The New Enviro-Guilt: Water Footprints
Now that you've figured out how to reduce your carbon impact, another
global problem is emerging. Environmentalists see a future in which
everyday items will be labelled with the amount of H20 required to
Products labelled with their carbon footprints are slowly making their
way into the marketplace for example, Timberland Co., a U.S. footwear
maker, has identified the environmental impact of many of its shoe
But imagine buying an apple with this label: It took 68 litres of
water to produce this fruit.
Water footprints may soon be coming to a store near you.
As global leaders scramble to reach a deal on climate change this
week in Copenhagen, environmentalists are hoping a topic that isn't
on the agenda water scarcity will be the next big issue to capture
the world's attention. For the consumer, that means pointing out just
how much water is needed to produce items we use every day.
“I think personally that water footprints are much more tangible for
people than the concept of a carbon footprint it's amazing to see
people's reactions when they see that 25,000 litres of water go into
making a pair of shoes,” says Karen Kun, co-founder of Waterlution,
a Toronto-based non-profit organization for water education.
“People would respond very well to products being clearly labelled
with their water footprint consumers are crying out for mainstream
products to have the right information so they can make their own
The movement to label water footprints saw its first victory this
year when Finnish food conglomerate Raisio launched the first voluntary
example 101 litres of water for each 100 grams of its oat flakes
And over the past few years, about 60 large companies have signed
on to the United Nations' CEO Water Mandate, an informal pledge to
lower their water footprints. They include Coca-Cola, Bayer, Cadbury,
Dow Chemical, Heineken, Unilever and Siemens.
“All over the world, we consume products that don't include the cost
of the water, and this needs to be changed,” says Arjen Hoekstra,
creator of the water footprint concept. Dr. Hoekstra is a professor
at the University of Twente in the Netherlands and scientific director
of the Water Footprint Network.
“This is why the concept of a water footprint is useful, to try and
show the link between consumption and the creation of those products,
and show the consumer's responsibility for the waste.”
Some surprising statistics: A cup of coffee typically needs more than
140 litres of water to produce. For one kilogram of beef, it's about
Food usually accounts for about 70 per cent of each person's total
footprint, but consumer products, such as jeans, cellphones and eyeshadow,
require far more water per purchase. A cotton T-shirt soaks up 2,700
litres of water, a microchip needs 30 litres and a car requires more
than 150,000 litres.
Of course, footprints can vary from product to product. Beef from
cattle raised on soy will carry a different water footprint than meat
from cattle fed on grain, and leather jackets made by different designers
will vary from one another, which is why many environmentalists are
calling for the development of a standardized label.
Dr. Hoekstra is wary of all the corporate interest in the water footprint:
“They are all embracing the concept of the water footprint for the
same reason they embraced the carbon footprint because there is
a lot of money to be made, not because they are serious about water
conservation,” he says. “There has been a great deal of hype made
over carbon footprints, and you will see the same thing happen with
the water footprint as it moves up the political agenda.”
In fact, experts say climate change and water scarcity are inextricably
linked: Higher temperatures and changing precipitation patterns
along with population growth, deforestation and diversion of water
for dams, urbanization and industry will mean that by 2025, more
than two-thirds of the world's population will have to deal with chronic
water shortages, according to the UN World Water Assessment Program.
According to the UN, one-third of the world's population currently
suffers from water scarcity, when less than a decade ago it was thought
the world would not reach that point until 2025.
Dr. Hoekstra says he hopes a labelling standard for the water footprint
will avoid the mistakes made with carbon footprints, which use language
that makes it easy “to confuse people and for vested interests to
appear as though they are doing something substantial when it is the
least effort they could make.”
For instance, carbon offsets have been fraught with problems: Any
individual, company or country can claim to be “carbon-neutral” by
purchasing offsets rather than implementing carbon-reducing strategies
first. And not all offsets are created equal. They vary widely in
quality and impact investment in renewable-energy projects in developing
nations are considered superior to tree-planting schemes, for example.
“Already we are hearing people talk about water offsets because
it's cheaper to spend the money on some nice project somewhere than
on reducing the operation's actual water footprint,” Dr. Hoekstra
Even so, helpful and clear water-footprint labels won't tell the whole
story. Listing the volume of water used to grow an orange doesn't
tell a consumer anything about the agricultural or water systems in
the place where it was grown. For example, would an apple grown in
rainy British Columbia carry as high an ecological price as one in
an irrigated grove in California that piped water in and depleted
groundwater sources hundreds of kilometres away?
And water footprints combined with carbon footprints could become
even more confusing for harried shoppers: Which is more important?
“You cannot convey all information in a label about water and its
complexities in an easy way,” Dr. Hoekstra concedes. So even the creator
of the water footprint acknowledges that for consumers, it won't be
easy being blue.
Zoe Cormier is a London-based writer specializing in science and
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