Lloyds Banking Group Centre for Responsible Business, University of Birmingham
Water is life – and rising human daily consumption patterns is causing water scarcity in many parts of the world. This over-consumption of water comes from not only everyday domestic use but the often invisible water used in producing goods that are generally taken for granted.
Reflecting on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), encouraging responsible purchasing decisions is one way to contribute to sustainable consumption and production, and ensures availability and sustainable management of water for all by 2030. In effect, this means developing a moral responsibility that “leaves no one behind” towards achieving universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water.
However, consumers have little or no idea about the interaction of the consumption of food products and ‘virtual water’. Virtual water reflects the “hidden” water cost that is ingrained in producing and processing consumer products. By definition, when food products are imported from other countries, receiving countries are actually importing water from those countries too. A case in point is coffee consumption in the UK, where 95 million cups of coffee are consumed each day, whilst a cup of coffee uses approximately 140 litres of virtual water to produce. This means when international trade of coffee takes place, there is a virtual flow of water from coffee bean growing, processing and exporting from places such as Latin America, the Caribbean or Africa, to net importing countries such as the United Kingdom or Canada where no or little coffee is grown, but coffee products are heavily consumed and imported.
Why care about virtual water?
This World Water Day is about tackling the water crisis and leaving no one behind. Consequently, we need a greater understanding of our water consumption patterns. Thus far, there is little public awareness and knowledge about how much water we consume in our daily lives, and very little interaction with imported food products value chains. Understanding consumption and virtual water dynamics remain crucial, with looming global water scarcity expected as a result of many factors; including climate change, rapid increase to population growth, urbanisation and increasing consumption of water per capita in the coming decades. Thus, in accounting for societal consumption patterns, along with tackling food waste, the challenge becomes:
• Could virtual water trade be an option for managing looming global water scarcity as food products remain a major source of virtual water consumption?
• How could society ensure real water savings, whilst leaving no one behind, as irresponsible consumption and a billion tonnes of food wasted every year is the norm in some parts of the world?
Bringing it together
In a world where responsible business means ensuring best practice and implementing the SDGs for people and planet – aligning international food trade agreements with standards towards the efficient management of our shared natural resources could be beneficial for sustainable water management. However, as sustainable consumption and production reflect “doing more and better with less”, innovation in value chains for responsible consumption and water scarcity is critical. Such innovative measures could integrate numerous methods of initiating societal change: educating consumers and schools on sustainable use, fairer agricultural/virtual water subsidies within the food value chain, providing consumers with adequate information through international standards and labels, and academic engagement with businesses and consumers in sustainable sourcing and responsible consumption respectively.
This World Water Day, we should encourage society, that includes businesses to think about sustainable sourcing and responsible consumption, in making a positive impact on sustainable water management, so no-one is left behind.