As international concerns about water usage and quality increase, businesses from food processing to power plants are getting smarter about managing this vital resource.
They are seeing water in a new light: a key part of their sustainable future. Helping them on this mission is Ecolab. Based in St. Paul, Minnesota, Ecolab operates in 170 countries with 49,000 employees and posts annual sales of about $15 billion as it helps companies and governments solve water use issues.
Emilio Tenuta, Ecolab's vice president of sustainability, is a 30-year company veteran as enthusiastic and optimistic about finding solutions today as he was as a new graduate with a chemistry degree from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.
You must look at water as an asset rather than a disposable liability.
"It's been my good fortune," he says. "I'm so grateful to work for a company with such a powerful purpose where sustainability is at the core of it. Ecolab is not only growing from a business standpoint but also doing good in the world."
Tenuta says it's a big business getting bigger as customers embrace sustainability as a core value. In 2018, he says, Ecolab helped save 188 billion gallons of water at its 3 million customer sites around the world in chemical plants and pulp mills, at manufacturers and food processors, in hospitals and restaurants. Ecolab systems manage more than 1.1 trillion gallons of water and in 2018 its customers also saved more than 19 trillion BTU's of energy, with "a lot of that embedded in water savings," he says.
Food giant ADM is saving 2.3 billion gallons of water with Ecolab's technology
For example, ADM, one of the world's largest food and agriculture companies, is saving 2.3 billion gallons of water over six years with Ecolab's water sensor that helps reduce and reuse water for grain processing. JW Marriott Singapore, a hotel that washes up to 5,000 plates daily, has reduced detergent use and is better managing water temps using Ecolab's solutions.
"We've been working with our customers to drive circular solutions, moving away from linear. We live in a linear world—it's flush and forget," he says. "All you need is a change of mindset and behavior. You must look at water as an asset rather than a disposable liability."
That sustainable message is one that Tenuta says is becoming engrained from the factory floor to the corporate board room.
"Big multinational companies are absolutely on to this. They're focused on water stewardship. They're focused on joining forces to band together and drive collaboration in priority watersheds where they can work together," he says.
Impact through stewardship
Ecolab was a founding member in 2009 of the Alliance for Water Stewardship (AWS), a public-private network of major water users to create a global water standard and promote sustainable water management. Companies like Coca-Cola and General Mills and NGOs including The Nature Conservancy and World Wildlife Fund were also among the founding members.
"We've reached a point where more and more companies are following the AWS standard and even certifying sites around the world," Tenuta says.
Ecolab helps Marriott hotel manage water as it washes 5,000 plates a day.
Tenuta and Ecolab have often stepped into the role of regional water consultant. Water supply and use is different with location, season, and climate, with the situation in Minnesota, for instance, vastly different from California, he says. The Santa Ana watershed in Southern California—a food-processing hub home for Nestle, General Mills, and PepsiCo among others—is an example. Ecolab was a founding member of a collaborative that includes environmental groups, food companies, farmers and others with the mission to improve California's water security.
"Many companies are developing these more targeted goals in critical watersheds that have high water stress conditions," Tenuta says. "At the end of the day that's where we need to start to move the needle on water resiliency, where the problem is most acute."
Ecolab tools like Smart Water Navigator and the Water Risk Monetizer, both free online, were designed to inform businesses of their water risks and help them manage it. Tenuta was a driver in the creation of the Water Risk Monetizer, the first publicly available tool in the water industry. Today, Ecolab has more than 40,000 sensors deployed worldwide integrating its cutting-edge 3D Trasar smart technology that helps customers conserve and reuse water globally.
"Future generations are going to have a much different view of water than we do. Ecolab is at the forefront of this," says Tim Mulrooney, a William Blair analyst who covers the industrial sector. "They know the regions of the world that are most stressed and will be there to provide novel solutions to help manage water shortages."
I feel we have the technology. It really comes down to the execution and having the right partners to execute.
Tenuta sees momentum building toward expanding the mindset of sustainability. A survey compiled by Ecolab and consultancy GreenBiz this year showed that of the 90 companies with $1 billion or more of annual revenues, a majority—about 80%—are disclosing performance toward publicly stated sustainability goals. "The challenge is that 44% did not have a plan to get it done at the local level," he says, "and that as many as 50% report water use has gone up since 2015, not down."
"I've always been a student of understanding corporate water risks but I'm also big on collaboration," Tenuta says. "I feel we have the technology. It really comes down to the execution and having the right partners to execute."
William Blair has had a long-term relationship with Ecolab that extends to several business units.