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In early 2008, the Coca-Cola Company began making public claims that it would become "the most efficient company in the world in terms of water use in the beverage industry." Central to the company's PR campaign is the claim that it is working toward the goal of becoming "water neutral."
An article in Time Magazine on June 12, 2008, begins, "The global-warming debate has introduced some new catchphrases into the business lexicon. Becoming carbon neutral, for example, is now a goal for multinationals like Dell, HSBC and Tesco. But for another well-known international brand, becoming carbon neutral isn't enough. Last June, Coca-Cola CEO Neville Isdell flew to Beijing and pledged that his company would become 'water neutral' -- every drop of water it uses to produce beverages would be returned to the earth or compensated for through conservation and recycling programs."
With the fairly recent acceptance by policy-makers and the mainstream media that climate change is a reality, new ways of measuring environmental impact are appearing almost by the day. But some of these concepts, developed by the private sector to demonstrate their environmental commitment, are more an exercise in public relations than a credible step toward protecting people and planet -- "catchphrases," as Time Magazine put it. The emergence of "water neutrality" in the global water marketplace may be the most recent of these pseudo-scientific PR catchphrases.
On December 2nd and 3rd San Francisco will be the site of the conference, "Corporate Water Footprinting: Towards a Sustainable Water Strategy," where international business representatives will discuss their use of water, and ostensibly, outline water conservation strategies. At the conference, a two-day business affair at the downtown Hyatt Regency with a price tag of $1900, leading corporations will announce their new efforts to promote "water neutrality," the claim that they can return to local aquifers every drop of water taken for business.
But, is this new term a useful scientific concept to measure laudable efforts towards true sustainability? A paper delivered by some of the scientists who developed the concept says, "The term water neutrality has been picked-up in recent years by a range of commentators and actors involved in water issues. Taking a strict interpretation, no individual or entity that uses water can ever be entirely water neutral, as water use cannot be reduced to zero. However, we feel that as long as the term is used in a consistent and transparent manner to drive positive action on water issues, then it might have potential similar to that of carbon neutrality."
Readers will be familiar with "carbon neutrality," (chosen as word of the year in 2006 by the New Oxford American Dictionary) because, thanks in part to Al Gore, the concept has caught on so quickly. But the inconvenient truth is that after a few years of hopeful hype, carbon neutrality has been shown to be a false solution, encouraging not less consumption and pollution, but more.
Another paper by a group of scientists from Twente University in the Netherlands, UNESCO, and other reputable institutions, points out that, "The idea of 'water neutral' is different here from 'carbon neutral,' because it is theoretically possible to generate enough energy without emitting carbon. Alternative names to 'water neutral' that have been suggested include water offset, water stewardship, and water use reduction and reuse. However none of these other terms seem to have the same gravity or resonance (inspiration) with the media, officials or NGOs as the term neutrality. For pragmatic reasons it may therefore be attractive to use the term 'water neutral,' but there is a definite need to be clear about precisely what it entails if reduction of water use to zero is not possible."
Jeff Conant is the director of international programs for Food and Water Watch.