Is the Latest Eco-Term Just Corporate Hype?


In early 2008, the Coca-Cola Company began making public claims that it would become "the most efficient company in the world in terms of water use in the beverage industry." Central to the company's PR campaign is the claim that it is working toward the goal of becoming "water neutral."

An article in Time Magazine on June 12, 2008, begins, "The global-warming debate has introduced some new catchphrases into the business lexicon. Becoming carbon neutral, for example, is now a goal for multinationals like Dell, HSBC and Tesco. But for another well-known international brand, becoming carbon neutral isn't enough. Last June, Coca-Cola CEO Neville Isdell flew to Beijing and pledged that his company would become 'water neutral' -- every drop of water it uses to produce beverages would be returned to the earth or compensated for through conservation and recycling programs."

With the fairly recent acceptance by policy-makers and the mainstream media that climate change is a reality, new ways of measuring environmental impact are appearing almost by the day. But some of these concepts, developed by the private sector to demonstrate their environmental commitment, are more an exercise in public relations than a credible step toward protecting people and planet -- "catchphrases," as Time Magazine put it. The emergence of "water neutrality" in the global water marketplace may be the most recent of these pseudo-scientific PR catchphrases.

On December 2nd and 3rd San Francisco will be the site of the conference, "Corporate Water Footprinting: Towards a Sustainable Water Strategy," where international business representatives will discuss their use of water, and ostensibly, outline water conservation strategies. At the conference, a two-day business affair at the downtown Hyatt Regency with a price tag of $1900, leading corporations will announce their new efforts to promote "water neutrality," the claim that they can return to local aquifers every drop of water taken for business.

But, is this new term a useful scientific concept to measure laudable efforts towards true sustainability? A paper delivered by some of the scientists who developed the concept says, "The term water neutrality has been picked-up in recent years by a range of commentators and actors involved in water issues. Taking a strict interpretation, no individual or entity that uses water can ever be entirely water neutral, as water use cannot be reduced to zero. However, we feel that as long as the term is used in a consistent and transparent manner to drive positive action on water issues, then it might have potential similar to that of carbon neutrality."

Readers will be familiar with "carbon neutrality," (chosen as word of the year in 2006 by the New Oxford American Dictionary) because, thanks in part to Al Gore, the concept has caught on so quickly. But the inconvenient truth is that after a few years of hopeful hype, carbon neutrality has been shown to be a false solution, encouraging not less consumption and pollution, but more.

Another paper by a group of scientists from Twente University in the Netherlands, UNESCO, and other reputable institutions, points out that, "The idea of 'water neutral' is different here from 'carbon neutral,' because it is theoretically possible to generate enough energy without emitting carbon. Alternative names to 'water neutral' that have been suggested include water offset, water stewardship, and water use reduction and reuse. However none of these other terms seem to have the same gravity or resonance (inspiration) with the media, officials or NGOs as the term neutrality. For pragmatic reasons it may therefore be attractive to use the term 'water neutral,' but there is a definite need to be clear about precisely what it entails if reduction of water use to zero is not possible."

In other words, in practice, there is no neutrality, in carbon or in water. To suggest that any industry can completely offset its consumption of water, or any other resource may be attractive, but it is profoundly misleading, and sets a dangerous precedent for those engaged in authentic efforts towards sustainability.

Global consumption of water is doubling every 20 years, more than twice the rate of human population growth. According to the United Nations, if present consumption patterns continue, two-thirds of the world's population will live in water-stressed conditions by the year 2025. Currently, 12 percent of the world's population uses 85 percent of its water. The largest uses of water are for agriculture (70 percent) and industry (20 percent), with domestic use lagging far behind at 10 percent. According to The Economist magazine, "Five big food and beverage giants-Nestlé, Unilever, Coca-Cola, Anheuser-Busch and Danone-consume almost 575 billion litres of water a year, enough to satisfy the daily water needs of every person on the planet."

Multinational corporations like Coke and Nestle would like us to think that they are doing their best to protect our water, going so far as to promote the health benefits of their products and pledging to steward our natural resources. But the fact is, these corporations produce non-essential sugary products with the single-minded goal of generating profit for their shareholders. In many cases their activities have come into direct conflict with local needs for drinking water and irrigation for subsistence agriculture. Even if these corporations meet the most rigorous efficiency goals they can impose on themselves, there is nothing "neutral" in earning profits from junk and bottling water for sale while communities go thirsty.

In considering water neutrality, it is important to recognize that not all uses of water are equal. For example, while agriculture is a larger water user than bottled water, much of the water used in farming is recycled and reused within the watershed. More importantly, the water is being used to grow food for people to eat. In contrast, Nestle, for example, extracts water to sell across the United States for more than the cost of gasoline, with no socially redeeming purpose. The fact that it can require as much as 60 ounces of water to produce a 20-ounce bottle of water should be enough to call "water neutrality" into question.

Lack of domestic access to water, for drinking, bathing, and washing, along with lack of sanitation, is the single most important cause of disease worldwide. Lack of clean drinking water leads to nearly 250 million cases of water-related disease each year and between 5 and 10 million deaths.

In this context, corporate claims of water neutrality are clearly cynical attempts to greenwash the inequities. Call it water use reduction, water use offsetting, or some other term that describes real efforts to minimize environmental impact. But "water neutral" is not a goal -- it is a distraction. With the climate crisis growing beyond our scientists' most grave predictions, and with 2.6 billion people worldwide already lacking access to safe drinking water, it's more important than ever to put real environmental protection before corporate profit.

When it comes to consumption of natural resources, there is no neutrality. That's why it's called consumption.

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