Water footprint of a business

Date : 10 December 2009

- Definition of a water footprint
- A supply chain perspective
- The different elements of water usage
- Water footprint accounting
- What can businesses do?

Definition of a water footprint

According to the Water Footprint Network, a corporate water footprint is defined as the total volume of fresh water used directly and indirectly to run and support a business.

The water footprint of a business consists of two components:

  • The supply chain water footprint, which is the water used in a company's own supply chain. This is indirect water use.
  • The operational water footprint, which is the water used by a business for production or manufacturing purposes, and for supporting activities. This is direct water use.

A supply chain perspective

Many businesses have a supply chain water footprint that is larger than their operational water footprint. Predominantly, this occurs in companies that are not directly involved in agricultural activities, but whose products are based on agricultural products, for example meat, milk, eggs, leather and cotton.

A water footprint may also be created when consumers use products at home, for example when washing and cooking vegetables. This is known as the 'end-use' water footprint of a product. This footprint is not considered part of a business's water footprint, according to the Water Footprinting Network. However, this does not mean that a company has to absolve itself from all responsibility for what happens during the end-use stage.

A good example of how the food and beverage industry has taken positive steps in relation to the end-use stage is the Future Friendly labelling initiative, developed by Procter & Gamble in partnership with leading sustainability experts. It is designed to educate and inspire consumers on the subject of saving water. A Finnish food manufacturer, meanwhile, has gone one step further and developed a water footprinting label, which it claims to be the world's first for a food company. It has added an H²O label to its product packaging, indicating the total water consumption associated with the product.

An example of the water footprint of a retailer

Example of the water footprint of a retailer

(Source: Water Footprint Network)

The different elements of water usage

Water use is measured in terms of water volumes consumed (evaporated) or water volumes polluted per unit of time. Both the supply chain and operational water footprints can be separated into three elements:

  • The blue water footprint is the volume of freshwater that evaporates from surface water and ground water
  • The green water footprint is the volume of freshwater evaporated from rainwater stored in the ground as soil moisture
  • The grey water footprint is the volume of polluted water, calculated as the volume of water that is required to dilute pollutants to such an extent that the quality of the water remains above agreed water quality standards

Water footprint accounting

Water footprint accounting is relevant for any business, but especially so for those that have supply chains operating in water-scarce areas. Water footprint accounting can be applied to any company producing goods or services that are supplied to consumers or businesses.

What can businesses do?

According to the WWF's UK Water Footprint report, businesses can play an important role in improving the management of water resources and reducing their own environmental impact.

The report suggests that companies should carry out the following actions to improve their water management and reduce the risk of environmental damage:

  • Calculate the water footprint of their business and reduce impacts in areas where water is either already scarce or is likely to become scarce
  • Examine the volumes, impacts and risks of water use along their entire supply chain
  • Work with other companies and push for sound water management and strong implementation of collective water agreements that provide basic rights of access to water for people and nature
  • Engage with other companies, academics, government agencies and NGOs to maintain transparency and rigour when measuring and responding to water issues
  • Communicate to consumers and through business-to-business channels the contribution their business is making to good water management
  • Think and act beyond their own water footprints

The report also stated that consumers could play a role by:

  • Wasting less food and recycling more products, therefore wasting less water
  • Urging retailers and food manufacturers to deliver water sustainability through their stores and in their supply chains
  • Pressuring the government to implement policies relating to the sustainable use of the UK's water resources (such as the Habitats Directive and the Water Framework Directive) as well as those pertaining to external water resources (such as the UN Convention)

(Source: WWF)

Related Internet links:

The following documents are available from the WWF:
UK Water Footprint: the impact of the UK's food and fibre consumption on global water resources (PDF)
Water footprinting: Identifying & addressing water risks in the value chain (PDF)

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