Our Water Footprint: Labelling the Litres Less Known

By Alexandra Murray-Tacon 23 April, 2021

Murray-Tacon, CWR intern, finds out what 5 young Hong Kongers know about their water footprint

Using the HKU Water footprint app, a small group calculated their daily water usage to find it was thousands of litres, higher than assumed; shocked they challenge why this was
A lack of corporate disclosure on supply-chain resource usage makes it difficult to gauge or reduce one's individual consumption, but a water usage label can increase awareness
Companies need to step-up disclosure, while ESG investors can hold them accountable; but there is no time to wait around, so, start calculating your water footprint today

The digital revolution has made us feel inundated with information, knowledge and transparency. A glance at an ingredients label or with an internet search, you can understand the liquids in your drink or the calories in your granola bar. Yet, we remain so blind to the reality of our consumption because of information that is withheld, like for instance, direct and indirect water consumption. Direct water is used for bathing, drinking and cooking- you turn a tap & voila! Indirect (aka “virtual water”) is the process of water being used in various stages of production, but no longer visible in the final product.

After finding out about the worryingly high water use behind my consumption, I conducted a survey to see if my friends were in the same boat

Fuelled by an interest in the ESG, my internship with China Water Risk deepened my understanding of the environmental risk, in part by exposing worrying statistics about our extremely high, unintentional water consumption. As a result, I investigated my friend’s water usage awareness by asking a handful of them to calculate their daily water footprint.

As a mix of students, teachers and young professionals all living in Hong Kong, my small study explored varying daily routines of those who were considered to have a level of environmental awareness. We assumed that different routines would lead to different results, but no, we were all shocked at our sickenly high water intake.  Our daily direct & indirect consumption of water was thousands of litres – Oliver’s day in the office used 17,162L & Nora’s 24,038L.

We were all shocked just how high our water footprints were; the highest almost 35,000L…

…how are we so unaware?  “A handful of cashews used 437L…how?!”

But how and why are we so unaware? There was underlying consensus amongst us that these consumed litres were not our fault. Our water footprint was passed onto us-we had no say in the supply-chain process but if we knew the amount of water used in the production process, we would have made different choices.  Tilda blissfully unaware, snacked on a handful of cashews that day, using 437L, but when asked if she would make a change, she replied “How?! No one has a clue about water usage in production & no one can be expected to just know.”

This activity opened our eyes to a much wider perspective on water sustainability and climate change issues but also left us confused as to why we didn’t know. To us, it seemed logical that companies and leaders would want to make sustainable change, otherwise, they put themselves at risk by being dependent on resources we know are rapidly depleting. For example, 17,000L of water are needed to produce 1kg of chocolate, & cocoa is predominantly produced in West African countries, which have scarce water resources.

“we feel guilty, but it is not our fault…

…surely a label indicating resource usage would not be hard to make”

No access to product resource-usage information makes it harder to make environmentally conscious decision, & challenge the status quo. “If we had known, we would’ve made different choices, we feel guilty, but it is not our fault” was our default. Will- still unnerved by 17 bathtubs for his 8oz steak felt that “surely a label indicating resource usage would not be hard to make, you would’ve thought a big corporate would’ve tried to pave the way”. We laughed about headlines exposing greenwashing & the deceptive nature of staying ‘trendy’, but also how we can try to act in a “conscious” way, but still have no idea of the supply-chain structure or the resource use.

Jane escalated our guilt with how internet and tech also pollutes a lot. Previous work from CWR found that “Despacito’s carbon footprint on YouTube adds up to the annual emissions of 100,000 taxis, with >400 Olympic swimming pools of water used; but just one day of Netflix globally triples that”. Our capacity to consume and pollute even through means so integral to daily functioning made us feel like we could not move without causing damage. Jane works with NFTs, a form of cryptoart & found it “disheartening, to hear the immense environmental impact these digital tokens have. The hype around NFTs is all relatively new, and it’ll be interesting to see what steps are made in this space for a sustainable future.”

ESG investors can assist in holding industry accountable

It is imperative, but also logical that corporations acknowledge their role in the climate crisis, recognise the need for change & become good stewards. ESG investors can assist in holding industry accountable by rallying around a demand for increased disclosure & more sustainable practice. With access to information on our usage, we can reduce or replace products instead of unintentionally exacerbating climate-related issues. A simple label or marking identifying total water usage could have a far-reaching impact. It creates more transparency, which is what we as a group feel is the change we want to see.

But we can’t wait, we can act today by using the HKU water calculator

With no time to waste in the fight against climate change, we can take immediate action to embed sustainability in our daily life. The HKU Water footprint app is a free and easy online tool that helps us gauge our consumption and encourages the making of better-informed decisions for our planet. With our water demand being excessively high and our supply severely limited, we must start making sustainable change for a livable future.

Further Reading

  • The Rise Of Climate Positive Food – From startups to big food companies, Green Queen’s Sally Ho shows how they are dishing out guilt-free snacks for the planet, from carbon neutral to regenerative agriculture-backed
  • YouTube: The Dark Side Of Going Viral – We are already addicted to the internet, YouTube, Netflix, apps and still forecasts show major growth. China Water Risk’s Woody Chan unwraps the darkside of our runaway data use
  • Fashion Has The Power To Shape A 2℃ World – If fashion were a country it would have the fourth highest carbon emissions behind the US, China, & India. China Water Risk’s Dawn McGregor & Debra Tan question why the industry is not under the spotlight like coal and call for faster disruptions
  • Thirsty Clouds & Smartphones – Thought you were being more environmentally friendly by accessing emails online rather than printing them, think again! Check out how water thirsty & energy hungry our cloud addiction is
  • Making Cow Milk… Without The Cows: With 10 dairy companies emitting as much carbon as half of France, traditional dairy is not sustainable. As lab-made milk becomes reality, is it the beginning of the end for big dairy? Green Queen’s Sally Ho explores

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Alexandra Murray-Tacon
Author: Alexandra Murray-Tacon
Alexandra was born and raised in Hong Kong before studying Political Economics at Bates College in the US. A catalytic program that ignited her interest in sustainable finance was the study that examined social justice and its manifestation in politics, economics, and the environment in Argentina, Spain, and South Africa. This, together with her work experience at a UK hedge fund and a US financial communications firm deepened her awareness of the growing cracks in the foundations of global development and growth and cemented her pursuit of a career in sustainable finance. As an intern at CWR, she is excited to explore development through a water lens and is working on projects related to assessing and communicating water-related climate risks. Going forward, Alexandra hopes to create impactful change in the environment through finance.
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