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Everyone has heard of carbon footprinting, measuring the amount of carbon generated by a product. But water footprinting is perhaps an even bigger challenge for consumer goods companies – particularly those working in the food and drink sector, which is a large consumer of water and most closely associated by consumers with water use. However, calculating a product’s water footprint is no easy task as it incorporates direct and indirect use of water across the supply chain. Yet its calculation is a challenge that consumer goods companies should be prepared to meet in order to maintain their competitive position within their markets and to build reputation amongst end consumers.
The issue of water isn’t one of supply as such as it is a renewable, if finite, resource but more one of uneven distribution. Therefore some populous countries such as India and China have real supply issues whereas others do not. Even within a country the issues are local to specific regions, with other regions having plentiful supplies. Added to this, water stress changes throughout the year with the seasons.
This uneven distribution adds to the difficulties in calculating the water footprint. SABMiller, the South African brewer, has been at the forefront of water footprinting and having mapped water footprints in several locations – South Africa, Peru, Tanzania and Ukraine – found that its footprint varied in each location.
Water is used widely in the production of all consumer goods. Research in “The Water Footprint of Modern Consumer Society” by Professor Hoekstra (who first introduced the water footprint concept in 2003) has shown that it takes 15,400 litres of water to produce 1 kg of beef, or 8,000 litres of water to produce a pair of jeans. Consumer goods companies, over-reliant on water, in water-stressed locales are at particular risk from competition for supplies and political risk. Added to which, with consumer demands for sustainability and transparency ever increasing they face pressure from end users as well as with supplies.
Source: WaterStat, Water Footprint Network
Companies such as Unilever, Coca-Cola, Nestlé and PespsiCo have come to realise this and put resources into tackling their water footprint. As with other sustainability initiatives, reducing water consumption does not have to be costly and the best measures – based on reusing, improving efficiency and recycling – actually save money.