OPINION26 August 2010

Thirsty planet


Part two of our series on consumer trends shaping the world sees Panoramix Global’s Vickie Abrahamson getting to grips with an impending global water shortage. With water poverty on the rise, companies can’t afford to be seen as wasteful and must take steps to minimise their usage and make a virtue of it, she says.

“Water is life. It’s the briny broth of our origins, the pounding circulatory system of the world, a precarious molecular edge on which we survive.”Barbara Kingsolver

By mid-century the inhabitants of planet Earth will be mighty thirsty.

As our most precious resource, freshwater is the giver of life, provider of health, wealth, security and happiness. United Nations environmental gurus project that the scarcity of freshwater will parch the lifestyles of three quarters of the global populace by 2050.

That’s in forty years. But hey, in 2010 the forces of population growth, pollution, climate change, urbanisation, heightened demands of agriculture and industry are creating water poverty – a lack of water quality and quantity – affecting 1 in 6 consumers around the world, today.

For every business, large and small, their short and long term strategic plans must anticipate the impact of this global dilemma. There’s an abundance of opportunity for those marketers who actively and authentically commit to water conservation at each phase of production, distribution, sales and marketing. For B2B industries and consumer-facing brands here are three critical markers to help navigate the freshwater crisis.

1. Know your impact
As access to clean water is compromised expect consumer advocates to identify products and services that appear to be over using and thus abusing more than their share. It is important to measure your company’s water usage impact before it is guestimated for you. Two metrics – water footprinting and virtual water trade – work hand-in hand to help determine a freshwater impact profile for goods and services.

The ‘Water Footprint Manual State of the Art 2009’ is the premier font of understanding and an invaluable blueprint for determining an individual, community or business water footprint. In simplest terms a water footprint is a multi-dimensional indicator of the volume of freshwater used to produce a product, measured over the full supply chain.

A stunning example is the water footprint of one cup of coffee – from growing the coffee plant to imbibing the final brew it takes a whopping 1,100 drops of water to produce one drop of coffee (waterfootprint.org). A step-by-step formula is spelled out in the Manual and is guaranteed to produce enlightening input for a company developing an environmental strategic roadmap.

“Virtual water trade” is the intriguing idea that when goods and services are exchanged so is water. The water is virtual because once a pair of jeans ( 10,800 litres of virtual water), a disposable diaper ( 810 litres) or a kilogramme of wheat ( 1,300 litres) is produced and traded the real water is no longer visible yet it is embedded. For transnational companies the importance of this concept comes into play as a strategy to mitigate the risk of being publicly called out as an excessive exporter of local water resources.

2. Honesty is paramount
Consumers, tempered by a global recession, are savvy and sceptical when it comes to paying more for a sustainability banner on a product label. The web is rife with examples of ‘greenwashing’ – companies that talk up their eco-credentials, but whose actions fail to match their rhetoric. According to a 2009 study by TerraChoice Marketing, 98% of products touting a green point of difference were either exaggerating, misleading or outright falsifying their earth-friendly claims. With only 2% passing the sustainability lie-detector test there is enormous room for companies with an authentic water conservation story to tell.

The importance of an independent monitor to test and rate water efficient products is key to building awareness for credible green claims. In the United States the Environmental Protection Agency is helping consumers make water-smart buying decisions through their voluntary WaterSense certification program. With input from manufacturers, retailers and distributors the EPA developed the WaterSense label which is earned by passing rigorous criteria implemented by an independent testing agent. The WaterSense label assures consumers that water-efficient toilets, urinals, faucets, showerheads and irrigation systems reduce water consumption by at least 20%.

Two prospective game-changing sustainability awareness initiatives are in the works at Wal-Mart and The Nature Conservancy. Companies doing business with Wal-Mart will have to do serious soul searching when the giant retailer’s Sustainability Index comes online. Suppliers will be required to report their impact on the planet’s health from all links in their supply chain. Look for a product’s report card to include a water footprint.

The Nature Conservancy’s Blue Water Certification Programme, a joint effort of the Conservancy’s legal, international government affairs, and global freshwater departments is working with the Alliance for Water Stewardship to develop the planet’s first water certification business. It is modelled on programmes such as Fair Trade and the Marine Fisheries Council and will work to recognise excellence in water usage and management. Both efforts are a potential truth serum that can be used to flush out the greenwashers.

3. Taking the lead
Every year, two million people die of diseases caused by a lack of clean water. As the well dries it is clear the water crisis has ample room for B2B and consumer brands to take a leadership role. There is a multiplicity of local and global freshwater challenges to be met and much can be learned from the innovative marketers who have made water issues a strategic focus. Check out the Dow Jones Sustainability Indexes for the superstar supersector leader profiles – Nokia, Panasonic, BMW and Unilever are just a few.

One exciting example of corporate social responsibility is the commitment Marriott International has made to China’s Sichuan Province. They are investing $500,000 in seed money in the ‘Nobility of Nature’ programme over the next two years to support a vital water conservation programme and promote modes of farming to protect the largest source of fresh water on the planet.

With close to 60 Marriott hotels in China this is a strategy that carves in stone the company’s relationship with the Chinese people and business community. J.W. Marriott Jr., chairman and chief executive officer, said it best: “There’s a Chinese proverb: ‘When drinking the water, consider the source’. Water is the key to prosperity and sustained economic growth. Helping to develop viable ways to preserve the water supply and conserve water in our hotels is important to our business, our associates and our customers.”

Vickie Abrahamson recently launched consumer trends consultancy Panoramix Global with colleague Mary Meehan. The pair previously founded Iconoculture. Check out part one of the trends series here.