Here come the waterworks — Canadians need to use less water, here’s how:
*Please note that the statistics on Quebecers’ water use do not represent water use or access on Indigenous reservations.
How much water does the average Montrealer use every day in their home? Enough to fill two bathtubs.
That’s 225 L of clean water. The province-wide average is even bigger, at 400 L per person every day, according to McGill University.
How much fresh water do private industries use per year? About 10 times household use, Statistics Canada notes.
Most of our household water use comes from addressing basic physical needs. 65 per cent comes from toilet flushing and bathing. The rest is accounted for in our drinking, preparing meals, and cleaning (including laundry).
We could trim down our water use by letting it mellow when it’s yellow, but a more impactful change could simply be redirecting our efforts to curb the wasteful practices of big industries, which make up 68 per cent of Canada’s annual fresh water use, according to McGill University.
Why is this important? After all, Canada is known for its abundant access to freshwater lakes and rivers. However, that’s not the full story.
“Canada has some 20 per cent of the world’s total fresh water resources,” according to Environment and Climate Change Canada. Of that, only seven per cent is renewable fresh water, making the supply “heavily used and often overly stressed.”
Household water use accounts for 20 per cent of the total fresh water use in Canada, and farming practices use just 12 per cent.
Still, voices in green consumption continue to refocus the lens of public discourse about climate change on personal action, despite the well-documented majority impact coming from private industry.
How can the public influence the ecological footprint left by private industry? We can start by reducing our consumption of the products these companies sell.
This logic runs counter to the profit goals of private industry, and they’re putting up a fight against it.
Marketers have identified a key change in the public: people want to feel like the companies they shop at share their values. “Sustainability, trust, ethical sourcing, and social responsibility are increasingly important to how consumers select their products and services,” according to Harvard Business Review (HBR)’s analysis of The EY Future Consumer Index.
HBR puts it this way: Pre-pandemic, “Your brand should stand behind great products.” As an additional requirement post-pandemic, “Your brand should stand behind great values.” The association of a brand with values creates the phenomenon of “brand values,” which amount to the marketing strategies that companies develop to target a particular consumer profile and its associated value system.
This loophole absolves the public from facing the actual scale of the problem of over-consumption, while validating the feeling that we’re curbing our personal climate footprint. Compliance with this marketing strategy also helps to reduce our guilt without requiring companies to actually improve their production practices.
Some might call this a win-win, others a lose-lose.
Reducing water use within the production line and reducing consumption of those products altogether would ultimately have the biggest impact on water waste in Canada.
Instead, companies look to their marketing teams to come up with how-tos that focus on tweaks in the public’s household behaviour (like switching the laundry setting to cold water) and divert attention from industry and consumer waste.
In the current cultural focus on resilience catalyzed by COVID-19, HBR elaborates, “Marketing now has the opportunity to seize an ongoing central role in that dialogue.”
Corporations have identified a key role that marketing plays in the way the public talks about the health crisis, and by extension, the climate crisis. When brands dictate the narrative surrounding these discussions, solutions are limited to those that propel their “broader growth and innovation agenda.” Those solutions all require our participation in industry waste.
Comparing the respective impacts of personal versus industrial water use provides a distilled picture of the biggest threats to sustainability. It is vital to critically assess the narrative around consumption by considering who tells the story, who benefits from the story, and ultimately, how the story obscures the harder truths about our contribution to climate change.
Feature graphic by @the.beta.lab