How Shopping at Thrift Stores Saves Water – YWF’s Water-Saving Tips of the Week

jeans better

Infographic from Your Water Footprint

History in Your Jeans

One way or another your jeans came from the Indus Valley in Pakistan and northeast India. The Indus is a huge valley and river system that drains part of the Himalayan Mountains and is the birthplace of cotton. River and groundwater are used to irrigate rows of cotton plants.

The jeans you’re wearing contain about 800 grams (28 ounces) of cotton, and it took a whopping  15,000 liters (3,960 gallons) of water to grow that much cotton in this dry part of the world. Most of the water evaporated or was used by the cotton plants, and some ended up as wastewater or gray water. That raw cotton was shipped to an urban center or to another country such as Bangladesh, the biggest exporter of textiles. In the factory the raw cotton is washed, dyed and then washed again.

If you think about it, putting on our clothing is like wearing some of the water, soil and sun of faraway places such as the Indus Valley in Pakistan, and the labor of the hard-working hands in the cotton mills of Dhaka, Bangladesh.

How to save thousands of litres (gallons) of water

  • Shop at Thrift Stores  -save  2,900 liters (766 gallons) by just buying a previously-loved T-shirt!
  • Shop Organic – cotton grown without the use of insecticides and chemical fertilizers, and thus it has a smaller water footprint because it produces little water pollution.
  • Buy Local – U.S. cotton has a water footprint of 8,100 liters (2,140 gallons) per kilogram, much less than other countries

Your Water Footprint

Winner, Best Science Book in Canada; First Place NYC Green Book Festival

We don’t realize our societies run on water not oil. There is no electricity or gasoline without water. Nothing can be manufactured without water.  The critically-acclaimed book Your Water Footprint (YWF), uses info graphics to reveal the enormous quantities of water that are used to make the clothes we wear, the electronic devices we use and the food we eat.

On average our daily water footprint amounts to 8,000 litres (2100 gal). This is the net amount, water that can’t be reused.

Water-wise choices is all about smart substitutions and changes in habits

Your Water Footprint:  The Shocking Facts About How Much Water We Use To Make Everyday Product

 160 Pages, 125 Unique Infographics, only $19.95 Paperback   Order today

 (Now available on Kindle)

World Water Day: The cost of cotton exports in water-challenged India

Women and children gather water from pumps in India

 More than 100 million people in India do not have access to safe water. Severe water scarcity in India is exacerbated by the cotton industry. Concerns are high, but are businesses, consumers and government doing enough?

Virtual water

Cotton is by no means India’s largest export commodity – petroleum products followed by gems and jewellery follow closely behind. All of these exports require water to produce, and the quantities needed are staggering. Not only does it take water to grow anything, it also takes water to make anything: cars, furniture, books, electronics, buildings, jewellery, toys and even electricity. This water that goes largely unseen is called virtual water.

What’s easy to forget is that virtual water is as real as the water you drink. Producing 1kg of cotton in India consumes 22,500 litres of water, on average, according to research done by the Water Footprint Network. In other words, this 22,500 litres of water cannot be used for anything else because it has either evaporated or is too contaminated for reuse.

By exporting more than 7.5m bales of cotton in 2013, India also exported about 38bn cubic metres of virtual water. Those 38bn cubic metres consumed in production of all that cotton weren’t used for anything else. Yet, this amount of water would more than meet the daily needs of 85% of India’s vast population for a year.

Doing things differently

Cotton doesn’t usually consume this much water. The global average water footprint for 1kg of cotton is 10,000 litres. Even with irrigation, US cotton uses just 8,000 litres per kg. The far higher water footprint for India’s cotton is due to inefficient water use and high rates of water pollution — about 50% of all pesticides used (pdf) in the country are in cotton production.

Most of India’s cotton is grown in drier regions and the government subsidises the costs of farmers’ electric pumps, placing no limits on the volumes of groundwater extracted at little or no cost. This has created a widespread pattern of unsustainable water use and strained electrical grids.

Recent reports show that India’s water consumption is far too high. In 54% of the country 40 to 80% of annually available surface water is used. To be sustainable, consumption should be no more than 20% in humid zones and 5% in dry areas, to maintain the ecological function of rivers and wetlands, experts say (pdf).

