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In April 2014, the Alliance for Water Stewardship officially launched its International Water Stewardship Standard. The announcement followed a four-year, multi-stakeholder collaborative process, and opened the door to an innovative framework for companies and other water users eager to address shared water challenges and risks at the catchment level.
Nearly a year out from the Standard’s release, Future 500 – stakeholder engagement experts and AWS Founding Partner – sat down with AWS Board Member and WWF water stewardship specialist Alexis Morgan to discuss the challenges of establishing a global standard, AWS’s successes & setbacks to date, and the rapidly evolving world of water stewardship.
Future 500: For those readers unfamiliar with the Alliance for Water Stewardship, can you describe what AWS is and how it came to be?
Alexis Morgan: The Alliance really emerged out of a joint recognition by several organizations that lots of people were talking about “water stewardship,” but there was no consensus about how to define it or what constituted “good” stewardship. Having watched what happened in the carbon space, with many standards and frameworks competing with one another, it was clear that water needed an over-arching, consistent approach. And so a group of organizations came together in 2007 to develop that approach, incorporating a new entity, the Alliance for Water Stewardship, in 2009. This dialogue soon led to setting a specific standard against which companies could set goals and make claims; we’ve been working on that ever since.
F500: And last April, you released the AWS Standard. What does that entail, and who is its target audience?
AM: That’s correct – the Standard was released last year [and is free to download] following a rigorous, multi-year collaborative process. The Standard was designed to be universally applicable – any geography, any sector – but its key trait is that it is meant to be used at the site level and get these sites to engage in their watershed to address shared water challenges. This is not a standard intended to broadly assess an entire company’s operations; it applies to a particular site where water is used. But that site can be anything from a mine, to a farm, to a public water treatment facility…even an NGO could be using the Standard to assess their work at a particular location. Again, though, the Standard provides a framework for what a site should be doing or thinking about beyond its fence line – approaching water stewardship from the watershed level.
F500: Why the watershed-based approach to water stewardship?
AM: The watershed approach was one of the fundamental premises of where this whole dialogue started - the recognition that water issues are shared, and that there’s only so much risk you can mitigate or benefits you can gain from addressing only your own operations. We wanted to encourage a shift from a “management” approach to a “leadership” approach - getting people to work with you without your ultimate control. The word “Stewardship” was an intentional language choice to emphasize this approach. This is not to say standards that take a narrow management approach aren’t effective; I see that as a great opportunity for partnerships between standards, in that they really complement one another. AWS Standard users can, and should, build off pre-existing work.
F500: Who are the key organizations involved in AWS?
AM: AWS was initially formed by The Nature Conservancy, the Pacific Institute and Water Stewardship Australia. But they reached out fairly quickly to other organizations having discussions in this space, and it wasn’t long before WWF, CDP, the United Nations CEO Water Mandate, the European Water Partnership, Water Witness International, Water Environment Federation and UNEP jumped on board. From there it’s continued to snowball, both in terms of formal partnerships and broader interest from the corporate and NGO communities. Hundreds of individuals from many different sectors and geographies gave critical input and perspective as the standard was established, and dozens of additional sites have come in to test and vet it subsequently.
Future 500: It seems like AWS really put in the legwork to secure broad stakeholder buy-in for the standard-setting process, but did you face any significant challenges or criticism?
AM: One of the things we decided upon relatively early that helped build support was to go through an ISEAL-compliant standard setting process. For those not familiar, the ISEAL Alliance is the global membership association for sustainability standards– think FSC, Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance. ISEAL provided a good foundation as we were designing governance, transparency, and other important components. It was a very time-consuming process, going through a global exercise with lots of outreach and engagement, but it helped us avoid common pitfalls and pushback.
Probably the most contentious part of the process was what the 15-member stakeholder group charged with incorporating input decided to include or not include. There were certainly pieces proposed and then removed, and others added in later when the group identified gaps via feedback. We got lots of interesting comments from NGOs, corporations and the public that we had to balance. For instance, toward the end there was a big push to add in WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) priorities. We were also challenged on how to define a company’s responsibilities outside its fence line, on how the roles of the private sector, governments and civil society interact. Those 15 individuals faced a huge challenge, but given their diversity of backgrounds (from different sectors & parts of the planet), I still believe they did a wonderful job.
F500: Has that “beyond the fence line” approach been a point of friction with potential Standard users?
