It says a lot about how the debate around sustainability has changed in the last decade that corporate statements around carbon reductions or switching to renewable energy are in many cases no longer enough to warrant massive headlines.
But there are plenty of other issues around the environment that could be addressed at a boardroom level, including the growing issue of water scarcity.
According to new data from the World Resources Institute, 25 countries face extremely high water stress each year, meaning they use over 80% of their renewable water supply for irrigation, livestock, industry and domestic needs.
The data also warns at least 50% of the world’s population — around 4 billion people — live under highly water-stressed conditions for at least one month of the year.
And it claims global water demand is projected to increase by 20% to 25% by 2050.
Given concerns about scarcity and the need for resilient infrastructure, it is little wonder that some of the world’s biggest companies are now setting sustainability goals around water.
Microsoft has publicly pledged to become water positive and replenish more water than it consumes on a global basis by 2030, as part of the company’s wider set of sustainability commitments.
“No company can operate without water,” said Microsoft’s senior program manager, Eliza Roberts in an interview.
“And we have a responsibility to help protect freshwater resources in the places where we operate and where there is high water stress.”
Roberts told me Microsoft’s water positive commitment has five key pillars.
The first is to reduce water usage intensity across all of its global operations. This has included work around its datacenters, which in cooler environments, such as Sweden and Finland, now require no freshwater from municipal sources for cooling.
The second is to replenish more water than it consumes in locations that are also in high water stress regions.
Since 2019, Microsoft has invested more than $7 million in replenishment projects around the world, ranging from watershed protection to agricultural water efficiency
The third is to help provide access to water and sanitation services to people around the world.
Since 2020, it has partnered with Water.org to provide microloans for a range of water solutions, such as installation of toilets and taps and improved water storage, to people in India, Indonesia, Mexico and Brazil.
Microsoft has also reached a preliminary agreement with WaterEquity to be the first investor in the Water and Climate Resilience Fund, subject to execution of final documents.
The fund will focus exclusively on investing in municipal-level climate-resilient water and sanitation infrastructure for low-income populations in countries in South and Southeast Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America.
Roberts added the fourth pillar is to engage in policy discussions around supply and access on a national and international level and the fifth is to help drive innovation across the water sector.
She said it was important for other companies looking at the issue of consumption to look at where in the world they are operating and how much water they are using.
“Setting a goal is a really important next step, whether it’s to become water positive or have separate reduction targets,” Roberts told me.
“Goals can drive action and ensure companies are accountable and that leadership is onboard and supportive of the teams leading on this work.
“The more people experience water challenges first hand, the more it becomes real to them,” she added.
“Water is a local challenge, which is why we are investing in a range of projects that can be impactful in the water-stressed communities where we operate. We are looking for the right types of projects, in the right locations, with credible partners.”
Microsoft has also recently announced a water replenishment project in London with FIDO Tech that will be delivered through AI-led leak detection.
FIDO’s co-founder and chief executive, Victoria Edwards told me “if climate change was a shark, then water would be its teeth”.
“Without an efficient water supply, we can’t do the transformational work we need to try and get anywhere close to net zero,” she added
Emilio Tenuta, senior vice president and chief sustainability officer at Ecolab Inc. said in an email that other corporations, including Coca-Cola and PepsiCo have also set meaningful corporate water pledges.
Tenuta added in 2020, Ecolab and Microsoft – alongside five other founding members: AB InBev, Diageo, Dow Inc., Gap Inc., & PVH Corp – launched the Water Resilience Coalition.
Today, he said more than 35 corporate members have committed to prioritize efficient and replenishable water use within their operations, as well as collaborating to deliver measurable outcomes.
“We also know that time is running out and additional action is needed for substantive change,” he added.