The number of SMEs working within the water industry in Europe is vast, according to EuroStat there are over 9000 active SMEs, that provide at least 600,000 direct jobs in the water sector in Europe…

However, if we consider that large companies have a monopoly on the treatment and production of water services, it makes these figures of active SMEs even more impressive.

SMEs and Sustainability

Given the nature of the water industry in Europe which is dominated by, and in many cases through the monopoly of, large utility providers, it is challenging to understand how SMEs can have a role within this dynamic.

For example, the UKs largest water and wastewater utility provider had a business slogan: If customers had a choice they would choose X (Companies Name), which is a case in point, customers do not have a choice of who provides their service, as it has been the same utility providing water to London since the 1600s (some 400 years).

Given this, what would be the driver for this large utility provider to be sustainable, if they are always going to have paying customers, no matter what they do?

However, on the other hand, SMEs have to have sustainability on their radar on a daily basis. Economic, environmental and social sustainability all play an integral part of the fabric of any SME, not just ones focused on the water sector.

Many SMEs can perceive sustainability requirements primarily as a cost driver. However, sustainability can also serve as a source for innovation, thus leading to profitable growth. Another aspect driving sustainability is the consumers attitude. Sensitivity for ecologically friendly and socially fair produced goods, products or services, influences the customers choice. Such aspects are valued more and more in industrialized countries. At the same time the demand for energy efficient products is growing all over the world encouraging – and sometimes forcing – new concepts for production and application methods which is a further driver for sustainability.

New ideas on how to increase the ecological and/or social sustainability of SMEs own products, services, processes, or business models can be turned into successful innovations. These innovations can also increase efficiency and productivity and therefore reduce costs. All these factors play an essential role in the vision and overall objectives of SMEs.

SME Success Stories

SMEs are drivers of innovation for sustainability. A recent example of this can be taken from the company OxyMem, a spin-off SME from the University College Dublin, who have recently been awarded a number of European and International awards for its innovative technology, market potential and exploitation strategy. OxyMem’s solution does not rely on wastewater treatment using ‘forced’ or ‘bubble’ aeration which is a highly inefficient method, instead it uses gas permeable membranes capable of delivering Oxygen directly to the bacteria, resulting in a four-fold energy saving with more compact, lower cost infrastructure. Their innovation will result in wastewater treatment works being more sustainable and less energy reliant.

WE&B has recently presented a project in consortium, for treating and reusing wastewater through green wall technology using innovative substrates. The innovation allows for wastewater and greywater from buildings and office blocks to be treated through the plant species and substrates on the green wall. Green wall technology not only allows for this water to be treated in situ that otherwise would need to be pumped to a wastewater treatment works but also acts as a green lung in an otherwise concrete jungle. This green lung adds to the plant and animal biodiversity in a city as well trapping noxious city gases and releasing oxygen. The innovation in this substrate and the implementation of this technology will lead to greater water, energy and air sustainability in cities.

An example from outside the European boarders comes from the SWITCH-Asia network which shows the importance SMEs have in driving water sustainability in cities. The example is taken from Pakistan, which is a water stressed country and unsustainable water use and poor water management and governance practices are causing increasing water scarcity. Pakistan’s population is expected to double to around 350 million by 2025 and this growth will put further pressure on water resources, particularly in urban areas, with consequent impacts on people’s health, wellbeing, livelihoods and environmental sustainability more widely.

SWITH-Asia is implementing a project that aims to promote water efficient production and consumption. By 2015, they aim to have 300 processing and manufacturing SMEs with enhanced understanding of Better Water Management Practices (BWMPs). The results so far have shown that 675 high water consuming SMEs have increased their water management capacity and sustainability, and that 25 SMEs are currently implementing BWMPs, supported by a multi-stakeholder city level water partnerships.

Another initiative by an SME can potentially change the way we see sustainability in our cities. Our partner SME “Global CAD” have recently launched the project “Towards the Human City”. The project aims to identify, document, and communicate initiatives, programs, and public policies that make significant improvements in the way we think about cities and how we manage them. They are going around the world documenting these initiatives to eventually draw up a City Management Toolkit, that will help cities to manage more sustainably their cities, including water suitability, in order to make them more human, sustainable and inclusive.

However, SMEs can still improve

I cannot paint a picture of all SMEs in Europe being fantastically water sustainable and that we can all learn from them. In fact, in Europe, we still face an enormous challenge of reducing water consumption and illegal toxic wastewater discharges from SMEs. In addition, this segment of the business community remains notoriously difficult to influence.

So, what can be done to increase water sustainability in SMEs? A study by theCertified Accountants Educational Trust (London ), 2012 found that the one person that SMEs (no matter their industry) actually listen to was found not to be their mothers (SHOCK!) But in fact it was their accountants and/or business managers (majority of which are SMEs themselves).

They found that environmental sustainability advice was not widely provided by accountants as they have very limited resources on which to draw, lacking knowledge of environmental sustainability and the confidence to use their accounting skills in this respect. They found that when an accountant in fact did offer environmental sustainability advice to their SME clients it generally pertained to cost reduction opportunities that could be identified in areas such as energy consumption, transport costs, water use and generic resource input reduction.

So, who would have thought it? Accountants could be the ones to save our cities and make us all more sustainable(!) ????

From this article it can be seen that SMEs are changing the face of sustainability in our cities in that they are highly innovative in technological advances, as well as innovating in the softer aspects of governance and management practices, all in the name of sustainability.

Given the market share, the drive for innovation and consumer pressure driving sustainability, there is little doubt about the answer to my initial question:

What role do SMEs play in fostering Water Sustainability in Cities?

SMEs role is a vital and absolutely essential one and I would go so far as to say that Water Sustainability in Cities cannot be achieved without them driving this initiative.

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