A Watertight World

11 minute read

The seventh article of Earth Matters is about the ongoing global water crisis. Climate change, economic growth and population increase mean we are facing the challenge of too much water in some places, and not enough in others. Can brands innovate to find solutions in farming, manufacturing and consumption to ease the burden on our dwindling supplies? And, when crisis strikes, can innovations in science and technology come to the rescue?

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Let’s face it – without water, we are nothing. 60% of the human body is made up of water. It is an essential component of our food supply, be it to grow crops, nourish livestock or for use in cooking. It is at the heart of improving and maintaining public and personal health and hygiene standards. It is used across supply chains and manufacturing plants, from making steel to brewing beer. So how can we ensure we manage it in the best way possible for our future and that of our planet?

A glass half empty?

Water surrounds and supports us in everything we do. It has the power to create and destroy us, both through its absence and its presence. For example, not having access to clean water is keeping 844 million people in poverty.[1] And although 70% of the Earth’s surface is covered by water, only 2.5% is useable freshwater, and two thirds of that is trapped, frozen away in glaciers and unavailable. This means that the water we need to drink, clean, farm and manufacture is both a scarce and valuable resource.[2]

The 2020 edition of the World Economic Forum Global Risks Report consistently ranks water crises in the top ten risks for the next ten years.[3Water crises have the potential to cause great economic, social and environmental damage, as water scarcity and droughts are becoming increasingly more severe, more frequent and affecting the lives of more people globally.

For example, a number of cities around the world have already experienced what’s known as Day Zero, the point at which their water supply runs out and taps are shut off for people and businesses. From Barcelona in 2008,[4] to São Paulo in 2015,[5] and Cape Town in 2018,[6] the cities’ inhabitants were faced with the post-apocalyptic scenario of going without water for 12 hours a day, shutting down industries, importing tankers from other countries, and even going to the extreme of not flushing after using the toilet to try and conserve water.

Or a glass too full?

But, as mentioned above, the problem isn’t just a lack of water. There’s also the case of too much water in the wrong places. Rising sea levels as a result of Global Heating are having devastating effects on coastal habitats (both human and natural), and causing destructive erosion, wetland flooding, and aquifer and agricultural soil contamination with salt.

On a similar note, data compiled by the United Nations shows that floods are getting worse: they are happening more frequently, and affecting more people, particularly in coastal regions and river valleys. Between 1995 and 2015, 90% of all major disasters in the world were weather-and-water-related, including floods, storms and droughts. Flooding alone affected 2.3 billion people and killed 157,000 in that same 20-year period.[7]

The Climate Crisis has disrupted the Earth’s water cycle, changing when, where, and how much rain falls. Add to this economic growth, population increases and the resulting strain on our resources, and what we have is a system that simply cannot cope for much longer.

There is therefore a great and urgent need for brands – with the support of the research community and the commitment of governments and citizens – to innovate and find solutions that help individuals, societies and businesses use water with greater efficiency and responsibility at all levels.

Greener Yields

Agriculture is the biggest user of accessible freshwater, taking up about 70% of the supply (20% goes to industry, and the remaining 10% is for households).[8] It is also estimated that around 60% of this is wasted due to inefficient systems as well as poor crop management, i.e. growing crops that need more water than their environment naturally provides.

This inefficiency is drying out lakes, rivers and underground aquifers and resulting in food-producing countries such as Australia, India, China and the United States reaching the limits of their water resources. In addition to using huge amounts of freshwater, agriculture can also contribute to freshwater pollution with pesticides and fertilisers contaminating waterways.

In our previous edition of Earth Matters – Single Use Backlash – we looked at the growing consumer desire for more sustainable products and packaging, which is pushing brands away from petroleum-based plastics towards greener alternatives such as plant based bio-plastics. Although many bio-plastics have a smaller carbon footprint than their petroleum-based counterparts, and are less harmful to the environment when they break down after use, there are factors to consider such as crops for packaging material competing with food production, adding to the agricultural load, and putting further strain on our precious water resources, which in many parts of the world are at breaking point.

Forward-thinking brands are considering the impact of their products throughout the entire supply chain and using sustainable farming practices to save water, increase yields and produce higher quality products.

