Standardizing Sustainability for Private Water Companies: Existing Standards and Future Opportunities


Klein, Emily M.


Mullin, Megan


Doyle, Martin

Oh, Eunji

Waller, Vanessa

Zhou, Mavis





Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences


Unlike public utilities, private water companies are in the unique position of having access to financial resources beyond municipal funding, allowing them to pursue innovative solutions to complex water management problems. However, private water companies must work creatively within the confines of regulations as well as stakeholder and shareholder expectations.

Private water companies, like all other businesses, are faced with the question of how much time and resources to put toward environmental concerns. In most businesses, this question is addressed by operationalizing the concept of “sustainability.” Many in the business community think of sustainability in terms of the “triple bottom line”— the synergy of environmental, social/societal, and financial obligations. This project takes an inside look at how private water companies—from the very large to the very small—utilize the concept of “sustainability” in their business operations.

As we found after speaking with water utility managers from across the United States, sustainability is often perceived as such a sweeping, theoretical concept, that it can be difficult to figure out how to “use” sustainability in practice. However, we also found that many tangible opportunities exist to make utility operations more sustainable. In fact, most utilities are well aware of, and eager to embrace, the challenges presented by the goal of becoming a more sustainable company. In almost every business avenue, including financial management, operations, and even human resources, private water companies are searching for ways to improve their triple bottom line, even while confined by regulations and shareholder commitments.

Sustainability standards—guidance documents designed to make sustainability practical for companies—have played a key role in allowing businesses to measure and market their progress. Some of these documents specifically address sustainability for water utilities. But are these standards actually doing their job? Or are they a deterrent, making sustainability seem impractical? Our task was to evaluate these questions and develop recommendations for an improved sustainability standard for private water companies. We accomplished this goal through phone interviews with utility managers and company executives, as well as literature review.

We found that an improved standard must have four major components: 1) a clear definition of what “sustainability” means, in terms that are useful for water utility operations; 2) references to established business standards, thereby linking a water utility-specific standard to a broader business context; 3) a recognition that a variety of factors influence operations, and that utilities must tailor sustainability goals to local issues; and 4) an emphasis on applying technology to enable efficient benchmarking for sustainability goals.

Standards are inherently limited in their ability to effect change, simply because each business has its own unique needs and challenges. However, improvement to existing standards is particularly timely, as technological innovation in the water industry, including smart metering and data analytics, is moving at a rapid pace. A water utility sustainability standard for the future has the potential to simplify and organize important goals in this evolving industry. It is primarily this ability—to simplify the lives of utility managers—that would make a new sustainability standard useful.





water utilities


private water companies








Standardizing Sustainability for Private Water Companies: Existing Standards and Future Opportunities


Master's project




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