Markets working to support sustainable development

Diving into water certification schemes

01 Sep 2015

In saying X amount of water goes into producing Y amount beef, what can we understand about the management of water? For researchers, critical questions relate to the source of water (i.e. non-renewable freshwater), if chemicals were used in irrigation, whether the water was recycled, and so on. Once you dig under the surface, water is complex!

Water footprinting to raise awareness

Water scarcity is a growing problem, with  40% of the UK's imports coming from areas of high water risk. One answer to improving public and private awareness of water usage, particularly in relation to agricultural goods, is the concept of the 'water footprint '. It works by calculating both the water used in a product (e.g. a bottle of water) but also the water used in the production process, e.g. the water used to produce the bottle itself.  Certification schemes are now available to help companies measure their water footprint. Can these schemes provide guidance to consumers, businesses and decision-makers to better manage water? Let us explore the features of the key schemes.

Rice paddies in Bali, Indonesia. Source: Wikipedia

Global Reporting Initiative: water transparency

The Global Reporting Initiative proposes a mechanism where companies can report their impact on natural systems – including water ecosystems. They must report on the volume of water withdrawn from sources, e.g. rivers or municipal water supplies, and identify if the source is significantly affected by the withdrawal – e.g via impacts on biodiversity or local communities and indigenous peoples. Indicators also relate to the volume of water recycled or reused. Companies are required to report on the number and volume of spills, be that oil or chemicals, into water or other ecosystems. The biodiversity value of water bodies affected by discharge, runoff or spills must be identified. This model emphasises transparency, allowing companies to be more accountable for their water usage, which may encourage changed management in cases of misuse.

The Carbon Trust: water efficiency

A new entrant, The Carbon Trust, has recently launched a 'Standard for Water'. It offers a framework to deliver greater water efficiency; by providing guidance on possible improvements and tips to engage staff and customers in saving water and cutting costs. To facilitate compliance, the scheme is linked to a number of environmental reporting standards, including the EU non-financial reporting requirements and the CDP Water Disclosure Project. Carbon Trust argues that companies carrying their label will boost their environmental credentials. 

Life cycle of water usage

As alternatives to the above approaches, researchers have promoted the benefits of measuring the life cycle of water usage – instead of focusing on a single environmental parameter (i.e. the impacts of water useage on biodiversity) or production input (i.e. wheat growing for beef).  The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) has developed a standard (ISO 14046) for efficiency in water management. It uses a life-cycle analysis; identifying the water impacts of products in their production, usage, and potential decommissioning. It also aims to optimize water management and efficiency at a process and organisational level. 

Water stewardship: a holistic water footprint?

‘Water stewardship’ could provide a more holistic approach, with support for those whose livelihoods rely on water. The Alliance for Water Stewardship (AWS) Standard helps companies to promote sustainable water stewardship down through their supply chain. Companies like Nestle and General Mills have signed up to drive good practice in their suppliers and producers. The Standard is designed to achieve four water stewardship outcomes: good water governance, sustainable water balance, good water quality status and healthy status of important water-related areas. In order to achieve these, water stewards – those that implement the Standard must follow a continual improvement framework to: commit, gather and understand, plan, implement, evaluate, communicate and disclose.  The AWS standard provides a promising model which could see water-reliant communities being truly considered by companies when it comes to water usage.

Dealing with critical water issues; a consumer revolution?

While certification schemes are undoubtedly crucial to encouraging greater transparency and efficiency in water usage, one criticism is that utilising a scheme provides another way for companies to merely market their green credentials, without providing easily digestible consumer advice. For example some ISO reports can be 200 pages long.  As researchers have identified, more standardised and comparable water impact indicators are required to provide consumers with info about the products they buy. Consumers, decision-makers and businesses alike need info to guide their use of water and make good environmental management choices. However schemes need to maintain a focus on key issues of scarcity, pollution and maximising efficiency of use, with usable information and guidance to address these key problems.