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Waterworld: How beverage company Diageo is rethinking water usage

NEW YORK, Jan 7 (Reuters) - When you sit down at the end of the day with a glass of Johnnie Walker or Captain Morgan, you probably do not think much about all the water that goes into that glass.

But Perry Jones does.

As head of the North American supply chain for beverage behemoth Diageo Plc - which produces not only the above brands, but everything from Tanqueray gin to Don Julio tequila to Guinness beer - the buck stops with Jones.

So from the water used in producing raw materials, to the water in the finished product, to the wastewater produced along the way, Jones is constantly thinking about how to source it, how to treat it, and how to use less of it.

It is a pressing issue on a global scale: Climate change, droughts, population growth and pollution are all squeezing supply. As a result, 2 billion people live in nations that are facing water stress, according to the United Nations.

Reuters sat down with Jones to peek into the future of a most precious global resource. Edited excerpts are below.

Q: You are rethinking your relationship to water, so what targets have you set?

A: We have set our 2030 goals, which represent our 10-year ambition for a more inclusive and sustainable world.

We are focusing on three areas: One is promoting responsible drinking, the second is championing inclusion and diversity, and the third is devoted to grain-to-glass sustainability. That means things like water preservation, replenishing sources, carbon neutrality, wastewater treatment, sustainable packaging, and supporting small farmers.

Q: What does this mean in terms of water usage?

A: We have already made a lot of progress, but from this point forward we are calling for another 30% reduction in our water usage by 2030. We want to leave Earth in a better place than we found it, so at a minimum we want to replenish what we are taking.

Q: How exactly do you replenish water sources?

A: There are a few different ways you can look at it. One is the planting of trees, which reduces runoff and helps get water back into aquifers.

Another is to improve water quality and access to clean drinking water – in India, for example, we set up community water purification plants with chillers and water ATMs in villages in the Nagpur district. Other projects cover rainwater harvesting, wetland restoration and desilting dams.

Q: How do your water targets filter down to the factory level – or how do suggestions filter up?

A: We have a management process where we review what our actual water usage is, versus what our theoretical usage should be, every day across the globe. So water issues or concerns or suggestions get elevated up to the manager level, then to site directors, then to VPs, then to the C-Suite level.

We have metering that tells us what came in the door, how it was deployed, and how much went out in the product. That helps us identify any losses, so we can correct them.

Q: How is technology helping with these goals?

A: You want to get water usage to the optimum level the equipment is designed for, and where the systems are outdated and you can’t meet your water targets, you want to upgrade to new technology.

For example, in our Plainfield, Illinois, plant, we saw a 40% reduction in water usage. And in one of our Canadian plants, we reduced our water loss by 50%.

Q: People are worried about water supplies, so has this issue become front-and-center in recent years?

A: It has always been a center of discussion, but what I am seeing is a broader collaboration across the beverage industry, as we support each other on this journey. We may be competitors when we go to market, but when it comes to sustainability we look at everyone as a partner.

We share technology and learning, because we don’t operate in a vacuum. This is a much bigger issue than just our company.

Q: When you are having a drink, do you think about all this stuff?

A: I’m a vodka drinker, so I usually drink Smirnoff. I think about everything that went into that glass, and I’m proud of it. (Reporting by Chris Taylor in New York Editing by Lauren Young and Matthew Lewis)

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