© Staffan Widstrand / WWF

Targets need to start with strategy

For decades, scientists, as well as WWF reports, have been warning that human impacts are pushing life on our planet beyond its capacity. Year-on-year, more areas are impacted by water scarcity and pollution, while extreme weather events, like droughts and floods, are becoming more regular and more destructive. Despite companies continuing to set ever more  “ambitious” efficiency targets, the situation continues to grow worse. We believe that this needs to change and that change starts with a shift in the order of operations for target setting.

We believe that companies need to start with business strategy, not water targets, and then ensure their water strategies drive robust targets, and are backed with the corporate resources that drive the business’s success. Water is not a charity - it is a core business driver - and it needs to be treated as such by corporate leaders.

Digging further into this issues, water is local and by setting water targets that respond to local water conditions (i.e., context) and that account for corporate water risk exposure, it ensures corporate actions are aligned to both risk reduction and tackling shared basin challenges, which benefits people and nature. Invariable, when set at the global level, water targets fail to account for context, and therefore become inefficient at best, and ineffective at worst.

WWF is working to change the way corporate water targets are set, as part of a water stewardship strategy that is underpinned by freshwater context. We are doing so out of a shared need that both business and biodiversity have:  articulating and arriving at a destination that ensures that everyone within a basin – communities, nature and companies – can stay “in business”.  To help achieve this, WWF has released two guides that help companies progressively shift to new ways of thinking:

Setting water targets in the context of strategy

Setting targets is a core part of business, and targets are a key element in driving the delivery of business strategies. Water targets are no different and, similarly, are most effective when linked to water strategies. Accordingly, it stands to reason that water targets, ladder up to deliver value and, in turn, support purpose-driven water strategies. In this framing, the development of water targets is most effectively done towards the end of a strategy development process (as illustrated below). This allows corporations to identify the strategically relevant water-related dependencies and impacts within the value chain and determine the best focus areas before setting goals and targets.


Forms of water targets

WWF believes that over time, water targets will require greater alignment with water-related challenges within the surrounding basin(s) (or context) in which a corporation operates. The logic is that one must tackle shared water challenges in order to:

  1. Mitigate exposure to basin water risks;
  2. Harness opportunities and purpose-driven strategies; and
  3. Efficiently allocate scarce internal resources.

Since 2016, WWF has been working with other NGOs, including CDP, TNC, UN Global Compact CEO Water Mandate, UNEP-DHI and WRI, on various efforts related to providing guidance on the evolution of water targets at the site and enterprise level. From these efforts, an outline typology of water targets has emerged, which can be helpful to categorise the different types of water targets that are commonly discussed based on the performance and the coverage addressed by each form of target. These are illustrated below:


More generally, these forms of targets primarily aim at:

NON-CONTEXTUAL – improving internal efficiencies and water management practices, which is typically driven largely by internal agendas.

CONTEXTUAL – ensuring the coverage of water targets are aligned with the materially relevant water-related challenges at either a site- or corporate-level.

SCIENCE-BASED – building from where Contextual targets left off with respect to the performance of the target and ensuring that this is explicitly linked to local hydrological data- or a science-driven definition of what is “sustainable” state for shared water challenges within a given basin.

​Current recommendations for companies wanting to get going

Presently, the methodology for setting a water Science-Based Target (SBT) is incomplete. However, the SBT Network (SBTN) has published Initial Guidance that sets out the trajectory towards setting water SBTs and is encouraging businesses to complete steps 1, 2 and 3 of their guidance (SBTN, 2020b).  

Even once we have a complete, globally agreed upon methodology, WWF recommends that businesses consider a mix of target setting approaches. Setting contextual targets offers a concrete starting point for those seeking to also employ science-based targets. Companies set targets across their value chains and based on current methodologies, SBTs are likely to be applicable to subset of a value chain (i.e., strategic locations and sites). WWF expects that the future of corporate water targets will be a blend of all three forms of targets: non-contextual, contextual and SBTs. Meaning a leading and well-rounded approach to corporate target setting will likely be one where strategic sites/locations are covered by SBT’s while the less strategic or low impact sites/locations covered by a general non-contextual target and then the remainder of sites/locations being covered by contextual targets.


If you have any questions – please reach out to Alexis Morgan (Global Water Stewardship Lead) or Rylan Dobson (Senior Water Stewardship Manager) at waterstewardship@wwfint.org