Ethics & Overuse of Cost-Free Resources

How much water does it take to make a latte? That’s the question asked (and answered) in this cool little flash video from the World Wildlife Fund: How Much Water?.

The answer: 200 litres (about 53 U.S. gallons). That number is shocking, and it’s intended to be. What the video points out is that each ingredient of the latte — from the milk, to the coffee beans, to the paper that makes up the cup — requires water to grow or manufacture it. But the video is a wonderful little piece of awareness-raising, and a good opportunity to highlight an economic concept that is crucial to understanding questions about sustainability:

Cost-free (or underpriced) resources get overused. It’s significant that the video chose to highlight water inputs, rather than, say, petroleum inputs. All the ingredients of your latte also require petroleum inputs (for energy to run the factories, for transportation, etc.) But petroleum products always cost money, and in fact are relatively expensive, so manufacturers have a built-in reason to use less, wherever they can. But at least some water-inputs are essentially free (e.g., water drawn from a private well) or are subject to flat-rate municipal pricing (such that using more doesn’t cost more). Manufacturers have no intrinsic reason to conserve a resource like that. So, you either need to a) find a way to charge, or to charge more, e.g., by taxing the product, or b) rely on changing attitudes and raising ecological awareness.

Note that the video isn’t particularly an indictment of lattes or latte drinkers. All foods and manufactured products and indeed all services require resource inputs. So don’t leap to feeling guilty about your 200-litre-latte. Whatever you might have had in lieu of that latte would have taken up some water resources, too. I suppose that means that we need not just “awareness,” but awareness of differences among products, and awareness of differences that can actually lead to changes in our behaviour.

2 comments so far

  1. Anonymous on

    Even though it entertains me to see another explicit criticism to an icon of the extreme consumer behaviour that has brought the planet to the edge of collapse, I wonder about its effectiveness in triggering change in behaviour. I would argue that even the most radical yuppie has no interest in having his indulging habits impact the future of human kind. Therefore, he/she would be more compelled to change his habits by being offered realistic, small steps, or even alternatives to specific issues, as opposed to generic messages.It’s clear to me that WWF didn’t intend to promote a ban to the beloved fancy tea (as Chris highlighted) but it does imply that the morning savior is evil. And more important, it fails to provide ways to deal with the issue.I guess many latte lovers would fell attacked by it, and rebel against the cause (of changing the mindset about everything), instead of embracing it. PS : OJ is often my preferred choice

  2. plasticsyntax on

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t the water sold at a flat-rate because it’s too cheap to meter in the first place? And if it’s so inexpensive, it must be so because the resource in question is in great supply (or perhaps, renewable :). Taken even further, if water was a resource worth metering, people with private water sources might even look at selling their water. The only way they do that now is through value-added ventures like bottled water.To address your actual points, I think (b) is too subject to fashion to be useful; people can only care about and address so many issues before they are exhausted. Price is something we can see and act on easily, without having to care enough to read entire books on the subject of water conservation.


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