BfG News Issue 20 - Editor's Column: Diving into water sustainability

20 May 2009|Added Value

 How can your coffee mug contain 140 litres of water? Doctors advise us to drink two litres of water per day. But in fact, we consume an average of 5 000 litres per day. This is not science fiction; this is “virtual water”, a concept invented by Tony Allan of King’s College London, which calculates the amount of water embedded in the life cycle of products and services. 

Water management is now emerging as a key environmental impact indicator. And it will become a big trend. Why? First of all, water issues are hitting hard and not only in dry countries. Businesses face water scarcity in their production locations, increasing costs, and conflict with surrounding communities over access. Furthermore, water issues and global warming are linked in an accelerating vicious circle: global warming accelerates the destruction of natural water ecosystems and thus threatens their ability to capture carbon.

Secondly, consumers are starting to become more aware of the issue of water. The key difference between this issue and carbon footprints is that the topic is easily understood.  It is both tangible and close to most consumer’s hearts. Recent research conducted by Added Value for a food industry client underlines that a claimed commitment to saving water generates very positive consumer reactions: “This is so important, water pollution and scarcity really scares me”. 

So, how can businesses address the topic in a way that will inspire consumers and bring value to their brands? They should begin by answering two key questions:

1. How important is water to their environmental footprint?

Fortunately not all businesses have huge water footprints, but they do need to know their impact, mainly through life-cycle analysis and close work with authorities. This relates both to the “footprint” (“how much water is used for my activity”?) and the impact (“are my activities polluting water” and “are my consumers using large quantities of water?”). Coca Cola, with key locations in developing countries where water scarcity has hit hard, has had no choice but to address its water impact. It’s becoming a pressing issue with Indian authorities and communities after a year of conflict over dry lands and water pollution. The multinational recently committed to “water neutrality” for all of its products,  promising to “replace each drop of water” used in its drinks and in their production, based on a 3R policy applied to water: reduce (consumption), recycle (clean and reuse), refill (help re-establish water stock). 
2. Which issue is most coherent with the brand’s DNA?

When deciding on environmental commitments we advise our clients to focus on one overarching issue that encompasses others.  Danone chose water, focussing on wetland preservation. Not only does this dovetail with the preservation of its own springs (Evian & Volvic), but it also drives a long-term carbon compensation programme (the preservation of mangroves contributes to absorption of CO2) with the aim of becoming carbon neutral within 3 years. 
While commitments like these may seem clear to key opinion leaders and NGOs; for consumers, the actions and messages need to follow 3 rules:

1.  Be practical and easy
2.  Promote trust
3.  Educate

Unilever is a good benchmark on this. While decreasing the amount of water used to produce its detergents, it strives to encourage consumers to decrease their own detergent consumption.  Small and Mighty for example requires half as much water per bottle, thanks to the product’s concentration. Some product formulas have been changed, to produce less lather – meaning less rinsing is required and less water. This strategy is likely to succeed because it makes the job easy for consumers (no major habit change) and because the brand is taking the first step vs asking consumers to do all the work: it is an “I will if you will” commitment.  The main barrier is tackling the belief that more bubbles and foam = more efficient/cleaning power.  This should be tackled with educational, partner-based communications.

So we can see that major brands have already started to work on water and there should be no doubt that more will join them in the next 2 years. You will shortly begin hearing about negotiations for  the creation of a certification plan to label products (a bit like the FSC symbol) letting consumers know just how much “virtual water” they’re taking off the shelves.

And as consumer awareness of this grows, so will the pressure to ensure that brands and businesses are acting responsibly to ensure that worldwide access to water doesn’t evaporate in the years to come.

Benoit Renard, Project Director
Added Value France

To read more on Water Scarcity – download the Ceres Report “Water Scarcity and Climate Change: Growing Risks for Businesses and Investors”

To work out your water footprint, visit one of the websites below:

The One Minute Water Calculator
For individuals this calculator compares to national averages from the US or Canada.

h2O Conserve
Designed for individual and businesses comparing usage to the national average.

Institute of Water Education
The grandfather of all water calculators. Developed in the Netherlands at the University of Twente.

The Global Water Tool
Designed to help companies evaluate their water usage and assess risks to their operations and supply chain.

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