Will Water Footprints be the Next "Energy Star"?

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Global conservation organization WWF, a WFN partner, analyzed SABMillers operations in South Africa and the Czech Republic, measuring water inputs required to produce bottled beer—including the bottle itself.

The analysis found that for each liter of beer brewed in South Africa, 41 gallons (155 liters) of water were used. But in the Czech Republic a liter of beer has a water footprint of 12 gallons (45 liters).

The much higher water cost of SABMillers South African operation was largely due to the country's more arid climate and greater reliance on crop irrigation, versus a cooler, rainier Czech Republic, according to WWF.

More than 98 percent of the beers footprint in South Africa was from the cultivation of raw ingredients such as barley.

Risk Analysis

Such data allows companies to identify potential water savings and plan for future shortages due to factors such as population growth and climate change, according to the SABMiller report's authors.

In most cases companies pay for municipal water or water rights, so increasing water costs are of concern as well.

Andy Wales, SABMiller's head of sustainable development, said in a statement that water footprinting will enable the brewer to understand which specific parts of the supply chain might face water scarcity, or poor water quality, in the future.

The Coca-Cola Company has also now water-footprinted one of its products—the 0.5-liter bottle of Coca-Cola Classic. Armed with the new knowledge, the company hopes to improve water efficiency by 20 percent before 2012, Coca-Cola water-sustainability manager Denise Knight said during World Water Week.

Knight wouldn't say what the Coca-Cola Classic's water footprint was, but she said that agricultural inputs were the largest contributor.

Knight also highlighted the impact of sugar beets and other crops that may require a lot of water, used to sweeten the drink. We recognize that across the globe that sweetener is going to be a key component of our water footprint, Knight said.

Murky Waters

New findings will be used by WFN, based at the University of Twente, Netherlands, to standardize the way water footprints are calculated.

Applying a standard to water footprinting is crucial, said Stuart Orr, WWFs freshwater-footprint manager. That's because the complex ecological analysis, which involves identifying and measuring multiple water inputs, is "confusing everybody right now," he said.

But, footprinting represents the best tool for reducing water demand in already severely water-stressed countries that will have to support some 3 billion people by 2025.

"We cant screw this up," he added. "There is no Plan B with water. Lets be clear about that."

University of Twente's Arjen Hoekstra, creator of the water footprint concept, said the current confusion is not in the methodology but in "people who for the first time [are starting to] consider the issue."

"There are many questions raised which leads to confusion," he said. "There is a demand for practical guidelines—for tools that can be easily used by business. That is where the development will be."

A new manual due out later this month by WFN will spell out the method for calculating water footprints, whether its by individuals, businesses, or governments, Hoekstra added.

Some environmental groups are pressing for water footprinting information to be included on food labels so consumers can also play their part in choosing low-water-impact foods.

But WWF has said that its still too early in the water-footprint movement to provide label information. The group notes the complexities of comparing water footprints.

Meanwhile, many manufacturers remain skeptical of putting water footprint information on labels.

Donna Jeffries is sustainability manager at U.K.s Unilever, which has a large portfolio of household brands, such as Lipton tea and Ben & Jerry's ice cream.

She said detailed water footprint labels are an unrealistic prospect "when you have many thousands of products. We'd get so bogged down in measuring everything."

Sylvain Lhôte, of Austria-based plastics manufacturer Borealis, said the company was completely opposed to the idea of water footprint labels on its products.

"We think it is totally meaningless and misleading to talk about a product's water footprint," Lhôte said, adding that a products true ecological impact isnt revealed by water volume alone.

Two U.K.-based organizations that promote sustainable farming practices›:Sustain and the Food Ethics Council›:this summer proposed a flower-shaped eco-label that would have water as one of its key "petals."

Each petal would represent a different environmental concern.

Rather than showing water liters per kilogram, the food and drink stickers would show if a company practiced "good water stewardship."

WFNs Hoekstra, who said he believes that labeling will happen, noted that water footprint labels have already appeared on some products in Finland and Japan.

This year the Finnish food company Raisio, for instance, introduced a label showing the amount of water used to produce a packet of its oat flakes.

Companies have plenty of incentive for providing such information, according to Hoekstra.

"Corporate image is an issue," he said. "It may damage their corporate image if they don't have a clear story to tell."

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