Wait! A Supply Chain Water Footprint? Seriously?

Do we in the Supply Chain industry really care about something called the Water Footprint? Is it something that you’re even aware of? I was not aware of this until I read a Harvard Business blog post  detailing the impact water shortage might have on businesses in the future. Sure – we’re hardly started with the whole Carbon Footprint issue and you dare bring this upon us!! The author of this post is CEO of a sustainability consulting company. Is it jsupply-chain-water-footprintust me or are we really trying to invent newer ways to make our already complicated world of business all the more so? Is it not enough that we’re battling hard to get the right item at the right place and time, while being efficient and making money doing so?


While reading the article, I started wondering if the concept of a Water Footprint was pertinent to all industrial sectors. One aspect that has made the carbon footprint this popular, is the fact that the concept can be applied to all companies irrespective of whether they are involved in manufacturing or service. The apparent immediacy of the problem compounds the effect. I can easily say that the Water Footprint is a concept that will apply mainly to manufacturing companies. It is the very nature of the problem we’re trying to tackle that makes it so categoric. The HBR article itself talks about a beer brewing company SABMiller and how they’re evaluating water use in their supply chain. SABMiller has even released a report in collaboration with the World Wildlife Fund which details their perspective. But for a beer brewing company – or any beverage company for that matter, water is indeed an important resource. The article goes on to list other sectors that water footprinting might be relevant. Here’s what the article had to say (note that there is not one non-manufacturing sector mentioned)

Supply chain water footprinting is not just confined to the beverage sector. Borealis (a plastics materials provider) and Uponor (a plumbing and heating systems company) have initiated a study of the water footprint in the plastics value chain, from raw materials to plumbing and water systems installed in a home. The goal is to reduce resource use in product design and manufacturing in addition to developing water-efficient products.

Again like I said, it is the nature of the problem we’re seeking to tackle in this case. For pertinent industries however, analyzing water usage does make sense. Again, what level are we willing to take this to? The HBR article also talks about a World Water Week event conducted at Stockholm recently.

The linkage between water and business was a hot topic at the August 2009 Stockholm World Water Week. Bjorn Stigson, president of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, singled out supply-chain water use for specific attention. As fresh water becomes more scarce and supplies uncertain, how companies use water and where it comes from will increasingly affect their business risks and opportunities.

I did some further research and found that the issue indeed is a ‘silent giant’ – something that’s out there – we just don’t know about it yet. I found a website dedicated to this issue - Waterfootprint.org. They have an interesting take on the supply chain perspective of Water Footprint.

The water footprint of a business - that is its 'corporate water footprint' - refers to the total volume of fresh water that is used directly and indirectly to run and support the business. It consists of two components:


the operational water footprint, i.e. the direct water use by the business in its own operations, the supply-chain water footprint, i.e. the water use in the business’s supply chain.

Many businesses have a supply-chain water footprint that is much larger than the operational water footprint. This is particularly the case when a company does not have agricultural activity itself but is partly based on the intake of agricultural products (crop products, meat, milk, eggs, leather, cotton, image wood/paper).


When consumers use the products from a business, there can also be a water footprint in the end-use stage. Think about the water pollution that results from the use of soaps in the household. In this case one can speak about the end-use water footprint of a product. This footprint is not part of a business’s water footprint, but it is part of the consumer’s water footprint. That does not mean that the business can withdraw from some responsibility about what happens in the end-use stage.

Check out the image I’ve attached. It should give you a perspective about what this metric means to your business. The Waterfootprint.org website is a good and informative read nevertheless and it gives valuable input on a topic I never knew existed until a couple of days back. Here are some links to studies that you can download if you think the topic is pertinent to your organization. They are sourced from the Waterfootprint.org website.


Barton, B. (2010) Murky waters? Corporate reporting on water risk, A benchmarking study of 100 companies, Ceres, Boston, USA. Ercin, A.E., Aldaya, M.M. and Hoekstra, A.Y. (2009) A pilot in corporate water footprint accounting and impact assessment: The water footprint of a sugar-containing carbonated beverage SABMiller and WWF-UK (2009) Water footprinting: Identifying & addressing water risks in the value chain, SABMiller, Woking, UK / WWF-UK, Goldalming, UK Hoekstra, A.Y. (2008) Measuring your water footprint: What’s next in water strategy, Leading Perspectives, Summer 2008, pp. 12-13, 19. Hoekstra, A.Y. (2008) 'Water neutral: reducing and offsetting the impacts of water footprints' Gerbens-Leenes, P.W. and Hoekstra, A.Y. (2008) 'Business water footprint accounting'

It does take time for a concept to prove itself. I think people supporting this issue as part of a broader sustainability strategy for companies will need to convince businesses of the economic viability of measuring the Water Footprint. That is going to take time – think similar to what happened with the Carbon Footprint. Remember there’s 5 things you can do today to improve your personal Carbon Footprint. Personally, at this point in time, my opinion mirrors my post title – Water Footprint? Seriously?

Read More