🌱 What To Do About Water: Offsetting, Greenwashing, and Lessons from Burt's Bees.
Featuring Burt's Bees, Pangaia, Black Bee Honey, Pandora and more...
This week we’re looking at water, and how brands can measure, reduce and manage the impact they have on water resources. We cover:
Water Offsetting: What it is and how your business can avoid ‘greenwashing’.
How Burt’s Bees failed to meet their water targets, and why brands should be inspired by their approach since.
In case you missed it: How Sipsmith's 5-part plan includes a 46% emissions reduction target, featuring Ellie Stirk, Sustainability Lead.
> Good News This Week
🎯 Pandora announced its switch to less carbon intensive packaging, saving the CO2 equivalent of 800 cars per year.
⭐️ Marks & Spencer has pledged to cut its carbon footprint by a third by 2025, from a 5.7million tonne baseline in 2017, as part of its commitment to be fully net zero by 2040. It’s a reset of their original Plan A. They’ve also relaunched their Look Behind The Label platform and campaign.
⭐️ musicMagpie announced its partnership with Asda, aiming to prevent thousands of tonnes of consumer technology and media products ending up as waste. The partnership will involve musicMagpie’s SMARTDrop kiosks across Asda stores.
⭐️ Tommy Hilfiger announced it’s adding product-level environmental impact information to its online stores, utilising the Higg Index (a partnership between Higg and the Sustainable Apparel Coalition).
⚡️ Spain is drafting a decree to ban the sale of fruit and vegetables in plastic wrapping, coming into effect in 2023. It will apply to produce weighing under 1.5 kilograms, following similar legislation in France, where it will go into effect next year.
⚡️ Packaging Europe’s Sustainability Awards 2021 were announced yesterday. The overall winner was Nextek’s NEXTLOOPP, a ground-breaking project that aims to create a circular economy for food-grade polypropylene. Winners in other categories include CMC, HelloFresh, watttron, Searious Business, Mibelle, Huhtamaki and McDonald’s, and Nestlé.
> Click on each link to read more.
> Quick Take
Water Offsetting: How your business can avoid ‘greenwashing’.
We’ve all heard of carbon offsetting. In the simplest terms, this can be understood as a reduction in GHG emissions (or increase in carbon storage) used to compensate for emissions that occur elsewhere. Through practices such as buying green renewable energy certificates and rainforest replanting projects, companies such as Google and Sky can legally claim ‘carbon neutrality’. Water offsetting uses exactly the same principle. By investing in water-basin restoration schemes, companies can, in theory, compensate for the water they use throughout their supply chain. Given the controversy surrounding carbon offsetting and its alleged use for ‘greenwashing’, is water offsetting a worthwhile investment for brands? Let’s take a closer look.
First, a fundamental question: is water offsetting effective? The answer, as you’d expect, seems to be ‘it can be’. Carbon and water offsetting are often treated like-for-like. Yet, they’re not entirely comparable. When it comes to CO2e emissions, the atmosphere is effectively a single entity. The effect on the climate is the same wherever emissions occur, and many argue that it doesn’t make much difference where carbon is emitted and saved. This isn’t the case for water. When you use water, you’re extracting water from a specific water basin or system. It affects that area’s resources, affecting that area’s ecology and often negatively impacting that area’s local communities. Using water from an already heavily depleted river catchment area, for instance, has a much greater environmental impact than if it’s extracted from a water-rich area. Water offsetting is therefore only truly effective if it relates to the same catchment area. This means that, if a brand wants to offset their depletion of natural water reserves from their manufacturing site in India, it’s not as simple as investing in a project in Nigeria.
Even more pertinently, businesses need not to rely on offsetting as a means to achieve water neutrality. It should never be considered an easy fix. As stated in this 2020 Waterwise report, the focus on offsetting could be actively unhelpful if it reduces efforts to reduce waste across operations and across the supply chain (learn more here).
These two conditions are fundamental to the definition of water neutrality. Where this is adopted by the UK Government, it can be argued that some businesses have overlooked such nuances in their desire to achieve ‘water neutral’ status. Coca Cola provides a cautionary tale. Their heavily marketed claims of water neutrality fail to account for the location of water consumption and overlook whole-chain waste. They’ve come under fire as a result, proving that customers are far more savvy than often given credit for.
