Great Lakes CEOs Lead Global Commitment for Responsible Water Use

By Laura Asiala

A quarter of the CEOs who have signed an open letter via the United Nations Global Compact to improve the way their companies use and manage water hail from companies who make their corporate home in the Great Lakes Region, a region which includes 20% of the world’s fresh water and 84% of North America’s surface fresh water. 

It would be easy to think of the Great Lakes region as ‘not stressed’ for water, but that would be wrong. So it’s especially important to acknowledge the leadership of  Mary Barra, General Motors; David MacLennan, Cargill;  Jim Fitterling, Dow;  Douglas Baker*, EcoLab;  and Emmanuel “Manny” Chirico, PVH Corp., joining another  dozen CEOs from around the world.

“As the climate crisis intensifies, the impacts on our shared freshwater resources are far reaching,” said Dow CEO Jim Fitterling. “Businesses like Dow depend on having abundant freshwater to ensure the continued safe operation of our manufacturing facilities worldwide. We have both the responsibility and opportunity to collaborate with other sectors of society on solutions, combining our resources and efforts to ensure there are sustainable and resilient freshwater resources for all.” 

Mark Fisher, CEO of the Council of the Great Lakes Region noted, “While the region’s access to water appears abundant and endless, the region’s water resources are in fact finite, requiring high levels of attention and stewardship from government and industry users – such as manufacturing, power generation, and farming. For example, only 1% of the waters of the Great Lakes are renewed on an annual basis by precipitation, underground water reservoirs, and surface run-off. Furthermore, even though the region’s water resources are cleaner today than they were during periods of heavy industrialization, many of the region’s water resources continue to face serious risks from pollution, urban sprawl, depleting aquifers, habitat loss, invasive species, and the consequences of climate change, stressing regional watersheds and ecosystems beyond their limits. We believe that the binational Great Lakes basin and region could to be an important area of focus for the CEO Water Mandate and the Water Resilience Coalition.”

Companies around the world are increasingly recognizing the value of water through working with initiatives like the Valuing Water Initiative – and the impact that water scarcity poses to their businesses.  A 2020 report from the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) estimates that some $301 billion of business value is at risk due to water stewardship challenges.  

In their open letter the CEOs are calling for three overarching commitments from industry leaders to meet by 2050:

  • Net-Positive Water Impact: Deliver measurable net-positive impact in water-stressed basins where they operate, focusing on the availability, quality, and accessibility of freshwater resources. Net-positive water impact is achieved when a water user’s contributions exceed its impacts on water stress in the same region.
  • Water Resilient Value Chains: Develop, implement, and enable strategies to support leading impact-based water resilience practices across the global value chain.
  • Global Leadership: Raise the ambition of water resilience through public and corporate outreach, as well as inspire other industry leaders to join the Coalition and sign a Pledge.

Commenting on the call to action from CEOs, Sanda Ojiambo, CEO & Executive Director of the United Nations Global Compact said: “This open letter is an important step to elevate water stress to the top of the corporate agenda. The business sector has a key role to play to help lead the way towards water resilience because of its reach and the resources it can leverage to accelerate progress. This can not only help cut water risk but is also a business opportunity for enhanced investment in water security.”

According to the UN-Water press release issued March 22, 2021, the impacts of climate change are felt first and foremost through water.  Increasing global temperatures cause drought, flooding and other extreme weather events 一 all of which pose a direct threat to businesses and the communities they operate in.  Water scarcity in particular is a major financial concern for businesses.  Today 3.6 billion people worldwide live in water-stressed areas and without further action based on projected demand, the world will face a 56 percent shortfall in freshwater supply relative to demand by 2030.  

The Water Resilience Coalition, whose corporate members boast a $2.8 trillion total market capitalization, is an initiative of the UN Global Compact’s CEO Water Mandate. The CEOs involved are focusing on finding climate smart water solutions that address water stress.  

Through these commitments, the Coalition aims to positively impact water in 100 basins worldwide and to enable sustainable access to drinking water and sanitation for 100 million people by 2030.

About the Water Resilience Coalition

The Water Resilience Coalition brings together some of the biggest companies in the world to help preserve the world’s freshwater resources. Led by the CEO Water Mandate, an initiative of the UN Global Compact, coalition members will commit to having a positive impact in water stressed basins, to develop and implement resilient practices across their industry, and to provide leadership and advocacy in the field of water resilience. 

About United Nations Global Compact

As a special initiative of the UN Secretary-General, the United Nations Global Compact is a call to companies everywhere to align their operations and strategies with Ten Principles in the areas of human rights, labor, environment and anti-corruption. With more than 12,000 companies and 3,000 non-business signatories based in over 160 countries, and 69 Local Networks, the UN Global Compact is the world’s largest corporate sustainability initiative — one Global Compact uniting business for a better world.

Editor’s Note

*Douglas Baker is the Executive Chairman of the Board of EcoLab and a signatory of the company’s commitment to water resilience in this open letter. Christophe Beck succeeded Baker as the company’s chief executive officer effective January 1, 2021, becoming president and chief executive officer.

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