Stakeholder Spotlight: Tom Williams

April 30, 2020 | BIER

Meet Tom Williams

Name: Tom Williams, Director of Water

Company: World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD)

Connect with Tom on LinkedIn and Twitter

Welcome to our series aimed at spotlighting the individual leaders within BIER member companies and stakeholder organizations. Learn how these practitioners and their companies are addressing pressing challenges around water, energy, agriculture, climate change and what inspires each of them to advance environmental sustainability in the beverage sector and collectively, overall.

Briefly describe your role and responsibilities and how long you have worked with your organization.

I have worked with the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) since September 2018, I lead our work on water, engaging with member companies on a range of projects and advocacy efforts related to domestic, industrial and agricultural water use.

How has the organization’s sustainability initiatives evolved over the years and what are your priorities for 2020?

WBCSD is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, over this time our engagement with companies on sustainability issues has gained breadth – with six programs: Climate & Energy, Food & Nature, Circular Economy, People, Redefining Value and Cities & Mobility – and depth, contributing to initiatives such as the Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) and Science Based Targets (SBTs). From a water perspective, we have been active in this space for 15 years, pioneering work on water-risk mapping through the Global Water Tool and key topics such as valuing water.

What are your impressions of BIER and what do you feel has been the group’s impact on private sector environmental sustainability?

What I like about BIER is that it fully embraces the principles of pre-competitive collaboration amongst industry peers to raise the standards and expectations of environmental performance. The group has recognized that through collective action they can have a greater impact than working in isolation.

What is one specific area (e.g. topic, work product, etc…) where BIER got your attention and why?

Given my interest and role, it’s obviously water! The beverage industry has been a pioneer and leader in water stewardship for many years, for obvious reasons. Through BIER, they continue to lead the way on many concepts, including true cost of water, collaborative watershed management and more recently, water reuse and recycling.

Share a recent accomplishment of your organization’s sustainability initiatives/achievements you are most proud of and why.

What’s been impressive over the last 3 years or so is how WBCSD has developed a highly credible food system transformation narrative that has mobilized business and initiated several key partnerships. Suddenly the food system has garnered intense interest as a problem and solution area for climate, biodiversity, and equality. We are engaging with business across the food value chain – from agri-input companies to retailers – to understand what it takes to transition to a food system that is providing healthy diets for all within our planetary boundaries. This is tackling issues such as agricultural practices, dietary shifts, food loss, and waste and farmers’ livelihoods. And water cuts across all these areas, as an enabler and potential beneficiary. So, there is a great opportunity, as we reduce food loss and waste, for example, to also reduce agricultural water use.

If you had one superpower that could be used to radically accelerate and scale sustainable best practices, which one would it be and how would you use it?

The fantastic thing is we don’t need any superpowers to accelerate and scale! It’s all within our capabilities. We need to: 1. Align incentives amongst stakeholders, this means aligning human rights, public policies, and business models – this takes time and trade-offs; 2. Develop incentives  in a circular economy context, this is what will drive systems transformations – value chains and regulations need to adapt accordingly; 3. Drive towards an economic system that comprehensively and consistently internalizes externalities, such as carbon emissions and water pollution – this will change the course of economic development.

You mentioned you are working with your (WBCSD) member companies on a range of projects and advocacy efforts. You also mentioned you liked the BIER work due to its pre-competitive collaborative type approach. Are you seeing any adoption of this pre-competitive collaboration engagement with your member companies and industries as a whole? Or, is there still acting in a silo?

Yes. Still see both. Many spaces are still viewed as being pretty competitive. Not everybody has the sort of consistent understanding of what (pre-competitive collaboration) it means. One of the most practical descriptions I have heard,from one of our member companies, was that pre-competitive cooperation raises the floor and competition raises the ceiling. So my interpretation of that is, for example, when we collaborate pre-competitively, we’re sort of improving on behaviors and our standards, which brings everyone together. For example, we work a lot in the agricultural space and for certain commodities like sugar and rice, there are industry standards that consolidate a range of best practices that companies should propagate to farmers, for example.

