No Water No Beer: Big Issues in Beverage Companies’ Water Footprints

empty beerAt the 2nd Corporate Footprinting Conference, which took place this week in San Francisco, big brands in the beverage industry were front and center, presenting sophisticated “bleeding edge” strategies for addressing their water footprints. Water, for obvious reasons, is critical to these players, and they sent executive directors to report on their progress, challenges, and learning. Each did their dog and pony slide-ware show, speaking to the global water crisis, and how it is has become crystal clear that without water, bottom line, they have no business.

At the same time, these companies are well aware of their customer’s evolving concerns. In a late 2009 survey spanning 15 countries, water pollution and fresh water shortages were the respondents first and second most serious environmental concerns. Climate change and global warming ranked a surprisingly distant sixth. The study also revealed that the public holds water companies second only to the government in terms of their responsible for ensuring clean water.  No water/no business, combined with clear customer stakeholder attitudes as to water/beverage companies responsibilities, pushes and pulls these companies to take the lead in addressing their water impacts across their supply chain and product lifecycle.

Leading companies in the water space measure and monitor their water footprint using a variety of methodologies and then drive efficiency internally where they have the most control. All spoke to the challenge of choosing one of the many newly developing footprinting methodologies, boundary issues (for example, does a brewery include the water footprint of the energy used in the farming of their hops), and the growing complexity of the energy/water nexus where one risks exchanging impacts (increased water savings at the cost of increased energy use) rather than mitigating or eliminating them.

Sebastien Humbert, Project Leader, UNEP-SETAC Life Cycle Initiative Task Force, spoke to the challenges of consistency, applicability, and meaning when looking at the multitude of different metrics and standards for assessing water in lifecycle assessment. France is requiring the labeling of all products in terms of impacts in three categories: GHG’s, biological diversity impacts, and water. Wal-Mart is attempting to create environmental impact labeling standards for its 2 million products.  These types of Herculean efforts will drive innovation, but risk getting too far ahead of the science, and as we know, the devil is in the details. Despite all these challenges, most presenters spoke of the good and continuing work being done by both ISO and in terms of developing water footprinting and LCA standards.

Leading companies don’t pussyfoot around waiting for all the details to be worked out. While the world struggles to develop universally accepted standards water footprinting and product labeling; progressive firms go out and make their own. Take Raisio, a Finland based food company with the world’s first product water footprint label. Raisio believes that informed consumers can make the best choices for themselves, their children, their grandchildren and the planet. Raisio’s blue colored water footprint label appears side by side with its green GHG footprint label on each product. Patagonia, the outdoor clothing manufacturer, has developed its Footprint Chronicles which both inform consumers about the lifecycle impacts of the products they chose and drive internal innovation to reduce those impacts. Both Raisio and Patagonia are inspired examples of leading companies that are doing well by doing good.

David Lewbin

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