Sustainability 101

What to Know About the Water Footprint of Everyday Products

Talia Vicars
Water

There is something undeniably delicious about a tall, cool glass of water on a hot summer day. And, for most folks in the United States, that drinking water comes straight out of the faucet, no questions asked. This may lead us to believe that all water is the same, it’s easily accessible, and it’s just used for things like drinking and bathing. News Flash: Finch is about to change your mind.

Water is used to make just about everything: from serving as a hidden ingredient in many of our most-used products, to “watering” crops, to cleaning our homes and clothes… it’s even needed to run our electrical appliances. Let’s wet our pallets with all things water and fill a glass of knowledge about which products are the thirstiest.

Here’s a list of products that you may not know are water-intensive… and how to avoid them or choose alternatives. Because this information is so important, we made you a playlist to make this lesson interesting, engaging, and easy to remember. You’re welcome. 

Word Bank

First thing’s first, let’s define some terms to ground us in the key concepts we need to know when it comes to all things water!

Water Footprint 

Don’t Go Chasing Waterfalls by Groovio

A water footprint is a measurement of freshwater consumed and/or polluted. This can be measured in different functional units (this is a doozy to understand, but check out our glossary post for a deep dive), depending on what the water is being used for. Like a carbon footprint, a water footprint paints a picture of how much water we’re using, where it’s coming from, and what kind of impact that has on the environment, especially if the place from which it is coming is experiencing water scarcity. And, not all water is the same – there’s blue, green, and greywater. And no, this isn’t about blue waves at the beach or cloudy rivers. The different types of water can help us understand the impact of our water footprint, but more on this later.

Water Scarcity 

Scarcity by Vox

Water scarcity means there is a shortage of water due to a variety of possible factors, like a physical shortage or a shortage due to inadequate infrastructure to regularly supply water to a specific region. Water scarcity can help to illustrate the relationship between water use and water availability. In instances of infrastructure failures, this often can be a result of economic or political constraints, like war or other kinds of conflict. In practice, water scarcity means that while a product or crop requires only a certain amount of water, that amount can have a different impact depending on where it’s coming from. Take, for instance, growing almonds in California or Florida. Using the Water Scarcity Index, a tool used to represent the overuse of water in a region, while almonds may require the same amount of water in both states, growing the crop in California will have a drastically different impact on the environment because California is experiencing a drought

Virtual Water

Mr. Roboto by Styx

Virtual water doesn’t actually have to do with networks or computers, but rather with the water we don’t see that goes into the production of food, fiber, and other commodities, including energy (hello, water-energy nexus). For example, water is required to grow wheat to be made into bread (and do many other critical activities along its supply chain). So, while the loaves on the shelf of the supermarket aren’t soaking wet, they did require a lot of water to get there. In fact, one ton of wheat requires about 1,300 tons of water to produce. This will be helpful context when we start looking at products that are water-intensive.

Green Water 

Plantasia by Mort Garson

Green water refers to water that comes from precipitation (let it rain, baby!) and is stored in soil to eventually be evaporated or transpired/incorporated (aka taken in or given off) by plants. 

Blue Water 

Agriculture by the Jaded Juice Riders

Blue water refers to water that comes from surface water (water that is above ground, i.e. streams, rivers, lakes, wetlands, reservoirs, and creeks) or groundwater (water that is below ground, i.e. water that is in the little cracks and crevices of soil, sand, and rock) and typically comes into play when we talk about agriculture or irrigation.

Greywater 

Dirty Water by the Standells

Greywater accounts for all of the polluted water discharged to a freshwater body directly or indirectly through runoff (the draining away of water) or the leaching in from soil, surfaces, or other sources. We most commonly experience greywater as the water we wash away from our sinks, showers, tubs, and washing machines, which may contain traces of dirt, food, grease, hair, and cleaning products. It does not contain feces, however. Greywater is a form of wastewater.

Wastewater

Wasteland, Baby! by Hozier

Wastewater is used water that contains feces, oils, soaps, chemicals, food scraps, and other contaminants, coming from homes, businesses, or industries. While greywater is a form of wastewater, not all wastewater is greywater. 

Water-Intensive Products

Blue World by Mac Miller

Okay, now that we’ve gotten all of the terminology out of the way, let’s put all these concepts together with some concrete examples. The average American uses about 80 to 100 gallons of water a day – by taking baths or showers, flushing toilets, washing clothes, and numerous other activities that, well, use a lot of water. But, what about the products we use that require a lot of virtual water? 

Cotton T-Shirt 

T-Shirt by Migos

Ahhh… the fabric of our lives. Unfortunately, one conventional cotton t-shirt requires 2,168 liters of water in its production, from cultivation to processing. That’s equivalent to the amount of water one person drinks in 900 days, or roughly 2.5 years. Alternatively, organic cotton uses about 186 gallons for a t-shirt… a difference of 1,982 gallons. Growing cotton uses both green and blue water because it’s growing the cotton crop, and the later processes create wastewater. And, this is not just specific to cotton t-shirts; the fashion industry as a whole consumed 79 billion cubic meters of water (32 million Olympic-sized pools) in 2017 alone. Talk about thirsty. If the t-shirt you’re rocking is a plain white tee it gets that sparkly white through bleaching. The material bleaching processes can release bleach into bodies of water causing harm to ecological systems, including wildlife. If it’s dyed, then it goes through the fabric dyeing industry – the second-largest polluter of water. In fact, the fashion industry produces 20% of the world’s wastewater. 

Solve: Opt for t-shirts made of recycled materials – recycled materials require significantly less energy and water than making or harvesting those materials from scratch. Even better, buy second-hand or keep that trusty old t-shirt in use by fixing torn or worn garments by hand or with your local tailor. 

Smart Phone

Phone Numbers by Dominik Fike & Kenny Beats

Ring, ring, it’s water calling. A 2015 report found that a single smartphone (our favorite little handheld computer) requires 13 tons of water to produce. This isn’t necessarily surprising when you consider the water scarcity of the areas where materials that go into making our smartphones, well, smart, come from. The metals in many consumer electronics come from areas with high water scarcity – in fact, precious metals have the highest water scarcity per kilogram of any material. 

Solve: Unless you’re down to go Shomer Shabbat 24/7, reducing the water footprint associated with smartphones will require industry changes. One study found that the two most impactful ways to reduce water impacts associated with electronics include sourcing from areas with lower levels of water scarcity and recycling more of the raw materials, where possible. 

Lightbulb

Flashing Lights by Kanye West

While you might not ever associate turning on the lights with water use, a standard 60-watt incandescent lightbulb, when left on for 12 hours a day for a year, uses up to 6,000 gallons of water. This is because of the water-energy nexus, which refers to the relationship between the amount of water required to generate energy and the amount of energy required to collect water, clean it, move it around, and ultimately clean it again before it’s returned to the environment.

Solve: Switching out that classic bulb for a compact fluorescent bulb saves energy, and, in turn, saves between 2,000 and 4,000 gallons of water annually. Booyah!

So… how do I know when I’m using a water-intensive product?

Raindrops by Goldlink & Flo Milli

The unfortunate reality is that there are many, many products that require a lot of water behind the scenes. Heck, who knew that a t-shirt, phone, or lightbulb would? Thankfully, you are now well-equipped to talk about water with our handy-dandy word bank. And, better yet, here at Finch we actually rate products based on their water footprint.

We take into account water scarcity in the area where the product and/or its ingredients are produced and whether the product contributes to that risk or pollutes the local water supply. So, when in doubt, download the Finch extension to get a peek into the water footprint of some of your favorite products – we do the digging so you don’t have to.