Water Footprint: If Industry Uses the Lion's Share, It Must Conserve More

To produce $1 of sugar, manufacturers use 270 gallons of water. A dollar of pet food takes 200 gallons of water. These figures include the sourcing of raw materials, processing, packaging, and shipping, according to Carnegie Mellon University scientists. A 2010 study published in Environmental Science and Technology, leveraged computer models to estimate water usage by 400 industrial sectors. No surprise, it was discovered that the food and beverage industries account for about 30 percent of what’s being called the “water footprint” or consumption of water during the entire product life cycle.

While water doesn’t get the high-profile attention in conservation that fossil-fuel energy sources enjoy, it is as critical a resource for survival of planet earth and the people on it. Warnings come from diverse sources such as the Second UN World Water Development Report that there will not be adequate water for human, industrial, and agricultural use. Some set the date of 2025 for a kind of Armageddon. That’s when it is anticipated that two-thirds of the global population will be water-short.

The causes are many and they intersect, compounding the possibility of disaster. They include:

increased industrial activity especially among emerging economies;

climate change;

more irrigation;

intensive dam construction;

simple waste, usually a result of ignorance or indifference; and, of course,

increased demand because of population growth.

It’s no surprise that companies, especially multi-national ones, have responded in shrinking water consumption, according to GreenBiz.com. They range from Coca-Cola to General Electric. Part of the concern is, of course, cost-related because failure to be water conscious translates to being fiscally reckless. Further, companies need to comply with regulations around the world about water efficiency, reports demanded by consumers, investors, and activists about the size of the water footprint, and the risk to the brand of being perceived as a kind of water “hog.”

Coca-Cola is typical of how companies are going about becoming water savvy. Frequently, companies, like Coke, team with a third party such as the World Wildlife Fund to identify consumption patterns and how efficiency can be increased. Then, they set a target for achieving their goal. In 2004, Coca-Cola set out to reduce water consumption by 20 percent by 2012. With that deadline approaching, Coca-Cola Enterprises is setting out to reduce production consumption regarding water by an additional 20 percent by 2020.

In addition, Coca-Cola is going the extra mile by investing in ensuring the quality of drinking water in the nations in which it conducts business. For example, it donated $12.7 million to the Water and Development Alliance.

One thing is certain; we don’t know what we don’t know. While companies are focused on reducing water consumption, the first step has to be finding out what they are currently using or, in many cases, wasting. Leaks and faulty systems can wreak havoc on utility bills and consumption totals. The solution is simple. Manage energy usage by measuring it. It’s the only true way to know how much water – and money -- is going down the drain.