Embedded water, or virtual or embodied water, is the water suppliers and utilities use on your behalf to provide goods and materials essential for your own service delivery or manufacturing. And a lot of it is being wasted! Can businesses learn to use it more sustainably throughout the supply chain? Jon Herbert looks for answers?


The modern international world has made supply lines so long and complex that most embedded water can now be traced back to regions of the developing world where it is in short supply.

However, the problem has deeper roots. For example, some 50% of water used in the USA goes into power generation. This is linked in turn to carbon emissions. So embedded water is also embedded energy and, more crucially, embedded carbon that should form part of your own carbon footprint.

There are three good reasons why embedded water could be very important to your business, starting with costs. Any savings that can be made on resourcing materials, processing, packaging, long transport routes or inefficient energy use are a bonus.

This feeds into the second reason. Many companies are beginning to respond to extreme weather events by building up their “resilience” — a special form of flexible contingency planning. This can include bringing long supply chain procurement closer to home where control is much easier.

As overseas costs rise, the benefits of cheap, long-distance procurement decrease. Not being hostage to extended sea routes cuts response times between ordering and delivery.

But costs brought back onshore are likely to be higher — the very reason why procurement was outsourced to developing countries in the first place. Paying UK water, energy and carbon bills is less attractive than squeezing them out of the system.

The third reason for caring about embedded water is good global citizenship. Import-related water puts a strain on developing nations, many of which face increasing drought problems of their own.

Sustainable responsibility means that every company has environmental and social duties. Exporting virtual water puts unsustainable pressures on developing states, even though it might also bring them valuable work and revenue streams.

Sadly, a large number are turning to the high-energy desalination of sea water, or drawing on underground “fossil” water laid down millions of years ago.

It can take a long time for water to return to depleted aquifers — well beyond a human lifetime. Treating and recycling industrial waste waters is also costly.

Surprising volumes

The Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE), the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAE) and the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM) are all members of the Engineering the Future alliance, which predicts that the looming water crisis is a potential threat to future UK development.

The reality is that water does not come cheaply any more. Given that the world’s total supply is a constant, it is becoming scarce.

Ironically, while each of us in the UK only drinks some 1000 litres annually (one cubic metre), we each use an additional 100,000 litres for washing and cooking. The volume needed to create commonplace foods and products is even larger.

The average UK citizen uses some 150 litres directly every day. Goods made in the UK elevate this figure to nearly 1500 litres. In foreign goods, the embedded water content is even higher. To put our water consumption into context, it takes 74 litres to produce a pint of lager, 140 litres to put a cup of coffee on the table and 2400 litres to produce a hamburger. Red meat is a thirsty product!

By one estimate, two-thirds of the water Britain consumes is embedded in imported clothes, food and industrial products. We are said to be the world’s sixth largest net water importer.

As food and energy needs rise by an estimated 50% to cope with the world’s burgeoning population, fresh water demand is predicted to rise in parallel by 30%. The time could come when overseas suppliers have little choice but to either push up their competitive costs, or simply say “no”.

Cradle-to-grave water

As an example of complete life cycle problems, Levi’s discovered that a typical pair of its jeans involved 3480 litres of water throughout its entire lifespan. This included 49% in growing cotton and 45% in home laundry.

As part of its sustainability drive, the company moved up its supply chain to work with retailers and detergent manufacturers to encourage completely different clothes washing habits. Every little does help when millions of people are involved.

Stung by boycotts and accusations that its products use unsustainable water in worldwide operations, Coca Cola opted to “replace every drop of water we use in our beverages and their production”. It partnered with the World Wildlife Foundation to go “water neutral”.

A further political idea is to introduce “pollution-control credits” covering water use. These would work in much the same way as carbon credits. However, the key difference between carbon and water is that while carbon has a shared global effect, water can have a unique local impact.

Another suggestion is for goods to carry labels showing their embedded water content, in much the same way that electrical products must now display their energy efficiency and power consumption.

Imported carbon

Measuring embedded carbon could become the next indicator of sustainability.

The Carbon Trust has estimated that gigantic flows of embedded carbon pass across the world. Its International Carbon Flows analysis tracks the global movements of carbon and has found that one quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions are embedded in goods and services.

It draws several conclusions:

  • embedded carbon flows are growing
  • circa 25% of CO2 from all human activities is moved between nations
  • some 50% is embedded in steel, cement and chemical transactions; the other 50% is found in semi-finished or finished products such as motor vehicles, textiles, industrial machinery and equipment.

Further findings are that the UK consumes 34% more overseas carbon than its own domestic output of goods produces; comparative German figures are 29%, 19% for Japan and 13% for the USA.

Ironically, the maths for the same figures in very carbon-efficient countries leads to higher results — 43% for France and 61% for Sweden. As a further comparison, figures show that China exports 27% of its domestically produced CO2.

The Trust also points out that embedded carbon is both a risk and opportunity for small and medium enterprises.

Being able to show and communicate to customers that carbon dioxide emissions across a supply chain are low can increase sales and reduce costs, it says.

The greater risk to companies is that ignoring international carbon flows potentially makes them vulnerable to future legislation, which they will eventually be forced to meet anyway.

The current confused situation has been likened to a “Mad Hatter’s tea party”. The UK appeared to cut its carbon emissions between 1990 and 2008 by 28 million tonnes. In reality, embedded emissions are estimated to have pushed this figure up by 100 million tonnes. If true, this makes a mockery of the Green Deal, with its practical emphasis on building insulation and energy efficiency.

Challenging thoughts, perhaps, on water, energy and carbon as you lock the office door and head off into a cold spring night.

Last updated on 27/03/2013


First published by Croner-i on 27 March 2013



Comments are closed