Water Footprint Labels to Become as Important as Energy Star

World Water Day is approaching (March 22, 2010 if you'd like to mark your calendar) and there's no better time than now to start focusing more on the importance of water footprints. We're already working hard on figuring out how to account for carbon in products and services, but equally as important is their water footprint. Accountants are already studying up, and even huge companies like IBM are putting the importance of water management on par with electricity management. This could mean that a water footprint label is soon to be as prominent on product packaging as an Energy Star label, and with an equal amount of clout among consumers.

National Geographic writes, "Calculating water footprints can help businesses and communities better understand and prepare for the impacts of global water scarcity, according to experts. And if this so-called embedded water information ends up on a product label--somewhat similar to the U.S. government's Energy Star label that indicates energy efficiency, or the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's WaterSense label, which measures water efficiency--consumers may be able to choose products based on water footprints as well."

Water Labels to Change Producer and Consumer Behavior

The idea of putting a water footprint label on food is nothing new - we've been talking about that for quite some time, and rightfully so since the water footprint can be enormous. For example, avocados can require 220 gallons of water, butter as much as 2,044 gallons and beef comes in at a whopping 2,500 to 5,000 gallons. But how would you know unless the items were labeled?

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Water footprints of various countries range all over the board, but in the US, we use roughly twice the world average. If putting the nutrition content of food on its label changes purchasing decisions, then water labels could too, and this is an area we drastically need to cut back on.

Companies Starting the Water Footprint Process

Though it's not just food that needs the labels - everything uses water in manufacturing. It takes about 776 gallons of water just to make a cotton t-shirt. We need labels everywhere, and the nonprofit Water Footprint Network (WFN) is working with more corporations to measure and label their products. National Geographic reports that Beer giant SABMiller is one of the first to sign on with WFN and has already unveiled the first detailed corporate water footprint at this year's World Water Week conference in Stockholm, Sweden.

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).

We're hopeful that as with electricity management, where companies are finding that being efficient is financially responsible as well as environmentally responsible, more businesses will hop on board and begin the task of accounting for their water consumption. And not only that, but to provide the information to consumers and clients.

However, just like with carbon footprints and supply chain emissions, water footprint accounting is in need of standardization. Stuart Orr, WWFs freshwater-footprint manager stated that because the ecological analysis is complex, everyone is a bit confused about just what to include, how to measure it, and what the numbers mean. A new manual by WFN will come out later this month and will act as a beginning guideline for how to calculate water footprints on all levels including individuals, businesses, and governments.

Because of the lack of accepted standards, we're still a ways off from having a water footprint label on products; however we're sure to see them in the near future because unlike electricity where we can figure out renewable resources to generate more, as Orr states, "We cant screw this up. There is no Plan B with water. Lets be clear about that."


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