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This week marks the 27th annual World Water Week – which brings together scientists, policy makers, businesses and charities to exchange ideas and foster new thinking around the most pressing water-related challenges today. 

At Marks & Spencer, water is critical to our business – our supply chains and operations depend on a healthy water supply. How else can we offer our customers our deliciously juicy strawberries or our fantastically crisp grapes?  We know that rain does not always fall where and when we need it – leading to drought or flooding, and water quality is not always at a level that it should be to host our complex ecosystems. So where does that leave the current demands of water from modern day life?

That’s where water stewardship comes in. It promotes anew way of thinking about water and its management, taking into account all the different users within the catchment area whether they be farmers, businesses,local communities or biodiversity rather than one in isolation.  It promotes water being fairly distributed with enough left to support nature and meet our needs preserve the quality and supply for years to come. 

At M&S, water management and stewardship form an integral part of our sustainability programme, Plan A. That’s why when we unveiled PlanA 2025, a bigger, bolder version of Plan A earlier this year, we set an ambitious target to implement a water stewardship programme for our most material and at-risk watersheds in our Food and Clothing & Home supply chains by 2020. 

It’s not going to be easy and we certainly we can’t do it alone. The first challenge we have is our complex supply base.  We have over 600 first tier suppliers with approximately 10,000 farms and hundreds of thousands of smallholder farms around the world.  Not only that, each of these growers are sited within their own unique ecological system - all with different cultures, languages, legislative and governance frameworks.  No one solution fits all. 

We’ve made a good start on our water stewardship journey through our partnership with WWF and our close relationship with our suppliers.   

Our first step was to get a better understanding of our water use – of which more than 90% is within our supply chains – and to identify our ‘at risk’ areas using the WWF Water Risk Filter and mapping that against our own supply and business continuity risks.  

We’ve looked at ways that our suppliers can improve their water efficiency. As part of our Food sustainability scorecard, where we encourage suppliers to embed the water stewardship approach within their businesses and supply chains, we’ve seen water usage by direct suppliers reduce by 8.5 million m3 each year. We know there is much more to do, such as our suppliers taking action to proactively and protect shared freshwater resources,so we’ve built this into our ‘Gold’ standard level for suppliers and committed that 50% of M&S Food will come from factories at our ‘Gold’ level by 2025.  

We have learnt some great lessons through our existing programme within the Western Cape, South Africa, a key agricultural area for stone fruit, apples, pears, citrus and grapes, where there is a highly variable climate which makes both droughts and flooding common risks to consider. 

In a collaborative partnership with WWF, Woolworths, and a number of other water stewardship organisations, we have worked with farmers in the area to implement stewardship thinking, work with community groups on urban water quality issues and clear foreign plants which use a lot of water. There have been many benefits to M&S as a result, including improved relationships with our suppliers and increased stability of supply, which in turn has benefited the farmers too. The programme has also taught us to recognise the impact of key local events, such as elections which in some countries can be a volatile issue, whilst also ensuring the team can adapt to the language and culture of the many stakeholders that they will need to engage with.  

We also know it’s important to ‘buddy up’ with other retailers and suppliers, and work in close partnership to understand the complex arrangement and demands of users within that water catchment area. For example, in Doñana, where 70% of Spanish strawberries are grown, berry production is putting a great strain on water resources and a detrimental impact on the protected wetlands. This simply isn’t something we can fix alone, so we have been working in collaboration with over 80 other brands and WWF through the SAI Platform to help improve water management in the region.  

We also recognise the need to work patiently and collaboratively with our stakeholders to effect change on the ground. This collective action is the only way to scale up and make a real difference to the management of water across a region. With this driving force of collective action, promoting the importance of strong local governance and ensuring that existing legislative frameworks are evolved is key to ensuring that the water stewardship action is not a temporary fix but works for many years to come – providing that longevity of supply and sustainability.   

Moving forward, we are looking forward to being part of that important journey, of changing the mindset from water management and efficiency to looking at the whole water community through stewardship and ensuring that we can continue to provide excellent products to our customers. We will continue to take steps to further embed water stewardship in the business and to promote good water stewardship in supply chains, particularly in our high risk areas and products. 

You can find out more about our journey so far in ‘The Water Stewardship Journey for Businesses with Advice from WWF and M&S’ at