'Water footprints' rise up the marketing agenda

LONDON - Water footprints are likely to be the next big thing on the green agenda, according to environmental marketers.

‘This issue has the potential to go mainstream because there is a real problem with water sustainability,' said Chris Arnold, founder and creative partner of ethical marketing agency Feel. ‘We will start hearing about it in the next year.'

A product's water footprint is a measure of the amount of fresh water required to produce and transport it to the consumer.

Last week, environmental group WWF released the first study to measure the UK's total water footprint. It found that every UK consumer is indirectly responsible for the use of thousands of litres of water daily. WWF presented the study at a meeting in Stockholm, attended by representatives from companies including Nestle.

WWF has announced that it is working with Marks & Spencer to reduce its water footprint. It will look at which M&S products use the most water to produce and the regions in which they are manufactured.

Coca-Cola started working with WWF in 2007. It has a three-pronged strategy to reduce the amount of water used in manufacture, recycle what it does use and replenish the resource by offsetting its water consumption through its support of water projects in developing countries.

Several major companies are now working to reduce their water consumption, but Coca-Cola's director of environmental communications, Lisa Manley, claims it is the first to aim for water-neutrality. ‘Lots of companies are supporting water projects but no one else has said they'll do enough to offset their waste,' she said.

Experts believe there is a risk that adding another green issue on top of existing ones such as carbon footprints will just confuse consumers, many of whom are already becoming cynical.

Arnold said: ‘Every product you pick up has a load of different symbols and marks - consumers are being inundated. It's just getting too confusing.'

He thinks that consumers want easy solutions and to be able to defer responsibility to retailers, and believes that one of the reasons for Marks & Spencer's success is that its customers trust it on environmental matters.

However, Ed Gillespie, co-founder and creative director of sustainability communications agency Futerra, suggests that this can be taken too far. ‘Tesco's approach is to stick a label on everything so you can choose, but it's becoming a tyranny of choice,' he said. ‘Shoppers aren't going to stand in the supermarket aisle with a calculator and compare water footprints.'

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