The water footprint of a business: taking a supply-chain perspective

The water footprint of a business - that is its 'corporate water footprint' - refers to the total volume of fresh water that is used directly and indirectly to run and support the business. It consists of two components:

  • the operational water footprint, i.e. the direct water use by the business in its own operations,
  • the supply-chain water footprint, i.e. the water use in the business’s supply chain.
Many businesses have a supply-chain water footprint that is much larger than the operational water footprint. This is particularly the case when a company does not have agricultural activity itself but is partly based on the intake of agricultural products (crop products, meat, milk, eggs, leather, cotton, wood/paper).

When consumers use the products from a business, there can also be a water footprint in the end-use stage. Think about the water pollution that results from the use of soaps in the household. In this case one can speak about the end-use water footprint of a product. This footprint is not part of a business’s water footprint, but it is part of the consumer’s water footprint. That does not mean that the business can withdraw from some responsibility about what happens in the end-use stage.

Example of the water footprint of a retailer (based on Hoekstra, 2008)

A blue, green and grey water footprint

Water use is measured in terms of water volumes consumed (evaporated) and/or polluted per unit of time. Both the operational and supply-chain water footprint split up into three elements:

  • the blue water footprint is the volume of freshwater that evaporated from the global blue water resources (surface water and ground water),
  • the green water footprint is the volume of freshwater evaporated from the global green water resources (rainwater stored in the soil as soil moisture).
  • the grey water footprint is the volume of polluted water, calculated as the volume of water that is required to dilute pollutants to such an extent that the quality of the water remains above agreed water quality standards.

The water footprint specifies water use in space and time

The water footprint is a geographically explicit indicator, not only showing volumes of water use and pollution, but also the locations and timing. The ecological or social impact of a water footprint obviously depends not only on the volume of water use, but also on where and when the water is used.

Water footprint accounting in private and public sector

Water footprint accounting is relevant for any sort of business, private or public. Business water footprint accounting can be applied for any coherent entity producing goods and/or services that are supplied to consumers or other businesses. It can be done for a private company or corporation, but also a governmental or non-governmental organization or a public utility. It can be applied to various levels of scale, for instance a specific division of a company, an entire company or a whole business sector. Water footprint accounting can also be done for a project (e.g. construction of a piece of infrastructure) or activity (e.g. the organization of a large sports event).

The water footprint of a product

By definition, the water footprint of a business is equal to the sum of the water footprints of the business output products. The supply-chain water footprint of a business is equal to the sum of the water footprints of the business input products.


2010 IFC, LimnoTech, Jain Irrigation Systems and TNC (2010) Water footprint assessments – Dehydrated onion products, Micro-irrigation systems – Jain Irrigation Systems Ltd. , International Finance Corporation, Washington, D.C., USA.
2.8 MB
2010 TCCC and TNC (2010) Product water footprint assessments: Practical application in corporate water stewardship, The Coca-Cola Company, Atlanta, USA / The Nature Conservancy, Arlington, USA.
4.4 MB
2010 SABMiller, GTZ and WWF (2010) Water futures: Working together for a secure water future, SABMiller, Woking, UK / WWF-UK, Goldalming, UK.
2.8 MB
2010 Chapagain, A.K. and Orr, S. (2010) Water Footprint of Nestlé’s ‘Bitesize Shredded Wheat’. A pilot study to account and analyse the water footprints of Bitesize Shredded Wheat in the context of water availability along its supply chain
0.7 MB
2010 Barton, B. (2010) Murky waters? Corporate reporting on water risk, A benchmarking study of 100 companies, Ceres, Boston, USA.
1.0 MB
2009 Ercin, A.E., Aldaya, M.M. and Hoekstra, A.Y. (2009) A pilot in corporate water footprint accounting and impact assessment: The water footprint of a sugar-containing carbonated beverage
2.3 MB
2009 SABMiller and WWF-UK (2009) Water footprinting: Identifying & addressing water risks in the value chain, SABMiller, Woking, UK / WWF-UK, Goldalming, UK
2.8 MB
2008 Hoekstra, A.Y. (2008) Measuring your water footprint: What’s next in water strategy, Leading Perspectives, Summer 2008, pp. 12-13, 19.
0.5 MB
2008 Hoekstra, A.Y. (2008) 'Water neutral: reducing and offsetting the impacts of water footprints'
download report 28
2008 Gerbens-Leenes, P.W. and Hoekstra, A.Y. (2008) 'Business water footprint accounting'
download report 27


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