Brita, Leading The Water Revolution

The German maker of water filters finds it crazy that we are still shipping bottled water all around the world. And both its message and its adaptation to different markets are paying off.

A water 'alternative'...
A water 'alternative'...
Valérie Leboucq

TAUNUSSTEIN — The water revolution has already begun. One in five French households uses Brita's water filter pitchers. In Germany, where people usually prefer fizz, the company has recently released a filter that turns tap water in sparkling water. Even First Lady Michelle Obama has equipped the White House with a Brita "Vivreau," a water dispenser that allows you to fill up retro-looking glass bottles with still or sparkling water.

The key to the German company's success is its clever adaptation to different markets. "We adapt our products to our clients' tastes by improving the quality of the water they consume, whatever their choice," explains Markus Hankammer, who has been leading the company his father created in 1970 for 15 years.

And for one of its latest targets, China, Brita decided to market a machine that dispenses hot water. "The quality of water is not an issue in big cities, but everybody there still boils their water by force of habit," Hankammer says.

Though the product is only available in Shanghai and Beijing, Brita’s sales figures jumped by $19 million in a single year, putting the company's turnover above $440 million, 80% of which is made outside of Germany.

"We really are benefitting from the success of Mercedes, BMW and Audi, which has done a lot for the reputation of "Made in Germany,"" Hankammer says.

Warm or fresh, sparkling or still, to drink at home, at the office or in restaurants, Brita's recipe to "optimize" the taste of water is always the same and is based on activated carbon filters that are sold with its pitchers and dispensers. These filters eliminate most of the limescale and chlorine, as well as microorganisms that, although they’re not dangerous for our health, can give tap water a bad taste.

Half of the filter production is done in Taunusstein, a small west German town where the company, which employs 650 people in Germany, is headquartered. To hold costs down, the whole process is automated. The same is true in Britain, where Brita owns a site of the same size, and in its smaller branches in Switzerland and Italy. But the next production unit will certainly be located in China, where Hankammer is targeting a $130 million sales figure by 2020.

Apart from China, the company's sustained growth offers development perspectives that are also important. And pollution is as much a sales argument as a concern for the company, which has been recycling its own cartridges since 1992. The carbon footprint of filtered water is 27 times less than bottled water, he says.

"It's absurd to continue transporting bottled water across the world."

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Feed The Future

COP26 Should Mark A Turning Point In Solving The Climate Crisis

Slow Food calls for an action plan to significantly reduce and improve the production and consumption of meat, dairy, and eggs by 2050.

A new dawn?

If, as the saying goes, we are what we eat, the same also goes for the animals that end up on our plate. How we feed our own food can have knock-on effects, not just for our own health but also for the planet. We are now aware of the meat and dairy industry's significant carbon footprint, responsible for more than a third of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.

Large-scale cattle productions that favor pure profit over more sustainable practices also add to environmental woes through biodiversity loss, deforestation and pesticide use — with some of the world's richest countries contributing disproportionately: The five biggest meat and milk producers emit the same amount of greenhouse gases as the oil giant Exxon.

The good news is that we could meet — if we would — some of these challenges with an array of innovative solutions, as the fields of farming, breeding and nutrition look at ways to shift from centralized intensive agro industry toward a more localized, smaller-scale and more organic approach to production.

Cows fed corn and grain-based diets may grow larger and are ready to be processed at a younger age — but this requires significant energy, as well as land and water resources; in contrast, grass and hay-fed cows support a regenerative farming model in which grazing can contribute to restoring the health of soil through increased microbial diversity. Compared to highly processed GM crops, natural-grass diets with minimal cereals also lead to more nutrient-rich livestock, producing better quality meat, milk and cheese. Farmers have started focusing on breeding native animal species that are best adapted to local environmental contexts.

This new approach to agricultural practices is closely linked to the concept of agroecology, where farming works in tandem with the environment instead of exploiting it. If mowed a few times a year, for instance, natural meadows produce hay that is rich in grasses, legumes and flowers of the sunflower family, like daisies, dandelions, thistles and cornflowers. These biomes become reservoirs of biodiversity for our countryside, hosting countless species of vegetables, insects and birds, many of which are at risk of extinction. Until recently, these were common habitats in meadows that were not plugged or tilled and only required light fertilization. Today, however, they are becoming increasingly threatened: in the plains, where the terrain is used for monocultures like corn; or in hills and mountains, where fields are facing gradual abandonment.

It is worth noting that extensive agriculture, which requires smaller amounts of capital and labor in relation to the size of farmed land, can actually help curb climate change effects through carbon dioxide absorption. Researchers at the University of California, Davis determined that in their state, grasslands and rangelands have actually acted as more resilient carbon sinks than forests in recent years. Through a system of carbon uptake, these lands provide a form of natural compensation, going as far as canceling the farms' impact on the planet, rendering them carbon "creditors."

In the meantime, grasslands and pastures allow animals to live in accordance with their natural behavioral needs, spending most of the year outside being raised by bonafide farmers who care about animal welfare. A recent study by Nature found that allowing cows to graze out of doors has both psychological and physical health benefits, as they seem to enjoy the open space and ability to lie on the soft ground.

Some might worry about the economic losses that come with this slower and smaller business model, but there are also opportunities for creativity in diversifying activities, like agro-tourism and direct sales that can actually increase a farm's profit margin. This form of sustainable production goes hand-in-hand with the Slow Meat campaign, which encourages people to reduce their meat consumption while buying better quality, sustainable meat.

Others may assume that the only environmentally-conscious diet is entirely plant-based. That is indeed a valuable and viable option, but there are also thoughtful ways to consume meat in moderation — and more sustainably. It also should be noted that many fruits and vegetables have surprisingly large carbon footprints: The industrial-scale cultivation of avocados, for example, requires massive amounts of water and causes great hardship to farming communities in Latin America.

But forging a broad shift toward more "biodiversity-friendly" pastoralism requires action by both those producing and eating meat, and those with the legislative power to enact industry-wide change. It is urgent that policies be put into place to support a return to long-established agricultural practices that can sustainably feed future generations. Although no country in the world today has a defined strategy to decrease consumption while transforming production, governments are bound to play a key role in the green transition, present and future.

In Europe, Slow Food recommends that the Fit for 55 package include reducing emissions from agriculture activities by 65% (based on 2005 levels) by 2050. Agriculture-related land use emissions should also reach net-zero by 2040 and become a sink of -150 Mt CO2eq by 2050. But these targets can only be met if the EU farming sector adopts agroecological practices at a regional scale, and if consumers shift to more sustainable diets. If we are indeed what we eat, we should also care deeply about how the choices we make impact the planet that feeds us.

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