Whitbread’s Water Journey: An Interview with Yvonne Mason, Environment Manager and Ross Greenhalgh, Energy Manager

Whitbread is the UK’s largest operator of hotels and restaurants. The FTSE100 company’s well-loved brands include Premier Inn, Hub by Premier Inn, Zip, Beefeater, Bar and Block, Table Table, Cookhouse and Pub, Brewers Fayre and Thyme.

Yvonne, tell us about Whitbread’s approach to corporate social responsibility and where water fits into this. At Whitbread, we’ve always believed that we should act as a force for good by supporting communities, acting responsibly and sustainably and protecting our environment. We published our first Environmental Report in 2002, our first Corporate Responsibility Report in 2010, and launched our ambitious Force for Good programme in 2017.

Here, we speak with Yvonne Mason, Environment Manager and Ross Greenhalgh, Energy Manager, about how the company has moved from effective water management to industry-leading stewardship, and most recently to resilience-based forward planning.

Our Whitbread sustainability programme is split into three key pillars: Opportunity (which is all about our teams), Community (about our communities) and Responsibility (which focuses on reducing our impact on the environment, with an overarching ambition to enable all our people -guests, suppliers and teams - to live and work well). The Responsibility pillar is where water comes in.

Water has always been central to both our business and our corporate social responsibility agenda. Being customer driven, it is a vital element in the operation of our sites. All of the UK water we consume is from the municipal supply, we do not abstract directly. This ensures that all water entering our sites is of the highest treated standards,

Ross, Whitbread was quick to act on opportunities presented by the opening of the water market in 2017: how did you approach this? When the market opened, a tender process was conducted to give transparency on the available options. Whilst being aware of self-supply it was important to do a cost comparison with existing water retailers whilst also considering which option had greater environmental benefits.

This analysis clearly showed that self-supply offered better commercial prospects, more control and an opportunity to reduce consumption. Proudly being one of the first companies to embrace this innovative approach, Whitbread’s self-supply licence was granted in August 2017. Switching began the following February and completed for all sites by 2019.

What were you hoping self-supply would achieve and has it delivered against these expectations? It’s all about efficiency and control, with high quality data being central to this. Decisions are difficult without data and self-supply has been incredibly beneficial for this, especially with the level of analysis available as a result.

Prior to self-supply wholesalers read meters based on consumption levels, but on market opening this changed to the default market minimum requirements, so there was little flexibility to amend meter read schedules. Now, all meters are read at least quarterly (large sites are monthly). Importantly too, we have aligned the meter reading and data gathering programme, and therefore billing, with our financial calendar for accurate financial reporting.

Processes are now in place to analyse data against occupancy, covers and historic data to enable auditing, repair and verification of consumption to maximise water efficiency. In 2020, total water consumption, withdrawals and discharge were largely consistent with the previous year, but this is a good achievement given the growth in our estate over this period – 35 sites were either new or only open for part of the prior year. In the last three years, we have saved over 170,000 cubic metres of water, the equivalent of 68 Olympic sized swimming pools.

Installation of water saving technologies, including AMR for high-use sites helps to sustain and advance these efficiency gains. Also, sharing detailed consumption data with our building consultants ensures new build sites are as sustainable and well-engineered as possible.

More frequent meter reads also mean that leaks are identified and repaired faster, ensuring water is not wasted and costs are minimised. In 2019, we were able to save two Brewers Fayre restaurants £25,000 from efficiency savings alone.

In financial terms, savings are around £400,000 saved each year by being a self-supplier in the marketplace, achieved by paying wholesale rather than retail rates. As retail prices rise, expectations are that this saving will continue to grow.

Another way that we can monitor success as a self-supplier is via our market performance score which is reported by market operator MOSL. Whitbread’s latest market performance score is 96% and we’re delighted with this.

Yvonne, how is Whitbread building on these successes? Whitbread is committed to continuing to drive progress forward because, for our business, water is absolutely vital. Now that we have data to work with, we can look further into the future and make well-informed business cases and decisions on next steps to furthering our ambition to be a Force for Good.

We now also disclose on water through the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP). This enables us to quantify water related risks and resilience profile to investors, benchmark ourselves against industry peers and benefit from valuable CDP insight. Whitbread has proudly achieved a B- rating, an excellent basis on which to create further improvement strategies. We are carrying out a deeper dive in order to further quantify water risks in financial terms as part of our work in preparation for Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) disclosure.

For many years, we have had water reduction targets in place and have reported against these, but we are rapidly getting to a point where we can do little more without impacting our customer experience. For this reason, we are moving away from blanket turnover-based targets to a goal-based approach which is more specific and focused on high-risk areas.

Transparency and engagement with our stakeholders continue to be crucial in our work on water. We have a documented environmental policy which is publicly available and we’re working to educate team members and customers on the importance of water. There is a bottle refill scheme in all Whitbread sites to ensure that local communities have access to drinking water while cutting plastic waste. While the next stage of consumption reduction will be impacted by guest behaviours, we can support this with technologies in new sites such as low flow showers instead of baths.

You mentioned quantifying business risks earlier: how are you doing this? Yes, this is really important. While we work to minimise water use across the business, there are areas of our property portfolio that carry more risk than others.

Risk for us, can arise from inadequate network infrastructure, pollution, seasonal supply variability and flooding, all of which could have serious consequences including the closure of operations.

Working with our Account Manager at Waterscan, we have devised an exciting way to map these risks. Our risk mapping initiative overlays data from multiple external sources – catchment water levels, population pressure, flood risk, for example - with our own site-level usage data. According to Environment Agency classification, 43% of our sites are deemed to be located in water-stressed areas.

This has been a gamechanger in our ability to pinpoint where risk lies, both geographically and by type. Weighting these risks enables us to build effective contingency plans including flood defence mechanisms at vulnerable sites to mitigate risk of operational disruption. We can also target tailored communications to site level in the event of an identified imminent risk of a water event.

What might other organisations learn from Whitbread’s approach to putting water at the heart of its sustainability agenda? There’s no doubt that our work on risk mapping and water disclosure has helped drive year-on-year improvements for the environment and in identifying risks and opportunities for the business, so my first recommendation is to get on top of water data and use this information as a basis to incorporate water into short- and long-term business planning.

The long forecast water crisis is deepening, and all companies need to be proactive on this for both CSR and for operational reasons. Consider embracing CDP disclosure on water as a well-structured approach to achieving this. If you’re already reporting on carbon, the process – if not the inputs – will be familiar. For organisations with large, complex estates like ours, I commend the risk mapping approach which provides detailed, actionable insight.

Finally, stemming water leaks is something that’s always been high on our agenda but it’s an area that many businesses overlook but tackling leakage can have immediate commercial and operational benefits.

Whitbread has worked with Waterscan for over 15 years on its remarkable water journey.

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