India’s extensive groundwater resources are also rapidly being depleted, with 58% of wells in the drier north-west India experiencing declining water levels. By 2030 demand will outstrip supply by 50%, according to the World Resources Institute.

“India’s water problems are well-known in the country and pollution is everywhere. Disagreement lies in the solutions,” says Arjen Hoekstra, professor in water management at the University of Twente in the Netherlands.

The new Indian government’s solution to the spectre of growing severe water scarcity is the $168bn (£113bn) National River Linking Project, which will link 30 rivers with 15,000km of canals. This will transfer 137bn cubic metres of water annually from wetter regions to drier ones. However, the country exports far more water than that, in the form of virtual water, in cotton, sugar, cereals, motor vehicles and its many other exports.

Faltering forward

All of these exports could be produced using far less water, says Hoekstra, who pioneered the water footprint concept. “It’s not just improving water efficiency that could dramatically reduce India’s water consumption, it’s growing and producing things in the right place,” he said.

Most of India’s water-rich crops such as cereals and cotton are grown in the dry states of Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, which have very high evaporation rates, unlike wet states such as Bihar, Jharkhand and Orissa. This perverse situation greatly exacerbates India’s water problems and is largely the result of government policies, Hoekstra’s 2009 study (pdf) states.

“There’s a lot of concern about water scarcity, but little interest in changing consumption patterns,” Hoekstra said.

That said, there is growing interest in the Better Cotton Initiative, an industry-led effort using standards to reduce cotton’s water footprint. Organic cotton production also has a lower net water use because it uses no chemicals. Encouragingly, India currently produces two-thirds of the world’s organic cotton. However, this is just 2% of the country’s cotton acreage.

Rather than matching production of goods to the sustainable use of existing water resources, India, like governments around the world, hopes to use engineering to increase the amount of water, said Hoekstra. Instead, India could grow cotton in less arid regions with more efficient irrigation and fewer pesticides to greatly reduce the crop’s impact on water resources.

Stephen Leahy is an international award winning journalist and author of Your Water Footprint, winner of the best science book for 2014.

First published at The Guardian Friday 20 March 2015 . 


Book Award-winning Environmental Journalist and Author

MUSE talk passport

Stephen will be doing more talks in 2016 about about his prize-winning book Your Water FootprintThe Shocking Facts Behind Our Thirst for Earth’s Most Precious Resource (Best Science Book in Canada).  

Reviewers have called Your Water Footprint: “brilliant and shocking” and “exceptionally lucid”

Stephen is also an expert on the United Nations climate talks and climate science. He is a winner of the prestigious Prince Albert/United Nations Global Prize for his Climate Change and Environment Reporting.

As a journalist he has written over 2000 articles on  science and environmental topics around the world for National Geographic, the Guardian, New Scientist, IPS, and many more.

Stephen’s 8-minute talk for Walrus TV:  “We don’t realize our entire society runs on water. It doesn’t run on oil”

 To inquire about Stephen speaking at your event please complete the contact form below.

Book Now for 2016!

Selected 2015 Appearances

Moscow, Idaho/Pullman, Washington
2015 Palouse Basin Water Summit – Keynote Speaker

Mailbu, California and Los Angles Area
MUSE talks

Victoria, B.C. Walrus Talks Water

 Toronto  Ribbon at the Lower Don Festival celebrating the PAN AM Games 

Halifax, Nova Scotia Walrus Talks Water


Please fill out the form below – it helps reduce spam. Yes, this really works and I will reply — Stephen.

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Leahy drops a tsunami of sobering facts and infographics on the heads of readers who take what comes out of their faucets for granted.

Focusing not on fresh water use in general but on its “footprint”—meaning water that agricultural and manufacturing processes leave polluted or otherwise locally unusable—the author sprays his urgently toned narrative with alarming observations and eye-opening comparisons. These are all pumped from cited official reports and studies, and they range from (extensive) lists of contaminants found in the drinking water of various municipalities to evidence that biofuel production is not a sustainable process and an ominous claim that the water in the Midwest’s Ogallala Aquifer is being drained 14 times faster that it is being replaced.

