The Secrets a Water Footprint Can Reveal

The Secrets a Water Footprint Can Reveal

Image CC licensed by Flickr user jypsygen

There has been growing concern over the role of business and industry in the water scarcity challenge.

The specific issues created by international commerce and virtual water have led to an explosion of activity around water management, and so-called "water footprints" in particular.

A recent review by IGD, the food and grocery industry group in the U.K., found more than 60 organizations addressing water-related topics, many of these focused exclusively on water footprints. 

But what is a water footprint and why is all of this activity necessary?

As part of Kimberly-Clark's comprehensive sustainability efforts, we have been monitoring and managing the water use in our operations for several years.  Since 1995, we have reduced direct water use in our operations by more than 26 million cubic meters.  {related_content} As discussions around water management and assessment have evolved over the last few years, we have been following the dialogue closely. The first thing we noticed is that the term water footprint means different things to the various organizations using the term.

Some refer to the total direct operational water use of an organization as its water footprint (more recently the term Scope 1 water has been adopted from the parlance of greenhouse gas accounting).  Others refer to a similar accounting for a nation or region (e.g., a U.S. state) as a water footprint.  Finally, several organizations, including Kimberly-Clark, consider the water associated with all of the activity within some defined boundary of the product life cycle as the water footprint.

Information on water can take many forms. Blue water, green water, grey water, water use, water consumption, net water, virtual water, water offsets -- this can be a confusing domain at the moment. We have achieved some clarity by focusing on trying to understand the dependence of our products on the continued availability of freshwater, in terms of their production, use and disposal. 

This seems to be the piece of the discussion most relevant for an internal assessment within a business. It can help us identify vulnerabilities, such as how climate change will alter water availability patterns, and let us know where we need to focus our water management and innovation efforts.

In this way our water footprint efforts supplement -- but don't replace -- our individual facility level water management programs. This focus on freshwater dependence also provides guidance when making decisions about the methods we use in accounting for the water footprint of our products.

For example, let's consider the water footprint accounting for one of Kimberly-Clark's global products like bath tissue. The primary raw material for bath tissue is wood pulp sourced mainly from forests. It is extremely rare for water measurement, monitoring or irrigation to take place even in managed forests or plantations. 

Since little information is currently available, we had an opportunity to define the data we wanted to collect. Keeping in mind our goal to understand the water dependence of the product, we focus only on the quantity of water required to grow a specified amount of the tree, also known as water use efficiency. 

New questions continue to arise in other areas of the product life cycle.  For example, when considering product use and disposal, it is debatable whether we should include the water needed for toilet flushing. Some would argue that this water is not directly attributable to our product, but others would note that these products are specifically designed to break apart for disposal via flushing. 

Again, Kimberly-Clark's goal of understanding freshwater dependence is useful for clarifying the importance of this source of water in the product life cycle.  In fact, examining a range of products has helped highlight toilet operation as an important source of water dependence for flushable products (see the figure below). We were also able to identify the importance of our supply chain as a key source of water use for many of our products.

While the science and standards for supporting water footprints evolves, Kimberly-Clark was able to identify meaningful learning through a clear understanding of what we wanted to accomplish and a willingness to learn by doing. 

Certainly, issue-specific assessments like water footprints (and their cousin carbon footprints) can be valuable for exploring an issue in greater detail, developing focused strategies and engaging stakeholders. But these studies should be treated with care as they can ignore other important social and environmental issues.

Balancing these footprints with facility environmental management programs and other product life cycle environmental information is essential in developing robust sustainability strategies. 

As the Product Sustainability Manager in Kimberly-Clark's Global Sustainability Strategy organization, David Spitzley directs activities in product environmental improvement, life cycle assessment, carbon footprinting and related fields around the world.

Main image CC licensed by Flickr user jypsygen.