What role could a new standard play in water stewardship?

BSI commissioned NatCen, in partnership with Water Foundry, to undertake scoping research around the concept of water stewardship.

About the study

BSI commissioned the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen), in partnership with Water Foundry, to undertake scoping research around the concept of water stewardship. There are a number of existing frameworks and approaches associated with water stewardship, but a comprehensive summary of these approaches and any gaps, limitations and disagreements within and between them is lacking. 

The aim of this research, therefore, was to synthesise existing research and expert knowledge on water stewardship, clarify thinking on key issues and ultimately identify whether there is a need for a new water stewardship standard that is applied at the level of a whole organisation, rather than focusing on individual sites related to the business where water is used. 

The key questions that guided the research were:

  • How are approaches to water stewardship (and associated concepts) defined and what are the key challenges to reaching broad consensus on one definition?
  • What are the barriers and facilitators to understanding and implementing water stewardship approaches?
  • What role could standards play in improving water security locally and across supply chains?


There is a broad consensus on the value of standards in water stewardship. Views on whether a new standard is needed were divided between those who believed it would be a helpful step to ensure action reaches the pace needed to meet current climate challenges, and those who offered reasons for caution.

Reasons given in support of a new standard in water stewardship included:

  • Bringing clarity to the most appropriate approach to water stewardship
  • Addressing water stewardship at the enterprise level (in addition to the local site level) 
  • Increasing transparency in target-setting, measuring and reporting on water stewardship
  • Increasing the take up of water stewardship (e.g. by making it more accessible for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs))

Challenges raised around the creation of a new standard in water stewardship included:

  • Difficulty in creating an enterprise-level standard since water is a local resource, which means that the appropriate measures to implement water stewardship can vary by location
  • Risk of limited uptake and impact due to fatigue around the number of sustainability standards in the business community and limited awareness of water stewardship among certain companies
  • Risk of creating further confusion due to the volume of tools and initiatives that already exist relating to water stewardship

The findings from this research suggest four main areas of focus for national standards bodies in the immediate future:

  • Integrating site- and enterprise-level priorities (i.e. concerns about local water quality and quantity issues as well as the role of water in strategic business decisions)
  • Informing collective action (collaboration between multiple stakeholders who are reliant on water from the same geographical zone is viewed as an integral component of water stewardship but it is hard to define exactly what this is)
  • Engaging small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) 
  • Promoting existing standards


This research comprised a small-scale literature review and in-depth online interviews with key stakeholders working in water stewardship. The research took an iterative approach, with learnings from the literature review informing the design of the interview topic guide.

Relevant literature was located using Scopus, Google Scholar and web searching. The final source list consisted of 16 sources: seven academic sources and nine grey literatures sources. 

Key stakeholders were located and approached by BSI and Water Foundry. Those who expressed interest were then contacted by NatCen to arrange an interview. At total of 20 interviews took place with people working in international and non-governmental organisations, in environment or sustainability consulting roles, within businesses and within government.