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Turning climate risk into resilience

The fear of running out of water during Cape Town’s “Day Zero” drought left a lasting impression on millions of residents and businesses. Dimpho Lephaila chats to Wesley Noble, Head of Changing Business for Good at Virgin Active, which has turned the water crisis into an opportunity to build climate resilience.

Virgin Active plague handover
© Virgin Active
In 2015, Virgin Active committed to reaching Net Zero operating emissions by 2030, including a pledge to reduce water consumption and waste, and switch to 100% renewable energy.
South Africa is already a water-scarce country, and climate change is exacerbating this. How did the Cape Town drought affect your business?

The drought had a very real economic impact that we had to take into consideration. It required us to look across our business to see where we could reduce water consumption as well as our investment into using water more efficiently in the long term.
At the height of the water crisis, we had to turn off the sauna and steam rooms to save water. Of course, our members were unhappy because they pay for a service and expect all facilities to be operational. This wasn’t convenient for tenants, such as the swim schools and personal trainers either, since they are reliant on our facilities being operational in order to run their own businesses.
So we have felt the impact in terms of the investment we have had to make as well as the issue of ensuring business continuity in the event of the taps running dry. A positive outcome is that the measures we have put in place will now remain even if the drought eases – and stand us in good stead elsewhere in the country which is facing its own water challenges.

Virgin Active Jojo tank
© Virgin Active
The rain water captured through these Jojo tanks was used as backup supply.
What would you say have been the top three lessons learnt from the experience?

We know that water is a valuable resource, especially in a water-scarce country where the changing climate means we’re seeing more extreme weather events. The point was really driven home when Day Zero was a looming reality and we were forced to look at how we could reuse and reduce and ultimately decrease our dependency on the municipal water supply.
By instituting operational efficiencies and making infrastructural changes, such as greywater systems, our efforts were rewarded with a 61% drop in municipal water use since 2016. This exceeded even our expectations.
We’ve learnt that people need a constant reminder to be mindful consumers. As a corporate, we have the means to be the reminder they need.

Virgin Active plant
© Virgin Active
The cost of constructing the grey water plant at Virgin Active’s Constantia branch was high but the reward of consuming less fresh water was even higher.
Why has Virgin Active decided to sign up for Alliances for Climate Action?

Signing up for the South African chapter of the Alliances for Climate Action is an important commitment from us at Virgin Active. We are running out of time to reverse the significant environmental damage on our planet.
Virgin Active is proud to be working with various stakeholders in the private sector, cities and national government. We believe this collaboration is crucial to reducing our collective impact and restoring our natural environment for present and future generations.
We have taken substantial strides to meet our alliance obligations and are committed to ensuring all our health clubs across South Africa reach Net Zero by 2030, which includes switching to 100% renewable energy, reducing water consumption and reducing waste to landfill.

Virgin Active achievement goals
© Virgin Active
This infographic shows some of the achievements that Virgin Active has attained since 2016, including the reduction of waste and consumption of resources.
What steps have you taken to reduce your carbon footprint?

For us, the Net Zero commitment that we made in 2015 means putting back what we take out and evolving to a restorative enterprise in our natural environment.
Our initial focus has been to ensure we’re as efficient as possible, reducing our impact through effective management, training and awareness while building the business case for further investments to switch to renewables.
Some of the initiatives we have achieved to-date include the banning of single-use plastics from our head office in Cape Town and the R30 million investment in the Western Cape water efficiencies and augmentation, with the rollout of greywater treatment plants and four reverse osmosis treatment plants as well as energy management through behaviour change, lappool blankets and efficient plant running.
It's rewarding to see the progress of our efforts.  In 2018, our Constantia club received a Five Star Water Rating from the City of Cape Town while this year we received the Eco-Logic Water Conservation award for our contribution to saving water and decreasing waste and carbon emissions to the environment.
While we’ve come a long way to build awareness and reduce our impact through efficiencies, we’re also cognisant that we have a long journey ahead if we are to achieve our 2030 target.

Virgin Active recycling bin
© Virgin Active
Virgin Active has installed bins in their Constantia club where recyclable and compostable waste is separated.
What’s your advice for other businesses?

Climate change is a big threat to life and we need to urgently reduce carbon emissions to fight the advance of global warming.
Don’t wait until a natural disaster looms for you to look across your business to see where you can drive physical change. The time for action is now!  Do the right thing, and find out how you can become a corporate champion to drive awareness and change.

Wesley Noble Virgin Active
© Virgin Active
Wesley Noble (right), Head of Changing Business for Good at Virgin Active, accepted the Eco-Logic award for Virgin Active’s contribution towards the Net Zero water target.


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Dimpho Lephaila Photo
Dimpho Lephaila, Communications Officer

Dimpho believes in the power of science communication, because it is through knowledge sharing that people can learn and change their behaviour.