The environment has been front and centre in the consciousness of consumers for some time. Even if you don’t have much faith in governments around the world resolving today’s pressing environmental issues, at least you can play your own part as a consumer by making the best possible purchasing choices for the planet. That sounds like a plan, but where to start?

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Wouldn’t it be good to be able to work out your personal environmental footprint based on information provided with the products you buy? Well, that idea is certainly gaining currency in Europe, even if it’s relatively new here in Australia. Most of the interest so far has been in carbon footprints and water footprints: two areas where there are global environmental  issues at stake and where everyday consumer purchases can have an impact.

Developing the environmental footprint of a product throws up a couple of challenges. The first is how to accurately assess the amount of carbon produced or water used over the whole of the product’s lifecycle. The second is how to communicate that information in a manner that enables you to make valid comparisons between products, so that you can lessen your personal footprint on the planet.

Rather than have a plethora of different national approaches, ISO has become involved with a view to developing the international ground rules for creating globally comparable product environmental footprints. ISO’s strength has always been in the technical sphere, and it first tackled the assessment question. ISO has developed two methodologies for use in developing a product’s: ISO/TS 14067 Greenhouse gases – Carbon footprint of products – Requirements and guidelines for quantification and communication and ISO 14046 Environmental management – Water footprint – Principles, requirements and guidelines.

As you might expect with documents developed by technical experts, both of these ISO documents are strong on the science, but not so good on the communications side, despite the title of ISO/TS 14067. That’s where ISO/TC 207/SC 3 Environmental Labelling comes in.

This subcommittee has a mix of members from marketing and consumer interests, more focussed on how you communicate information than how you calculate it. The subcommittee has recently begun a new project on Environmental Labels and Declarations – Footprint Communications to complement its earlier standards on topics such as self-declared environmental claims on products and eco-labelling. The plan is to set the framework for how the information developed using the current and future ISO footprint assessment methodologies is presented with a product, so that meaningful comparisons can be made in the marketplace.

There are a few basic “rules” already agreed to go into this framework. In order to provide the full picture, a footprint has to cover the whole of the product lifecycle, from how the raw materials are produced, through the product’s use by a consumer, to how it will eventually be disposed of at the end of its functional life. If the manufacturer doesn’t follow this approach, you may be fooled by a footprint that only covers those stages of the life cycle that don’t include the major impacts. For example, a shower head manufactured using less water in the casting process.

As well, in order to make sure you’re comparing apples with apples, you also need to define a “functional unit” of the product on which to base the calculation, That could be something like washing a standard load of dishes with a pre-set level of soiling to an acceptable level of cleanliness. However, because we’re considering the whole of the product life cycle, you have to also include the product’s anticipated life, because a dishwasher that lasts longer has a lower impact at the manufacturing and disposal ends of the life cycle. So, the functional unit wouldn’t be one load of dishes, but say fifteen years’ worth of dirty dishes. There will be other requirements in the proposed communication standard, but you probably get the idea.

Once these things are taken into consideration, it becomes apparent that not all product environmental footprints are going to work for consumers.

Carbon footprint information, collected using ISO/TS 14067, is based on the internationally agreed ways of counting CO2 equivalents set out in the Kyoto Protocol. So, a carbon footprint could tell you the amount of carbon emitted while driving 100km in your family car when using unleaded petrol or when using E85 petrol. You could then compare that number to the amount of carbon produced over a year as a result of the electricity your refrigerator uses to give you a frame of reference. All of these carbon measurements are based on the same units and they are interchangeable, because they use the same internationally agreed accounting system that national governments use to report their country’s annual GHG emissions. As a result, a consumer can theoretically assess his or her own personal carbon footprint on the planet in absolute terms and make personal purchasing choices accordingly.

By contrast, the output of water footprints is not so easily compared; because there is no international protocol setting out how water usage should be counted across the whole of a product’s lifecycle. That may sound odd, because you would think that a litre of water is a litre of water, but that’s not how it works in ISO 14046.

Let me first of all explain that ISO 14046 does not deal with the water efficiency labelling that you’re used to seeing on household appliances. Water efficiency labelling only deals with water usage after the product has been manufactured and it is in use. That isn’t the full life cycle, so it’s not a footprint in ISO terms. Water efficiency labelling is based on litres of water coming out of your domestic tap over a year which is an easily comparable measure. Or is it?

According to ISO, a water footprint has to look more broadly into water usage, including how much water went into producing a product. If we think beyond domestic appliances, to say clothing, a water footprint could potentially assist members of the public to make more informed choices. For example, many animal-based products, like leather, are said to require a very high volume of water to produce, compared to, say, synthetic products. This is because of the quantity of water the cow drinks over its life, plus the water that goes into growing the feed for the cow, etc, etc.

The difficulty is that water used on crops and the water consumed by cows isn’t potable water coming out of a domestic tap: it’s either rainwater falling on a field or water out of an irrigation system. You can’t simply add that water volume to a volume of potable water in a reticulated system.

As well, most of the water the cow drinks passes through the cow and ends up back on the field, albeit in a less pristine condition. In fact, the moisture content left in the leather by the time it reaches the consumer is negligible. So, the water hasn’t really been lost, but it has been used and degraded. So how is degraded water “returned” to the environment to be counted?

It all relies on impact assessment. Water going into a crop in coastal far north Queensland has very little impact on the water available for other uses: there is more than enough water to go around. However, water used on a crop has a much greater impact if it’s irrigation water coming out of the Darling River which might otherwise end up as drinking water in Adelaide. Therefore, there needs to be weighting factors applied.

As well, accounting for water usage during production of goods is quite complex and different scientists say different things about what should and should not be counted as water usage, depending on how you want to look at it. It would be ridiculous to count the water consumed by the people working in the factory where the goods were made, but where do you draw the line?

ISO 14046 requires that when making a water footprint report, you have to say what you counted, how you treated degraded water and what you believe the overall environmental impact is going to be. A manufacturer is perfectly entitled to count the water in the manner that best advantages the company’s product.

Thus, ISO 14046 is of little use to a consumer to measure his or her own personal water footprint in absolute terms. You would not be comparing “apples” with “apples”. Of course, the standard has its uses in the corporate world, for example to report improvements in company’s environmental performance year on year.

There is a proposal within the European Union to establish a region-wide consumer product footprint program where the way to count water usage for each type of product will be pre-determined by Brussels. Presumably, water will be measured in some sort of Euro-litres of potable water equivalents. Given how long it took to negotiate all of the rules that support the Kyoto Protocol, this could take a decade or so to develop and it’s not likely to be replicated in Australia.

So, the proposed standard on Footprint Communications is likely to set the bar too high for any current attempt at developing a water footprint for a consumer product to meet. But, legitimate carbon footprints, and other types of environmental footprints, not yet in the market, could potentially meet the requirements, at least the more reputable one’s could. And that’s the point of the ISO work in this field: getting spurious environmental claims out of the marketplace, so that what’s left are truly accurate and helpful.

If you are interested in reducing your personal water footprint, then water efficiency labelling of domestic appliances isn’t a bad indicator, even if it only tells part of the story. And don’t get too worried about those leather shoes. The suggestion that you should be buying synthetics is simply a demonstration that, without an agreed international way of counting water, you can prove anything you like, depending on the way you choose to do your accounting.

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