Walk the Line: GRACE Joins the Water Footprint Network

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Image courtesy of the Water Footprint Network Foundation.

GRACE has been on the forefront of promoting the concept of water footprints. Our Water Footprint Calculator (WFC) helps users learn how our total water use goes way beyond direct use, like taking a shower, because it also includes an ocean of hidden or virtual water that goes into making and transporting the products we use and consume every day.

By addressing both direct and virtual water use, we seek to promote a water conservation ethic – so that more people will demand comprehensive freshwater conservation and efficiency.  To stay up to date and become more closely aligned with other groups working on this issue, we recently became a partner of the internationally renowned Water Footprint Network (WFN) based at the University of Twente in the Netherlands.

The WFN was established in 2008 by the originator of the water footprint concept, Arjen Hoekstra, Professor in Multidisciplinary Water Management at the university. The objective of the WFN is to further develop and promote the water footprint concept, standards and tools, an essential goal as water shortages and water crises increase, as world population rises, and climate change alters the intensity and frequency of precipitation patterns over time.

Since 2002, when Hoekstra introduced the water footprint as an indicator of total water use across geographical boundaries, refinements and standardized accounting methods have been added to his groundbreaking concept, catching the attention of academia, the environmental and water resource management communities, and even corporate boardrooms. Groups that partner with WFN run the gamut from major environmental organizations like the World Wildlife Fund and The Nature Conservancy to other respected organizations like the UN Environment Programme and the Pacific Institute to large corporations with objectionable environmental practices like Coca Cola and Nestlé.

“Wait”…(record skips)…“What?”

“Hold on there, cowboy” you might say. “How could any environmentally minded organization align itself with a network that has corporate partners like Coca Cola and Nestlé? Doesn’t that undermine their mission of integrating sustainability in human and ecological systems? I mean, Coke, for instance, is all about the bottom line which has led to egregious examples of environmentally and socially damaging behavior. Likewise, Nestlé’s behavior seems focused on the bottom line which is expressed in the poor way they treat watersheds and local communities.

The reality is that by joining the WFN, organizations committed to sustainability are better able to track and hold responsible corporations like Coca Cola to their stated aims of sustainable water use in their business and manufacturing operations.  By joining WFN, Coke, on the other hand, declares that across their global supply chain they will account for their water use and encourage “water governance that reduce[s] the negative ecological and social impacts of [its] water footprints” (Mission, iii).

Can the WFN fully police any of its members?  No, but partnering on global initiatives is especially important in the 21st Century as economic globalization prevails and  the supply chains of multinational corporations bypass international boundaries and jurisdictions in their manufacturing and production processes. Most people  think about the end-market product, relieving the corporation from the scrutiny necessary to hold them to more sustainable production throughout their far-flung operations. GRACE can walk the line by participating in the construction of durable water footprinting measures, work for its widespread application and call out corporate behavior that amounts to green (or blue) washing. The WFN partnership can begin to address the “out of sight, out of mind” mentality by reconnecting a company’s unsustainable water use in a remote location to their responsibility as a WFN partner.

Drastic times call for drastic measures, and sometimes make for strange bedfellows, too.

The rapid growth and deployment of water footprinting corresponds to water’s importance to human and ecological systems as the world faces growing water insecurity. Whether they know it or not, all stakeholders – civil society, governments and businesses, alike – must be part of a global transformation that places a greater value on water and is smarter and fairer about how it’s used. It’s all of our jobs to hold them to it.

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