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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Water Footprinting

Air Date: Week of

Water is necessary for all life on Earth. It’s also necessary to produce the goods and products we consume. Just how much water goes into making your hamburger or the jeans you’re wearing? It’s called a “water footprint” and as global water supplies dwindle, some are trying to raise awareness about the water cost of our daily consumption. Host Bruce Gellerman talks with Derk Kuiper, executive director of the Water Footprint Network. He also speaks with Michael Kobori of Levi-Strauss to find out what his company is doing to curb its water use.


GELLERMAN: The next time you’re shopping for a pair of leather shoes - consider this: it took 21 hundred gallons of water to produce them.

21 hundred gallons for one pair of shoes - that’s the shoes’ water footprint. A water footprint is a new way of looking at the economic costs and environmental impacts of water in the everyday things we use.

Derk Kuiper is Executive Director of the Water Footprint Network in the Netherlands.

KUIPER: What this number tells you is basically not only direct use from the tap, but it’s also the indirect use that you have through consumer products or producing those products, and you can actually start understanding the amount of water you’re shipping around the world.

GELLERMAN: Lemme get my water footprint for some common products, okay?


GELLERMAN: How about making a hamburger? How much water goes into making a hamburger?

KUIPER: It’s about sort of 2.7 thousand liters of water that goes in there.

GELLERMAN: That’s about what – 630 gallons of water for one hamburger.


GELLERMAN: How about a glass of beer?

KUIPER: A glass of beer is basically 75 liters of water, well you’re obviously not drinking that physically, but at least the water has been used in the production of, for example, the hops and wheat that is being used for brewing the beer.

GELLERMAN: Seventy-five liters, that’s about 20 gallons.


GELLERMAN: So the idea is that like a carbon footprint has a certain impact on the planet, then your water footprint has a similar impact.

KUIPER: Yeah, there’s one complicating factor with water is the carbon is basically pooled in the atmosphere and water is very locally based, so the impacts of your water footprint are actually quite diverse. So, for example, if you look at water rich regions like the Amazon area, the impact of your water use there might be far less than for example in a water scarce area in eastern Africa. So, you need to have a very specific measure of the localized impacts and that complicates matters.

GELLERMAN: Ah, so when you’re talking footprint, you’re actually talking impression in a local area.

KUIPER: In the end you will do that, but the question is at this point, we cannot yet do that. We are developing that and that’s also why we have the Water Footprint Network. We want to develop that methodology further to actually start understanding what the volume that you have to have in your water footprint is actually having for an impact in a local situation.

GELLERMAN: Well the idea of a water footprint is, I understand, is becoming more and more popular in the business world. They’re actually starting to consider how much water they’re using in producing the products they produce.

KUIPER: You know, in light of their sort of corporate citizenship and stewardship, the best way to understand how the impact on the world. And there’s not only impact on the natural environment, also people. And water is one of those sort of key topics now after climate change, because some of the stress on water resources in areas like, for example, Pakistan and so on, is huge, and they need to do something about it. Because otherwise they might actually run great, not only reputational risk, but also fiscal risks in terms of having their supply chains falling apart.

GELLERMAN: Well Mr. Kuiper, thanks a lot. I appreciate it.

KUIPER: Thank you very much.

GELLERMAN: Derk Kuiper of the Water Footprint Network

About 90 percent of the water used each year in developing countries goes to agriculture. Crops like cotton are notoriously thirsty - so things made from cotton – say blue jeans - have a large water footprint.

How large? The answer from Michael Kobori, vice president at Levi-Strauss & Company, might surprise you.

KOBORI: It takes 919 gallons of water to produce a pair of our flagship product, which is, as I’m sure you know, Levis 501s.

GELLERMAN: Those are the ones with the buttons, no zipper.

KOBORI: That’s correct.

GELLERMAN: Nine hundred and nineteen gallons for one pair of jeans?

KOBORI: Yes, and I should explain how we arrived at that figure. A few years ago what we did was a product life cycle assessment. So from the raw materials, growing the cotton, through manufacturing, distribution, consuming use and final disposal.

GELLERMAN: So what does that make your water footprint?

KOBORI: So, what this means for us, Bruce, as we look at the break down here. We actually didn’t focus on the cotton or the consumer immediately. What we did was we focused on the little less than six percent that we actually control in our manufacturing of the product. And the largest amount of that is taken up in the industrial laundries around the world that wash the product to get the different finishes that you see on the pair of 501s. So we took a look at the quality of that water and the nice things that’s happened is as those laundries have constructed these treatment facilities, what that’s enabled them to do is actually in most cases recycle more of the water so their actual use of the water has dropped. So in some cases the laundries are able to recycle seventy to eighty percent of the water. So as the cost of water begins to increase in a number of countries around the world, just because water is becoming more of a scarce commodity, having treatment facilities, having the recycling programs has enabled our suppliers to avoid paying increased fees in some cases, both for water and for the disposal of the discharge of the water. In some of our laundries, they’re saving up to a $100,000 a year.

GELLERMAN: Water’s going to be scarcer still when global warming hits full bloom. What are you planning to do there in the future?

KOBORI: Well, so in the future, we’re starting to look at the bigger sections of that life cycle. So the cotton and the consumer use. And we’ve been working with experts as well as others in the industry to understand the water impact of cotton better, and what we can do about it. We know we need to do something, even if we don’t directly buy the cotton, we work with fabric mills that purchase the cotton, so we’ve trying to figure out what can we do around supporting more sustainable cotton.

GELLERMAN: Well what can I do? I mean, I’m wearing a pair of your jeans right now.

KOBORI: What you can do is wash less. What we’ve done is begun to change the way we communicate to our consumers about their care of the product. So with what we call our eco product, which is this product that is made out of recycled denim or organic cotton, we’ve changed the label on the product to say to consumers “wash only when necessary in cold water and line dry if possible.” It’s better for your jeans and its better for the environment.

GELLERMAN: Well Mr. Kobori, thank you very much.

KOBORI: You’re very welcome, Bruce.

GELLERMAN: Michael Kobori is a Vice President of Supply Chain Social and Environmental Sustainability at Levi-Strauss.



Ceres has released a report detailing the impacts of climate change on global water supplies

Water Footprint Network

Representatives from major corporations around the world met recently in Miami to talk about water footprinting and business.


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