Drip by drip

Consumer goods giant Unilever is on a mission to help suppliers make their farming practices more water-wise. Under the Knorr Sustainability Partnership, the brand is working with suppliers of ingredients such as tomatoes and onions to install efficient drip irrigation systems. Because these systems do not soak the soil, they reduce water waste by 25-30%, increase crop yield, curb the spread of crop disease and prevent weeds – resulting in more profitable and planet-friendly farming.

Knorr Sustainability Partnership

Impossible Farming

Farming in the desert may seem like madness, but Australia’s Sundrop Farms beg to differ, using technology to turn unfarmable land into a productive agricultural space. Crops are grown in cardboard-lined, hydroponic greenhouses that don’t need soil and are powered by solar energy. Water treatment is used to create fresh water from the sea or brackish sources to irrigate the crops. Not relying on rain means food can be grown all year round, providing economic and environmental benefits.

Sundrop Farms

Righteous Rice

Californian snack brand Zego Foods has developed a low-water-footprint breakfast cereal made from organic black rice, which requires a tenth of the water needed to produce more common rice varieties. The cereal is also nutrient-dense and “purity tested” to keep it free of pesticides, herbicides, heavy metals and other toxins. The water saving story and the quality and provenance of the ingredients are communicated on-pack through a QR code, which is backed by blockchain technology.

Zego Foods

 

Factory Overflow

Manufacturing is massively reliant on water and has a huge impact on our waterways and watershed. Indeed, making products can use enormous amounts of water.

A single pair of Levi’s 501s takes 3,781 litres of water to produce.[9] 14,500 litres of water are needed to manufacture a smartphone. Creating a car requires up to 90,000 litres of water.[10] And, most shockingly of all, making a plastic bottle uses twice the amount of water that it is destined to hold.[11]

Furthermore, manufacturing often results in polluting by-products that can be (intentionally or unintentionally) released into the environment, contaminating the already stretched freshwater supplies, leaving local communities without freshwater, destroying natural habitats and harming wildlife.

Along with agriculture, some of the worst culprits for water pollution are found in the fashion and textiles industry. In the 2018 BBC documentary Are your clothes wrecking the environment? British journalist Stacey Dooley investigates the horrific damage caused by cotton production, with entire seas drying up in Kazakhstan.[12]

She also reported on the Citarum River – the longest in Indonesia – being the most polluted river in the world. Its banks are lined with over 400 textiles factories, and the water has become so polluted that locals can no longer bathe, grow rice or wash their clothes without the chemicals it contains blistering their skin.

Thankfully, innovative researchers and brands within and beyond the fashion industry have already started to make the changes needed to manufacture in a more water-responsible way.

Kinder Cotton

Researchers in Canberra have developed a technique for growing naturally coloured cotton without the need for polluting dyes. Through genetic engineering, the team have been able to modify cotton’s molecular code for colour, which means the plant can be grown with an inherent hue, rather than in the standard white. The development is in its early stages, but the team have managed to achieve a range of colours and are now focusing on black, which could help eradicate the use of harmful petroleum dyes.

Csiro

Clean Scent

The world’s largest privately-owned fragrance and flavour company Firmenich has developed synthetic fragrance molecules that don’t pollute water. The Swiss giant’s Scent For Good, Naturally collection was designed after research showed that consumers are looking for biodegradable, natural scents in their products. The new range is also measured against an EcoScent Compass, which determines a fragrance’s sustainability footprint in terms of intrinsic green properties, and environmental and social impact.

Firmenich

 

Friendly finish

The techniques used to soften and finish jeans and create signature looks like stone washing use a considerable amount of water. To address this, Levi’s has developed 20 different techniques to reduce the water required in these final production stages, such as tumbling jeans with golf balls and bottle caps to add softness. In an effort to maximise the positive impact, the brand’s research was open sourced through their Eureka Innovation Lab and the greener waterless practices shared with competitors.

Levi’s Water<less

Water-wise homes

Although the biggest overall users of water are the agriculture and manufacturing industries, consumers at home still have to play their part in the fight to save water. Unilever estimates that over 99% of their water footprint comes from when the product is in use, with the actual product accounting for less than 1%.[13] They also estimate that, in the US alone, nearly 1.2 trillion gallons of water are used for showering each year.[14] This suggests that there is plenty of water to be saved in our daily beauty and personal care routines.

Shrewd brands are developing innovative new products and tools to help consumers use less water without compromise.

Clear as water

German cosmetics brand Stop The Water Whilst Using Me! has a bold message in their name and on front of pack, which aims to foster behaviour change, reminding consumers to switch the tap off whilst using their products. In addition to the water-considerate message and using refillable bottles and natural biodegradable ingredients, the company also invests in projects that actively fight water pollution and bring safe drinking water to those without.

Stop The Water Whilst Using Me! 

 

Clever cleaning

US-based Silvon aims to eco-innovate by reducing the number of times textiles need to be washed. Its antimicrobial silver coating is designed to reduce bacteria on fabric and extend the freshness of items like bed sheets by up to fourteen days, cutting the number of washing cycles needed, and therefore saving on at home water consumption. The coating also also helps to control acne by limiting the skin’s exposure to the bacteria that causes it.

Silvon 

 

Sustainable showers

Japanese product design company Wota has found a way to recycle 98% of water from showers with its Wota Box. An average shower uses 40-50 litres of water, but Wota lets 100 people shower with just 100 litres. The wastewater is syphoned in a loop through a series of cleaning filters and sensors, preparing it for the next shower. The system is marketed towards shelters, but the looming water crisis could make the technology desirable for the home.

Wota Box 

 

Troubled water

1.1 billion people worldwide have inadequate access to clean water, and a total of 2.7 billion experience water scarcity for at least one month of the year. Inadequate sanitation is a problem for 2.4 billion people who are exposed to diseases, such as cholera, typhoid and other water-borne illnesses. Nearly 1 million people die each year from water, sanitation and hygiene-related diseases which could be reduced with access to safe water or sanitation.[15]

The lack of clean water in some areas of the world, coupled with the increase of weather-related disasters such as floods and fires, means that there is a real need for products and solutions that can provide fresh water both long-term and short-term in times of crisis.

Saline sipping

UK based start-up QuenchSea has developed a desalination device that enables individuals to instantly turn seawater into drinkable freshwater. Dubbed the ultimate survival tool, the portable, low-cost, human-powered device weighs 0.7kg and features a handlebar, making it easy to carry. The device uses a small hose to suck seawater in from one end, before filtering it throughout the device’s body and filling up a container of safe water on the other.

QuenchSea 

 

Inlaid purity

The Bio-Integrated Design Lab at the Bartlett School of Architecture has created a modular system of tiles inlaid with algae that can filter toxic chemical dyes and heavy metals out of water. Each tile is made by pressing clay into fan-shaped moulds with a series of vein-like channels. The grooves are filled with micro-algae, suspended in a biological scaffold of seaweed-hydrogel. This keeps the algae alive while also being recyclable and biodegradable.

Indus Tiles

Distilled genius

In California, a team of experts have created Skywater, an atmospheric water generator that uses a patented process (Adiabatic Distillation Process) to condense moisture from the atmosphere and transform it into fresh, potable water. Each Skywater replicates nature’s hydrologic cycle to produce up to 300 gallons of water a day, enough for a household, an office, or emergency relief, and can do so even in low humidity conditions.

Skywater

 

 

As brands and as consumers, we are already starting to pay much closer attention to the social and environmental impact of products and services.

As the strain on water resources increases, consumers will start to look for the Water Footprint of their purchases, in addition to other existing markers, like Carbon Footprints.

Research has shown that there is a consumer demand for products that use water more efficiently, with opportunities across markets and industries. For example in the US, India, Brazil and France, 75% of consumers are interested in smart appliance features that manage water usage.[16]

There is already a system in place to measure the Water Footprint of a product, subdivided into three components: the Blue Water Footprint is the amount of surface and ground water required; the Green Water Footprint refers to the amount of rainwater; finally, the Grey Water Footprint is the amount of freshwater used to dilute the wastewater generated in manufacturing, which is done to maintain water quality.[17]

As ever, it is hard for this type of scoring system to capture the full scale and complexity of the water management challenge. But, combined with innovations and best practices from brands, consumers, governments and research bodies, we can move towards a world where water is a resource accessed and shared equally by all players, and is used effectively, responsibly and mindfully.

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