAND emissions to water
We also recommend understanding how your business might contribute to water pollution so that you will be better equipped to manage your environmental performance and comply with regulations. Consider these questions:
- Does your wastewater leach into local water sources and contaminate water supplies?
- Does your wastewater disrupt aquatic habitats?
- Does your wastewater contain nutrients and organic pollutants (eg in agriculture)?
- Does your wastewater contain VOCs (eg gasoline, fuels and solvents; paints, stains, strippers, and finishes; pesticides; personal care products; aerosol sprays, cleaners and deodorizers; new cabinets, furniture and beds; new carpets, rugs and wood floors)?
- Does your wastewater contain heavy metals (eg in industrial, domestic, agricultural, medical and technological applications)?
- Does your waste water contain microplastics?
FOLLOW product life cycles
It is critical to not only understand water usage and wastewater in your direct operations. It is equally important to understand the impact of your business on water during the lifecycle of the products you use, produce or sell. Consider these questions:
- Do the products you use, produce or sell release any of the above contaminants (eg nutrients, vocs, metals) when they are used or even stored?
- Do the products you use, produce or sell have an impact on water at the end of their life (eg litter, recycling, landfill)?
- Do the products you use, produce or sell have an impact when accidents occur (eg spills)?
You may choose to research water recycling schemes, sometimes referred to as grey water systems. These are often more viable in business settings than domestic settings and will have greater impact due to the scale of water usage. Determine where your wasted water is going and if or how you can recycle it in other areas of your business.
Some businesses may be able to benefit from yet another source of ‘free’ water: rain. Rain barrels (connected to downspouts and eavestroughs) can collect enough rainwater as needed for your green spaces. Do you have a small garden or patio? Or perhaps plants out in your car park? You could even use this water for the indoor plants you’ve scattered around your office, clever you.
WeWork | The benefits of indoor plants in the office run deeper than just aesthetics
INSTALL water saving devices
Green Salon Collective now sells EcoHead Black Edition in the online shop, so that is an easy start!
Water fittings in commercial, multi-occupancy buildings often experience more frequent use than in dwellings, which means that return on investment can be excellent. Some water-saving devices, settings and other tips that we have come across that we think might be of interest to you include:
- Urinal controls or waterless urinals
- Efficient flushing toilets
- Automatic or sensor taps (toilets or kitchen)
- Spray taps (kitchen)
- “Eco settings” for appliances like washing machines and dishwashers
- Insulated pipes (to prevent burst pipes from frost which result in water leakage)
TRAIN your staff in water efficiency
Educate your staff on the importance and practices of water efficiency. Our first section (EDUCATE on the water crisis) is a good reference for them, as well. Beyond education, you may choose to set water usage targets and encourage widespread involvement to achieve this. Going beyond even this, you may choose to get your employees actually trained in water efficiency. An example of this would be through WaterWise training which involves two 1.5 hour online sessions. Learn more here.
You may have learned from our first section that bottles (as in single use water bottles) require yet more water to produce, even if they are made from recycled plastic. Put another way: when you and your staff drink Evian or Fiji or Nestle water, you are also consuming all the water that was required to produce the bottle. We can appreciate that your staff may not be convinced your perfectly fine tap water is exactly that so here are some options to offer them instead of water bottles:
- Offer Brita or other filtration systems along with proper recycling for them charcoal filters
- Offer Sodastream or other carbonating systems for staff that prefer bubbly water
- Install filtration unit for entire water system (which will be advantageous for your pipes and appliances for those businesses with access only to hard water)
Remember microplastics? Did you know that laundering synthetic textiles releases microplastics into our waterways? You can combat this by installing an inexpensive water filtration device directly onto your washing machines and then changing the filters regularly. You can also provide GUPPYFRIEND washing bags or Cora Balls, both which capture microfibres in your laundry.
About the author
Stephanie Hodgson heads Green Salon Collective’s Research and Development department. She has been freelance writing and researching circular economy strategies for business for the past three years and currently works with us to manage research projects, especially those focusing on salon hair waste.
About the series
This article is part of a series on Holistic Sustainability which looks at less understood aspects of sustainability including water and energy (written by Stephanie Hodgson), money (written by Raechel Kelly) and diversity and inclusivity (written by Alix Bizet).
References and further reading
- Waterwise, Water efficiency at work
- WRAP, various water efficiency case studies
- Zero Waste Scotland, Implement a water minimisation programme for your business
- Bloomberg CityLab’s, Cape Town’s ‘Day Zero’ water crisis, one year later
- The Guardian’s, How much water goes into producing our food and drink?
- World Wildlife Federation, The impact of a cotton t-shirt
- National Geographic, You eat thousands of bits of plastic every year
- WeWork, The benefits of indoor plants in the office run deeper than just aesthetics
- GUPPYFRIEND washing bags
- Cora Balls, The world’s first microfibre catching laundry ball