AM: I don’t think it’s been a challenge getting companies to acknowledge that they’re impacted by things beyond their fence line, and that they have a responsibility to minimize downstream impacts. It’s pretty well established that a site is part of a community in corporate philosophy. Where it gets more complicated is – where is that line drawn in working together outside the fence line and to what extent ought they be involved in issues upstream? What is the balance between focusing on daily operations producing widgets versus addressing longer-term systemic risks that could put you out of business or hit your bottom line hard? We’re seeing almost every sector struggle to answer these questions, from electronics, to apparel, to utilities. The truth is there’s joint responsibility with government and communities and that makes it a very grey space. The buy-in to the concept is easy, but the implementation is very challenging.
So it hasn’t been a point of friction for participants so much as it’s made some hesitant. And we’re working on that. This process is largely learning by doing; this type of cross-sector collaboration on water is not something with huge precedent. Our vision is to ensure there are trusted parties that can play that “neutral broker” role; to build initial capacity and trust between stakeholders – similar to what groups like WWF and Future 500 do – but then ultimately empower external groups with more on-the-ground understanding to implement water stewardship over time.
F500: We’re almost one year out from the Standard’s release. What has the reception from the business community been thus far?
AM: I would describe it as mixed if were being brutally honest. We’ve certainly had a good amount of interest, but we have admittedly struggled with getting the full set of AWS programs – membership, training, and verification – completely operational. All of those are now really getting rolling, but it just hasn’t happened instantaneously. Well thought through exercises take time – especially when you’re on an NGO budget!
Informally, there’s been a lot of on-the-ground application of the Standard, with companies using it to frame their local stewardship efforts. And the reception there has been really positive. So a lot of anecdotal praise where we’re working to assemble case studies, but we’re still relying on some companies to take a slight leap of faith. Some still see it as a bit daunting at first.
F500: IS it daunting?
AM: I think a lot of things are daunting until you get your hands dirty. But I’ve seen a consistent trajectory with a lot of the site managers I’ve worked with: First, they see a huge guidance doc and feel overwhelmed. But as they get into it they realize, “Oh, I’m already doing that. Oh yeah, that’s no problem.” Those already doing ISO 14001 (an environmental management system standard) with strong existing water management practices realize they’re often covering 60-70% of the AWS Standard’s requirements. So most quickly realize that this is not only doable, but builds on what they’re already doing and makes sense because it brings in an engagement component that communities really respect.
F500: Any case studies you’re particularly proud of?
AM: One of our best experiences thus far has been with Ecolab’s manufacturing facility in Taicang, outside Shanghai, China. It’s a fairly new facility in the Yangtze Delta, an area with massive water pollution issues and actually relative water scarcity on a per capita basis. Ecolab started implementing the AWS Beta Standard when it was released in 2013, and continued with Version 1.0 when it came out last year. We’re now seeing that the site is realizing pretty strong commercial benefits in terms of operational efficiency. Local management has also been getting good attention from corporate headquarters for their performance, and it’s been helpful in establishing water stewardship principles for Ecolab as a whole, providing a template for similar practices at other facilities. They’re also excited to talk to neighbors and clients to “spread the word”, which is great. We think other sites are capable of achieving similar results.
F500: Is AWS going to solve the California drought?
AM: Ha, don’t we all wish! No, certainly not by itself. But it’s one of many tools that can be brought to bear to address the crisis. The drought is a radically complex circumstance that’s going to require a huge array of private and public sector initiatives. AWS can provide an organizing framework for many of these. But ultimately, addressing the drought is going to be an enormous collaboration exercise. The win isn’t “solving” the drought, rather the goal is to get people to share water resources and work together to make best use of these limited resources for the wellbeing of humans and nature.
F500: For organizations looking to get involved in AWS, what’s the best way?
AM: Start by going on the website and having a look at some of the materials. Download the Standard and have a look through it, or check out a webinar or a video overviewing the Standard. There are also a huge number of upcoming training opportunities where you can dive into the standard; we’re holding workshops all over the world. And you can always reach out to us directly at email@example.com, or to any of our Founding Partners; we’re happy to have a conversation.
F500: Lastly, and most importantly, what is your personal favorite use of water?
AM: I have a dual favorite use of water - I like to travel on water while consuming water-based products. A perfect day for me is taking my kayak to some remote island off of Vancouver Island and bringing along some of my home-brewed beer. Cheers!
Brent Tarnow is a Senior Manager, Stakeholder Engagement and Kellen Klein is a Manager, Stakeholder Engagement at , a global nonprofit that builds bridges between parties at odds — corporations and NGOs, the political right and left, and others — to advance systemic solutions to urgent sustainability challenges.
This is the most recent article in our series on Water - Scarcity and Solutions. For more articles, go to