And it’s not about competition in terms of increasing how much revenue you get.  It is increasing the standards of how you cooperate across your value chains, for example. And that becomes interesting. What we found with financiers, for example, investors, if across the value chain certain companies are adhering to an agreed set of universal principles and standards, that means that there’s a level playing field that they can start creating some innovative financial products, for example.

So, this pre-competitive space is still not consistently or coherently understood as a concept amongst the mainstream.  But I think it can be very powerful because if you have a group of companies that subscribe to it and actually take actions towards it, it can move a whole sector or whole industry as opposed to just collaborating around competitive positions, for example.

Regarding your response to the superpower question, you mentioned that we really don’t need to have a superpower. That we can accelerate and scale and the solutions are within our capabilities. Based on that response and in your view, what would it take for global companies to embrace the process you mentioned?

I think a big part of it is having a longer-term view. Many businesses can quite comfortably have that “business as usual” approach for the next two or three years and not feel the pinch. But if they were to take a longer-term view over 10, 15 years, for example, they would better understand the changes that are happening now, the potential magnitude, and may sit up and realize that they need to change.

They need to collaborate in a pre-competitive environment. They need to be responding more to some of the investors calls for, stakeholders over shareholders, for example. So I think a part of it is to have a longer-term view. This is especially relevant being based here in India running the water program. A lot of the companies are feeling the pinch now as it relates to water. It’s something that keeps CEOs of Indian companies awake at night because in some instances it’s closing some of their manufacturing sites and hitting the bottom line.

Today is going to be happening in five or 10 years’ time. So learn lessons from some of the companies and geographies where it’s water-scarce that these changes are going to happen. Listen to some of these, whether it’s investor calls or whether it’s the consumers who are becoming more attuned to some of these environmental and social issues. So I think that longer-term perspective might be the thing that nudges some of these companies towards this more pre-competitive collaboration space.

Building on that, are there BIER work products related to agriculture or water that you feel correlate specifically with anything you have mentioned?

Speaking of water, because it’s such a key ingredient for the beverage industry, they don’t need to be water stewards for the next 10, 20 years. They need to do it for the next hundreds of years, because without it, they don’t have a business. So, from that perspective, water isn’t just a critical component of the business, it’s part of the whole business model. Therefore, they do need a long-term view and good management is too critical.

So then when you look at things like what they are doing on wastewater re-use, which in a general sense, is quite a contentious issue in the water space because of the so-called yuck factor. For the general public the notion of reusing toilet water for various applications is just a no go, for example. And so when you’re thinking about that in a beverage industry context, I think that’s quite progressive. I think it’s quite brave that the group is looking at water reuse and recycling  and really thinking through it. By exploring what’s the way to manage this wastewater more effectively, I think that’s a very sort of ambitious piece of work BIER is working on.

Also, the true cost tool that BIER has developed in the past is worthwhile. Again, if you’re taking a long term view  (50, 60, 70-year asset investment) in a geography which is water-scarce, how do you make sure you incorporate and embed water-related risks into that investment decision? So, things like the true cost approach enable a business to do that.

BIER Publications referenced in this interview:
Context-Based Decision Guide for Water Reuse and Recycling
BIER True Cost Water Kit

The Beverage Industry Environmental Roundtable (BIER) is a technical coalition of leading global beverage companies working together to advance environmental sustainability within the beverage sector.
By BIER [crp]

The Beverage Industry Environmental Roundtable (BIER) is a technical coalition of leading global beverage companies working together to advance environmental sustainability within the beverage sector. Formed in 2006, BIER is a common voice across the beverage sector, speaking to influence global standards on environmental sustainability aspects most relevant to the sector, affect change both up and down the supply chain and share best practices that raise the bar for environmental performance of the industry. By doing so, BIER is able to monitor data and trends, engage with key stakeholders, develop best practices, and guide a course of action for the future.

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