Duke Environmental Leadership Master of Environmental Management (DEL-MEM) student Charles Calvat focused his Master's Project (MP) on assessing the performance of non-governmental organization-corporate coalitions in the food and beverage sector. Clean and abundant freshwater is a critical asset in this sector, which consumes 70% of the world’s water resources. As more food and beverage companies partner with NGOs to gain expertise in assessing and managing water-related risks, this project assessed the performance of these coalitions in corporate water stewardship. Results show that, if water risks are commonly well assessed at the site level, companies find it more difficult to comprehensively capture and respond to water risks outside their operating facilities, along their supply chain or at the catchment level.

Duke Environment recently corresponded with Calvat to discuss the key findings of his MP and why he chose this project.

What are the key findings of your MP?

The key findings of my MP are that water issues are extremely complex to assess, comprehend and address. For the food and beverage companies I studied, this translates into two main verticals:

  • First, businesses need to move beyond the volumetric approach they have focused on until recently and adopt a more comprehensive way of assessing and addressing their water-related risks. In this process, food and beverage companies are rethinking their metrics to measure their water stewardship performance, increasingly using key biodiversity signals that inform on the health of the watershed for communities, businesses, and the watershed integrity itself.
  • Second, food and beverage companies need to integrate a wide range of stakeholders in their corporate water stewardship strategies, including their very water-intensive supply chain. Extending sustainability efforts in the watershed remains a hurdle for most companies, which do not provide robust enough engagement methodology and tools to their suppliers and are struggling to move beyond a single partnership with NGOs. As a result, corporate water stewardship initiatives remain for the most part a collection of bi-partnership between one company and one NGO, whereas shared water challenges require a broad partnership between all key water users in the catchment.

What have you learned from doing this project that will help you in your career? 

I firmly believe that businesses have a crucial role to play in solving social and environmental problems and, from a business perspective, would greatly benefit from addressing these increasingly pressing issues. However, the ESG field is filled with reporting jobs and tasks, focused on communicating business initiatives rather than integrating social and environmental impacts into business strategies. This project allowed me to better understand how to walk the talk in the field of corporate water stewardship. Water issues already affect 3 billion people and the World Resources Institute predicts a 56% water shortfall by 2030. It is time for the thirsty food and beverage industry to resynchronize agricultural practices, water use, and impact on water with watershed and community health. I want to dedicate my career to this necessary resynchronization between agriculture, societies, and the environment.

What drew you to this project/client?

What drew me to this project was a connection with Daniel Vermeer, professor of the practice at the Fuqua School of Business. Daniel worked for many years at The Coca-Cola Company and was a pioneer in corporate water stewardship in the food and beverage sector. Daniel has been a great inspiration to me as—without knowing it—he guided me to the fascinating world of water. Water challenges are global challenges, but unlike carbon, they can only be addressed in a contextualized manner, which adds great complexity to the way they must be approached. Having recently pivoted in my career from education to the water sector, I found this project to be the ideal research topic at the intersection of business, societies, and the environment, which is the sweet spot of any sustainability study.

The Master’s Project combines the academic rigor of a thesis with the practical experience of an internship, allowing students to apply the skills and knowledge they’ve acquired in the classroom to projects that tackle real-world environmental challenges.