Historically, the food and drink industry has treated water as a cheap and infinite commodity and focused sustainability efforts elsewhere. However, as water becomes ‘increasingly unpredictable’, its value and importance are rising. Here, Rob Wilkinson Associate Director at Integrated Food Projects, and Søren Nøhr Bak, Water Expertise Director at NIRAS, look at water as a commodity and explain the importance of water efficiency in the food and drink manufacturing sector.
There is no doubt that the sustainability agenda has become a global megatrend and represents a license to operate in the food and drink sector, and in this regard we witness the growing importance of water conservation as a key environmental challenge to tackle.
Changing perspective on water as commodity
Compared to other considerations water has historically been perceived as a cheap and ever-present commodity.
While other challenges that have had a significant impact on profit and loss, such as the usage of fossil fuels, were easier to secure board-level buy in for measures to improve sustainability, water is becoming an increasingly difficult consideration for businesses.
Making the business case for change needs to rise closer to the top of businesses’ sustainability agendas. Water is far less predictable than it used to be, and vast swathes of the planet are at risk of water scarcity or flooding.
While the climate crisis is pushing the challenge of water usage further up the agenda, unless businesses are purpose-led, it will be the retailers, consumers and Governments that will be the key drivers of change, and we have not seen a big shift yet across the sector.
This is in part due to public perception, as consumers are not yet educated on the issue of water usage in the same way that carbon emissions and greenhouse gases are now (nearly) universally recognised and understood.
No standardised measurement of water usage
The measurement of water usage is far from standardised. Although COP26 triggered lots of conversations on this topic, we are yet to see science-based targets develop in the same way that we have seen with CO2.
Alongside price and quality, we know that a product’s green credentials are increasingly important in consumer’s product selection, so standardised, global metrics on water usage will help to assist customers when they make buying decisions.
As well as additional pressure from consumers and, as a result, retailers, commercial barriers will naturally be an obstacle to change. Across the NIRAS Group, food and drink manufacturers where water is used as an ingredient, brewers and soft drink producers for example, are most commonly the brands which are focused on water efficiency.
The evidence appears to be that at companies where water is mainly used for cleaning processes, it is seen as a cost saving measure which makes more of a business case for reducing usage, than as a purpose-driven initiative.
innocent: 80-90 percent reduction in water consumption
To give an example of the possibilities for water savings from the cleaning process, drinks manufacturer, innocent drinks, put a focus on the reduction of water usage at its new factory in Rotterdam.
This led to the implementation of a revolutionary line cleaning technology called FluiVac, which led to an 80 to 90 per cent reduction in water consumption for innocent’s cleaning in progress (CIP) system, compared to a traditional CIP system.
This type of development is just one example of the learnings from the drinks manufacturing industry, which could be applied by food manufacturers. As food manufacturers look to reduce the amount of water required in their processes, and reuse any water that is used across their own plants, they can apply learnings from water-heavy industries like brewing.
Water insecurity will worsen in the future
While food businesses that are putting these learnings into practice and investing in water efficiency are currently more likely to be purpose-driven, they are pioneering a development which will become increasingly important as water insecurity worsens in the future.
In our next blog, we will explore in greater detail what food and drinks manufacturers are doing to drive efficiency in water usage and look ahead to other potential solutions.