Growing global demand for consumer goods is putting key resources – and our economy – under increasing pressure, yet all too often companies are not fully aware of the true extent of their natural resource demands. This report explores the environmental footprints of everyday products, using a footprinting approach to measure the amount of land and water needed across the product’s supply chain. It argues that this information is crucial both to business and to policy makers in understanding and managing the full extent of our resource use in the face of growing future constraints.
Friends of the Earth commissioned environmental data analysts Trucost to estimate the total land and water footprint of seven generic everyday products: a cotton t-shirt, a smartphone, a cup of tea, a cup of coffee, a chicken curry ready meal, a pair of leather boots, and a chocolate bar. We also asked Trucost to estimate the company and sector footprints for three of the products (t-shirts, chocolate bars and smartphones) and the toy and game sector to gain an insight into the scale of resource demand generated by these products.
The results reveal the intensive resource demands of some products – a single smart phone for example requires 18m2 of land and nearly 13,000 litres (13 tonnes) of water. With a billion smartphones sold worldwide in 2013, the smartphone industry uses a significant amount of water. But the findings also reveal the importance of looking at the different stages of the supply chain. A pair of leather boots requires 50m2 of land and 25,000 litres of water, yet if the waste from the leather tanning process is treated in a waste treatment plant, water demand is reduced to 14,500 litres. How goods are made, how resources are treated, and how they are packaged all make a difference to the overall footprint.
Products that are made from crops, or from animals that are fed on crops (e.g. cotton clothing, leather goods, confectionary etc) tend to depend on access to large quantities of blue and green water (freshwater and rainwater), yet supplies of blue and green water face growing constraints in some parts of the world as a result of climate change. Products that use even tiny quantities of heavy metals and minerals (e.g. smartphones, electronic devices, LED lights) generate large quantities of pollution, which if not treated efficiently, pollutes water courses. The ‘grey water’ required to safely dilute pollution presents another significant demand on water supplies which may already be stressed. If sufficient grey water is not available, or the pollution load is too high, communities may lose access to clean water, with the pollution posing a risk to agriculture, human health and biodiversity.
Analysis of company and sector level resource use revealed the scale of land and water use needed to drive the global economy.