Current practice in water target setting


Current practice in corporate water target setting

The 2016 Annual Report of Corporate Water Disclosure,1 published by CDP, indicates that 17 percent of over 600 responding companies are beginning to factor a broader range of contextual issues into their water risk assessments. Considering these issues – such as regulatory changes or stakeholder conflicts concerning water resources – allows companies to develop a more complete picture of the local water context. Recognition of a broader range of stakeholders can also support the identification of a wider variety of shared water challenges. However, the same report also indicates that only 13 percent of responding companies achieved best practice for broad stakeholder engagement while completing their water risk assessments.

Just as companies set water targets for many reasons, they may disclosure of those targets hoping to serve a variety of purposes. The data within CDP’s 2016 Annual Report indicate that reported company targets broadly remain (internally) operationally focused. However, the evidence also suggests that companies are starting to set more externally focused targets as they become more aware of the importance of the shared nature of water challenges. This trend is reinforced by an emerging number of context-based approaches, including BIER’s pioneering Performance in Context Tool (see Box 2), Center for Sustainable Organizations’ Context-Based Sustainability (see Box 1),2 and World Resource Institute’s recent work with Mars.3

An argument can be made that in order to effectively demonstrate materiality in terms of water risk mitigation, organizations will need to have a balance of both internally focused operational targets and externally oriented targets that consider:

  • The status of the context within which they operate or the suppliers from whom they buy;
  • The evolving scientific data and understanding of local water issues; and
  • Wider public sector water planning objectives and policy initiatives, such as the SDGs.


The continuum from context-informed to context-based water targets

Collectively, we recognize that a shift to CBWTs will not occur overnight. Furthermore, we recognize that these changes are not starting from scratch; companies have a long history of working on water issues in context and, indeed, acknowledging context in their water targets (e.g., very strict – or even zero – water use for sites located in areas of extreme scarcity).

However, many of these approaches are developed unilaterally by companies without participation from relevant stakeholders in the basin. As such, they are quite likely to not fully address the wide range of perspectives and needs (e.g., “sufficiency”) implied by a “contextbased” approach.

We believe that a continuum of approaches (see Figure 1) will likely be required as companies shift from contextual to stronger forms of CBWTs that include more robust, consensus-driven processes.

Figure 1

Box 2 Case Study from the Beverage Sector: Performance in Watershed Context


BIER4 member companies are in a unique position to further accelerate global water stewardship by making more informed investment and partnership decisions at the basin level globally. In 2015, BIER published a Concept Paper, Performance in Watershed Context, defining a practical perspective on managing water-related performance in the context of local basin conditions.

BIER members collaborated in developing and pilot-testing a decision support tool with a representative set of global beverage facilities. The working concept is that for every defined impact or dependency that a beverage facility has within a given basin, an associated performance expectation could be defined.

Pilot Test Insights
Based upon the initial pilot test, BIER is evaluating key insights gained that will drive further development, refinement, and collaboration efforts. The following are examples of these insights from the pilot test:

  • Context-based thinking provides an important, fresh, and holistic perspective on basin conditions, which leads to more informed decisions on potential actions, investments, and collaborations.
  • Basin-specific data is not consistently or readily available globally, including fundamental data such as water use by domestic, agriculture, and industry user types.
  • The dynamic and local nature of basin conditions requires an agile approach to effectively instill context-based decision-making for global companies operating in hundreds of local contexts. The challenge is defining an approach that prioritizes the most meaningful investments in a manner that balances available basin expertise, alignment with company-specific risk management and corporate planning processes, and day-to-day operational realities at the facility level.

Path Forward
BIER plans to publish additional insights from their work on Performance in Watershed Context in 2017, and will continue to collaborate with leading organizations active with context- and science-based target setting.

Comparability to CBWTs
The aim of BIER’s decision support tool and CBWT are slightly different. Both look at basin conditions. BIER’s approach is focused on how a facility is dependent upon and impacts the basin while CBWT focuses on how a facility’s water use, combined with that of other water users, contributes to basin sustainability. The CBWT approach complements BIER’s decision support tool because it provides guidance for companies to set more meaningful facility-specific metrics and corresponding targets. Together, the two approaches will help companies ensure that their performance continues to improve basin conditions.

drawing of a watershed
Image sourced from the Michigan Sea Grant, An Introduction to Michigan Watersheds: A Guide for Teachers, Students and Residents
  1. CDP (2016). 2016 Annual Report of Corporate Water Disclosure: Thirsty Business: Why water is vital to climate action. Available at
  2. Center for Sustainable Organizations (2016). Context-based sustainability (CBS). Further information and resources are available at
  3. Putt del Pino, S., et al. (2016). From Doing Better to Doing Enough: Anchoring corporate sustainability targets in science. WRI and Mars Inc. Available at Putt del Pino, S., et al. (2016). From Doing Better to Doing Enough: Anchoring corporate sustainability targets in science. WRI and Mars Inc. Available at
  4. For more information on the Beverage Industry Environmental Roundtable (BIER) see: http://www.
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