Yet, none of this means that water offsetting projects are a write-off for brands. Many projects themselves admirably aim to do good. Provided you identify a partner whose projects are sensitive to local environmental and economic conditions, (see our resources below) offsetting can be a great way for your brand to actively contribute towards the Sustainable Development Goals. In fact, brands who integrate offsetting within their wider sustainability framework often will well-deserved kudos with customers. After all, it’s not the offsetting itself that can leave your brand open to accusations of ‘greenwashing’. It’s the claim that you’re ‘water neutral’ as a result. Pangaia, for instance, track their water use through Life-Cycle Assessments and openly use offset schemes. Yet, they’ve combined this with efforts to minimise water at every stage, with product descriptions proudly declaring when “95% of water used is rainfed, protecting groundwater”. Last year, they boasted $75 million in revenue and frequently win positive PR from the likes of Forbes.
So, is water offsetting a viable - and marketable - option for brands? It depends. Given the complicated nature of business supply chains, it’s unlikely you’ll find a water offset scheme relating directly to the location of your water consumption. Therefore, you’ll need to integrate offsets with water management schemes. Target wasteful areas of operations. Measure your water usage. Act by implementing water-saving strategies. Finally you’ll need to be transparent about what your ‘offsets’ really mean.
How to Target, Measure and Act - resources to help you measure and mitigate your water footprint:
Waterfootprint.org provides a free water footprint assessment tool for companies, and a guide for responsible water stewardship schemes. They’re a great place for companies to take their first steps in whole-chain water management.
The Courtauld Commitment’s Water Ambition is a ‘collaborative programme that works on a localised level, dealing directly at source with issues specific within each catchment area’. Bonus: Integrate this resource with food waste management through the Courtauld Commitment. Read our take here.
Our MEASURE database provides a list of partners to help you track water consumption and implement waste-saving strategies. For example, Circular Ecology and Anthesis provide guidance on water management and footprinting.
Inspired? 3 water offsetting schemes:
The Bonneville Environmental Foundation in America's Pacific Northwest offers businesses the opportunity to preserve depleted rivers and streams. See this week’s profile on Burt’s Bees below for a case study.
Green Earth Africa matches companies with the purchase of power-efficient water pumps and drip irrigation projects in Africa. They provide a nuanced and transparent look at the complications of water offsets and ‘neutrality’.
Gold Standard provides ‘Water Benefit Certificates’ to tie together water preservation with human-oriented Sustainable Development Goals.
Have further thoughts to add? We always appreciate feedback and opinions. Either comment them below or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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> Brand Spotlight
Burt’s Bees failed to meet their water targets. Here's what businesses can learn from them.
Burt’s Bees failed. This is what they’ve admitted of their water management strategy in their 2020 Sustainability Report. So why is this not a disaster for their brand image? It’s simple: they’ve done what we’re all taught to do as children. They’ve owned up to it, tried to make up for it, learned from it. By doing so, they’ve provided a lesson in corporate transparency and illustrated that failure can be used for good in the pursuit of sustainability.
Burt’s Bees have a pristine reputation as a ‘green’ brand. In 2021 they made headlines with their commitment to Net Zero Plastic to Nature by 2025. Aligning themselves with the Ellen Macarthur Foundation’s goals, they’ve got big visions of a circular economy. Walking the talk, they’ve partnered with waste-minimising pioneers Loop to release a waste-free cleanser. Boasting landfill-free operations since 2010 and certified Carbon-Neutrality, Burt’s bees are undeniably impressive in their sustainability credentials.
With their iconic bumble-bee branding, it’s no wonder that the preservation of nature is a priority for Burt’s Bees. To a large extent, their efforts in this domain appear equally polished. Alongside existing rewilding projects with partners Fresh Energy, the brand has joined forces with the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation in a ‘Moonshot goal to preserve half the earth’. Yet, there is one area they’ve failed to meet their targets: water waste. With an already conservative goal to ‘Reduce water usage by 10% since 2011’, last year they used 30% more water per mass unit of production than their 2011 baseline.
This in itself is far from impressive. Burts Bees’ response, however, is a good lesson for other brands. Not only have they measured their water impact in the first place, they’ve explained how things went wrong, why and what they’re doing about it. This includes, for one, purchasing of water restoration certificates to offset their usage. If you’ve read this week’s Quick Take, you’ll know such ‘offsets’ can be problematic. Burt’s Bees, however, have used this power wisely. They’ve selected responsible projects from Bonneville Environmental Foundation. They’ve used it as a last resort. It’s not a replacement for their water-saving strategies. And, crucially, they’ve been transparent about just what their offsetting means.
A pristine brand reputation doesn’t require perfection. It does, however, require honesty.