What’s Your Water Footprint?

What’s Your Water Footprint?

California isn’t just in a drought – it’s in a state of emergency. Governor Jerry Brown officially declared this in January, but just to really reiterate, take a look at the chart below. The point hits home. The vast majority of our state is not just in “moderate”, “severe” or “extreme” drought, but instead in – “exceptional drought”. We are now going into the 4th year of this extreme drought, and the state of emergency is forcing extreme efforts. In April, Governor Brown ordered a mandatory 25% water reduction (the first of its kind), and last year, California lawmakers passed with overwhelming support a $7.5 billion water bond deal that allocates money to store, clean, and deliver water as well as restore ecosystems and prepare for a warming world.

Water Footprint


Considering that water management and conservation efforts should be, now more than ever, on the forefront of people’s minds – it seems apropos to write a post discussing water footprints.

What is a Water Footprint?

We’re all familiar with the term carbon footprint, but we may be less familiar with the idea of water footprints. In the social sector, a ‘footprint’ has generally come to represent a quantitative measure that communicates the use of ecological resources by a human being. In terms of water, we can imagine a footprint in a number of ways.

Waterfootprint.org offers this explanation:

“[A] water footprint measures the amount of water used to produce each of the goods and services we use. It can be measured for a single process, such as growing rice, for a product, such as a pair of jeans, for the fuel we put in our car, or for an entire multi-national company. The water footprint can also tell us how much water is being consumed by a particular country – or globally – in a specific river basin or from an aquifer”.

Reducing Water Footprints through Social Enterprise

Did you know it takes almost 650 gallons of water to produce just one basic cotton T-shirt? That the production of a 1/3-pound burger requires 660 gallons of water? Or that it takes 8 to 16 gallons of water to burn a 60-watt light bulb for 12 hours?

Let’s examine the T-Shirt further. Production of just a basic cotton tee is hugely water intensive. Almost every step in the process – from the cotton that must be grown, cleaned, spun and woven, to the dye in the shirt and the cardboard of the box it comes in – requires water, totaling 650 gallons of it! Cotton is a huge part of the equation, with cotton farming the largest consumer of water in the apparel supply chain, and used in 40 percent of all clothing worldwide.

Luckily there are a number of organizations working to reduce cotton’s water footprint, such as the non-profit The Better Cotton Initiative, or the social enterprise Cottonconnect, which works with brands and retailers to be commercially successful as well as environmentally and socially responsible in their business practices (by transforming at scale the way they source cotton).

Water Footprint

Better Cotton Initiative

The great thing about both these organizations is that their focus is on making cotton supply chains sustainable, so while they are combating the social problem of a large-scale water loss, they are also combating issues such as:

  • Soil erosion and degradation
  • Pollution
  • Income vulnerability
  • Nonrenewable resource depletion
  • Air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions
  • Biodiversity loss, especially insects that are natural predators of cotton pests
  • Debate on Food/ Fuel/ Fiber – managing the increasing demand for food, fuel, as well as fiber
  • Environmental impacts and human health impacts by exposure to hazardous pesticides
  • Child, bonded and forced labor

The bottom line is thus – while it may be foreign to think of the “hidden” costs of water in a product, like the shirt you’re wearing right now, once you begin to do so, the idea of reducing your water use (your water footprint) likely takes on new meaning. This meaning should go beyond just shortening the length of your shower or opting for drought resistant landscaping. So I’ll ask you this: if you learned something reading this post, please share it! Let’s work to reduce our personal water footprint in drought-stricken CA, and work to support organizations like The Better Cotton Initiative and Cottonconnect in reducing our national water footprint!

Written by Kate Reid

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *