A fresh perspective from drinking water company Vitens

Creating value beyond financial results

Marike Bonhof would like to change the job description on her business card to chief value officer. 'CVO may not sound like much but I like it,' the currently former CFO of drinking water company Vitens says. 'More importantly, it is a better reflection of what my colleagues and I are doing at Vitens: creating value that is far broader than financial results alone.'

Vitens can safely be called a leader in the Netherlands when it comes to ESG reporting. In conversation with Marcus Looijenga, ESG expert at PwC, Bonhof instantly admits 'that we still have a long way to go'. The largest drinking water company in the Netherlands tries to ensure its impact on people and planet is made as transparent as possible, based on a strategy called ‘Every Drop Sustainable’.

Taking drinking water for granted

'In view of future climate scenarios and the increasing demand for water, we need to think differently about how the water system is designed and managed,' Bonhof says, explaining the rationale behind the strategy. 'Drinking water is something most people in the Western world take for granted. You turn on the tap and out it pours. But it's no longer as simple as that. Climate change and other issues are making the supply of drinking water an increasing challenge. All of us therefore need to bring about a revolution in our thinking and actions.'

Starting with within Vitens itself, according to Bonhof. 'Vitens has been supplying water for 130 years and, until recently, looked at the world through its water pipes. This reasoning was mainly based on our own experiences, but the world is changing. Bridging the gap between current and future challenges related to water availability requires cooperation with other parties in the ecosystem. This leads to different perspectives and, therefore, different solutions. And these are certainly needed as we cannot continue as we have always done and we need to work together to find the solution.'

Raising awareness

Bonhof is convinced that 'sustainable use of the water system requires a different way of looking at the use of drinking water. 'Not only for ourselves but also for stakeholders and customers who are in any way associated with drinking water. It's important to make them aware of the challenges in terms of drinking water supply security so we can look for solutions together and be ahead of the game.'

In addition to its stakeholders, the 'Vitens family' plays an important part in implementing the company’s strategy. 'We have asked our staff how they can help achieve the Every Drop Sustainable targets by 2030 and made this part of the annual appraisals. It's first and foremost about raising awareness.’

'We have also made our sustainability strategy an integral part of our governance and reporting systems, and are in the process of making our impact measurable. Then we will know if we are on track. While progress can be demonstrated in various ways, we ultimately decided to monetise it. This enables a better comparison with all the other things you write down in euros as well. And then there's a better trade-off when, for example, investing in new installations which do eventually produce fewer carbon emissions.'

Setting up sustainability reporting

'PwC's auditors helped us greatly with the further development of our sustainability reporting,' continues Bonhof. 'They have a broad perspective on sustainability that extends beyond nature and the environment to social aspects too. Issues such as diversity in the organisation and ways of dealing with people who can't pay their drinking water bill. PwC encouraged us by keeping a critical eye and making sure we could take steps together.'

Integrated approach

At the same time, Bonhof notes that within the accountancy sector, and therefore also within PwC, there remains too little evidence of an integrated approach. 'Two separate teams are usually still deployed on financial reporting and sustainability reporting. They should simply become one team. You notice – and this also applies to us – that everyone is still a bit lost when it comes to ESG reporting. This is probably logical when you consider that there are no standards yet and I see an important role for auditors in speeding up this process.'

Last but not least, Looijenga asks Bonhof for tips for other organisations looking to report on sustainability. 'Some companies are waiting because there's still a lot of uncertainty surrounding legislation,' she answers. 'You don't need legislation to make sustainability an integral part of your strategy and be transparent about it. What's more, EU legislation will soon be on the way that will force you to take that step anyway. It takes time to embed this different way of thinking and acting into your organisation's DNA so my tip is to start now!'

*This interview with Marike Bonhof took place in the summer of 2022, when she was CFO of drinking water company Vitens. She is currently a director at housing corporation Ymere, where she is again responsible for 'finance & reporting'.

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Marcus Looijenga

Marcus Looijenga

Partner Assurance, PwC Netherlands

Tel: +31 (0)61 220 67 71

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