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Water vs. Climate as an Immediate Environmental Risk for Businesses

The general trend with the companies across the world is that they focus climate change as the most important issue to address in their sustainability strategy. However climate change is one among the issues along with other environmental impacts such as emissions from power plants and transportation, water scarcity which threatens the food production system, water and soil pollution.

In recent times companies have started to progressively integrate wide range of issues such as water crisis, biodiversity, deforestation and land use change due to increased pressure from stakeholders, NGOs and as a part of CSR strategy of the companies. Water crisis in particular has gained momentum and tops the World Economic Forum’s Global Risk report. Water, the resource has now started to attract the much needed attention due to wider media coverage and events such as droughts have brought in awareness among the companies and communities at large. Water use stands out be an immediate environmental risk and businesses should shift their short term focus on water use while implementing climate change impact reduction plans for the long term.

Alongside climate change companies have started to explore how to quantify their impact on water resources via; water footprint. Many companies have developed a plan to address the water related issues by incorporating it in their sustainability strategy next to climate change. Climate and water issues both provide big opportunity for businesses to shift strategies towards achieving sustainability goals and reaching the triple bottom line.

With this background, the questions that arise include: Between water use and climate change which is an immediate environmental risk? When making a decision on where to invest your environmental assets, where should businesses concentrate their efforts — on climate change or on water? The answer to these questions is being explained from a case study of Steelcase. Steelcase is a the global leader in office furniture which uses wide range of materials linked to a complex supply chain with worldwide customers and recognized for producing Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) for a large range of products. Steelcase here has come out with an innovative approach by using the latest developments in Life Cycle Assessment methodology.

Life Cycle Assessment (LCA)

LCA aims at measuring the environmental impact along the life cycle of products and companies, from raw materials, including the entire supply chain, as well as direct operations and production plants, distribution, use and end of life stages. LCA covers more than fifteen environmental issues with specific metrics to quantify their impact. These environmental impacts are linked to what we aim to protect – human health, ecosystem, climate and resources. Climate change is often considered separately from human health, ecosystem quality and resources although it has a definite impact on human health, ecosystems and resources. Here a comparison can be drawn on impact of climate change on human health and ecosystems, with potential impact arising from water related issues.

Water use is a relatively new issue within LCA and sustainability although it has been considered as basic performance indicator in plant operations in earlier times. With the advent of new development and ISO 14046 standard addressing water footprint, it is now possible to measure the environmental impact on human health and ecosystems using water. Steelcase lounge-seating product “B-free” was used as the case study, because different component materials — wool, metals, plastics — provided a good example of an industrial product. Steelcase focused on climate change and water use related indicators although other additional environmental indicators were also considered for calculation. Results indicated that climate change remains the main priority for Steelcase as compared to water use. They assessed minimum and maximum scenario for water use impacts by selecting extreme locations where ecosystems and human health might be strongly affected by water use. However in the case of Steelcase extreme scenario is quite unlikely considering their own production and supplier locations. Most of the water used in the world (>70%) is linked to agricultural production and Steelcase products are not based on agriculture apart from wool and wood which does not require high water use rates. Wool is an agriculture derived product and wood is also processed and dyed using water, so these contributions are accounted as a part of water use related indicator.

Importance of Water Use Compared to Climate in Time Perspective Scenario

Water used during production, at 0 year reflects the dominant impact for the first 2-10 years. From 10 -100+ years climate change has a greater impact than water use because the green house gases emitted at 0 year progresses heating up the atmosphere over the years.

Sensitivity to Material Choices

The influence of the choice of the textile material as the base scenario of the products was assessed with wool coming from New Zealand. Polyester, virgin as well as recycled as well different origin of wool from USA was assessed. Results showed that material types do influence significantly both indicators; however climate change dominated the results.

Water Footprint Methodologies

Water footprint methodologies are still evolving and in early stages of development, Steelcase explored sensitivity analysis and different water use impact assessment methods and observed that results are not altered by the choice of method.

Other Environmental Issues

The advantage of LCA methodology is that it can compare not only climate change and water use, but also other relevant environmental issues. These issues are assessed for human health and ecosystems. In the context of ecosystem impact in Steelcase case land use showed greater importance than climate change in long term as wool and wood contributes significantly to land use indicator. Depending upon the environmental issue relevance to human health and ecosystems differs, example: particulate matter emissions are more relevant to human health than ecosystem quality, contrary eutrophication; acidification and land use are more relevant to ecosystem quality.

Insights of the Steelcase Case Study

The results of Steelcase case study shows that most of the environmental impacts occur in supply chain, production and transformation of materials used for the furniture. Steelcase operations have limited contribution to overall environmental impact. The LCA approach allowed them to breakdown the product’s environmental impact per life cycle stage. LCA plays an essential role in managing company’s environmental impact by progressing as a key sustainability metrics. Though water related issues has emerged as a top sustainability agenda in recent times by many companies however in some cases the issues are driven by stakeholders concerns rather than based on concrete environmental impact bench mark.

Based on the findings of the case study four essential concepts to consider for a successful sustainability strategy includes:

  1. Consider how environmental impact happens over time

  2. Use LCA metrics to prioritize and complement your materiality assessment.

  3. Plan to include other environmental issues.

Consider water pollution as being a much more important issue than water use.

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