FOE highlights need for resource intensity evaluations

Environmental campaigning body Friends of the Earth (FoE) has reiterated its call for government to review resource use, and called on companies to report their use of land, material, water and greenhouse gases, to better understand the sustainability of our consumption habits.

The calls come in FoE’s new report, ‘Mind your step’, which evaluates the embodied land and water use in everyday products, such as food, clothing, toys and gadgets.

Undertaken by environmental data analysts Trucost, the report aims to help businesses and policymakers – who, FoE argues, are ‘not fully aware of the true extent of their natural resource demands’ – understand and mange ‘the full extent of our resource use in the face of growing future constraints’.

As such, the report estimates 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), and estimates the company and sector footprints for three products and the toy and game sector.

A pair of leather boots requires 25,000 litres of water

‘Breathtaking amounts of land and water’ go into products

Trucost assessed the land and water footprints of the different products using lifecycle analysis and its environmental input-output (EI-O) model, which is based on ‘in-depth profiles of industry sectors which quantify the environmental impacts of business activities’.

The information on the individual product footprints was then used to estimate company footprints based on the sectors in which they operate and their revenue. FoE has noted, therefore, that although the footprint models ‘are estimates and not accurate measures of the footprint of a specific brand product’, they can be taken ‘as a useful indicator’.

The report reveals that some frequently-purchased items, such as smartphones and leather boots, are very resource intensive. Trucost found that to produce a pair of leather boots, a company would require 50 square metres of land (or the area of land the size of a cricket pitch to make 200 pairs of boots) and 25,000 litres of water. This is largely due to the amount of land needed for cattle farming (around 86 per cent of the land footprint) and the location and efficiencies of the leather tanneries. For example, in tanneries that have effluent treatment plants, water demand is reduced to 14,500 litres, with the main demand for water coming from the cattle farming stage of the supply chain (i.e. growing the cattle feed).

The footprint of a ‘generic smartphone’ also uses a large amount of water – almost 13,000 litres, or enough to fill 160 baths – due to the intensive nature of extracting minerals such as lithium, cobalt, platinum and rare earths elements. Trucost estimates that every tonne of rare earth ore mined, for example, generates more than 75,000 litres of acidic wastewater. The average smartphone was also found to require up to 18 square metres of land – with more than half needed to produce the packaging and 39 per cent accounting for the raw materials used, such as glues and plastics (exluding mining and packaging). (However, the report notes that analysing the smartphone supply chain was ‘complex’, as some of the data was ‘difficult to obtain’, such as the green water use for packaging, or the grey water use of some manufacturing processes.)

Other findings included:

  • the average cotton t-shirt requires 3,900 litres of water and 4.2 square metres of land, with cotton farming being the most resource-intensive part of the supply chain;
  • the average cup of coffee requires 136 litres of water and 0.1 square metres of land, while the average cup of tea requires 28 litres of water, and 0.02 square metres of land. In addition to needing five times more land than tea, coffee crops require almost five times as much water, and more than twice the amount of grey water due to the way the coffee beans are treated;
  • a 100-gramme bar of milk chocolate requires 1,430 litres of water, and 2.5 square metres of land, with the production of the raw ingredients requiring the largest proportion of resources; and
  • a 350-gramme chicken curry ready meal with rice requires 2,595 litres of water and 3.62 square metres of land, with the rearing of chickens requiring the largest proportion of land use, while the curry sauce requires the largest proportion of water.

Companies should report resource use footprints

The report reads: ‘As global consumption levels rise, the natural resources that underpin everything that we produce are under increasing pressure – with knock-on effects for the economy. This report explores the environmental footprints of everyday products, tracing their impacts through the supply chain…

‘Measuring levels of resource use at each stage of the supply chain provides valuable information for companies about the extent of their resource use and shows how efficient their production processes are in resource terms. It can also help identify areas where supply chains might be vulnerable.

‘These estimates give an indication to company shareholders and directors as to the companies demand for resources, which of course also means its exposure or vulnerability to shortages in and competition for those resources. The estimates are also a valuable signpost to policy-makers as to the implications of the growth in the various sectors of the economy, the vulnerability of society as a whole through its dependence on these sectors, and the sorts of policies (such as more and better reuse and recycling) that should be supported to address these concerns.’

FoE adds, however, that as the methodology used is only an estimate; in order to obtain a fuller picture of resource impacts, it would be necessary to have businesses report their supply chains’ use of greenhouse gases, water, land and materials, and have the UK Treasury conduct an assessment of national resource consumption and dependency to ‘enable policymakers to develop an effective and evidence-based national resource strategy for resource sufficiency and the protection of the global environment’.

‘Breathtaking amounts of land and water’ go into products

Friends of the Earth’s Resource Use Campaigner Julian Kirby, added: “The snug fit of that phone in your pocket or the crumpled heap of boots in the corner masks the breathtaking amounts of land and water required to make our favourite products.

“In an increasingly populous and environmentally stressed world, it’s more important than ever that companies measure their resource use – for their own sakes as well as the environment’s.

“The good news is that armed with land and water footprint information, companies can redesign their products and business models, to save cash and tread more lightly on the Earth.”

Read the ‘Mind your step’ report.

Can you correctly guess the land and water footprints of different products?

How much water is used to produce the average cup of coffee?

No. It's 130 litres per cup

How much water is used to produce the average pair of leather boots?

No. It's between 14,000 and 25,000 litres

How much land is needed to produce the average smartphone?

No. It's 18 square metre

How much water is needed to produce the average cotton t-shirt?

No. It's 4000 litres

How much land is needed to produce the average chicken curry?

No. It's three square metres

How much water is needed to produce the average chocolate bar?

No. It's 1400 litres
Annie Kane

Annie joined Resource in 2012 as Deputy Editor, covering Leonie Butler’s maternity leave. Before joining Resource, Annie had been working at BBC Music Magazine and freelanced for numerous other titles including Countryfile, Homes & Antiques and local Bristol magazine, AREA. Annie moved to Bristol in 2008, after studying English Literature and Music at the University of Sheffield (she plays the flute and piano). 

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