The wellspring of his argument is presented in dozens of image-based color maps and charts. There’s a picture of a cloth diaper next to the 18-liter water bottle that represents its manufacturing footprint and a disposable paired to 31; another image presents 15 filled bathtubs to show how much water a meat-based diet consumes each day.

Though quoting an estimate that household use accounts for only 14 percent of humanity’s water footprint, he closes with a chapter of general water-saving tips that will at least make readers feel better as they face the apparently inevitable dry times ahead.

A heavy flood of information better suited as a resource for study and reports than an immersive consciousness-raiser. (index, bibliography) (Nonfiction. 14-18)

Kirkus Reviews published Nov 5 2014 

Your Water Footprint:  The Shocking Facts About How Much Water We Use To Make Everyday Products

Published Nov 2014  160 Pages, 125 Unique Infographics, $19.95 Paperback

(Also avail in hardcover)

Order on Amazon

In Canada:  Order on Chapters-Indigo

In UK:  Order on WH Smith

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Your Water Footprint: An Interview with Author Stephen Leahy


Stephen Leahy is an award-winning environmental journalist who’s taken a particular interest in what he calls the “hidden world of virtual water” that surrounds us. In his new book, Your Water Footprint: The Shocking Facts About How Much Water We Use To Make Everyday Products, he illustrates the somewhat mysterious concept of virtual water using plenty of graphics and photographs of food, clothing, electronics and other products we use everyday. We recently asked Stephen about his book, his suggestions for what readers can do and how his own water footprint measures up.

What is it about water footprints that compelled you to write your book?

In more than 20 years of environmental journalism I have written many articles about water and water issues but never about water footprints. So when the publisher contacted me about doing a book on water footprints I dug into the subject and was amazed at how we’re literally surrounded by a hidden world of virtual water — water we can’t see but is a real as the water we drink.

Are there any items that you researched but just couldn’t come up with water footprint data?

Yes. Calculating water footprints can be very complex, especially for products made of many different materials. While there are many estimates of the water footprints of cars, I was unable to get a definitive one that included everything and provided detailed explanation of how the calculation was done.

Virtual water can be a difficult concept to explain. Have you found any particular ways that help people understand the difference between direct and virtual water use?

I wrote and rewrote my explanation in the book and give examples such as a detailed explanation of how much virtual and direct water is used to make a bottle of cola.

Once armed with their new knowledge about water footprints, what should readers do?

My hope with Your Water Footprint is to give readers enough information to make water-wise choices to reduce their water use which will not only save money but also be prepared for shortages and ensure our children and grandchildren will have abundant fresh water. This is all about smart substitutions and changes, rather than sacrifice and self-denial.

How do you respond to those who critique the water footprint concept? For example, we’ve heard some say that we never “lose” water because it’s just moving around the water cycle, or ask whether we’re all supposed to stop eating because all food requires water?

That’s a misunderstanding of the concept. While it is true that water is not lost forever, it can be used or consumed so that it can’t be used by anyone else. I use the word ‘consumed’ to make it clear this is water that can no longer be used for anything else or no longer available for use on a human time scale. Water can often be cleaned or reused, so those amounts of water are NOT included in the water footprints in the book.

We hear about carbon footprints, ecological footprints, water footprints….should or can we tie these together?

Ecological footprints try to tie carbon, water and other footprints together which is very helpful but difficult to do. One challenge is that water footprints vary a great deal from place to place. Wheat grown in a desert region like California has a bigger footprint than that in a wetter region like central Canada.

So we have to ask: What’s your water footprint, and do you have a resolution to shrink it?

My water footprint is pretty low. I love vegetarian food and only eat meat on rare, special occasions. Most of my shopping including clothes and some electronics are done in second hand or thrift shops. When I buy something new like a pair of shoes, I make sure they are of very good quality and will last many years. In addition to low-flow showers and toilets and avoiding food waste, the key to shrinking your water footprint is reduce, reuse and recycle the products we use.

[Original article]

Your Water Footprint:  The Shocking Facts About How Much Water We Use To Make Everyday Products

Published Nov 2014  160 Pages, 125 Unique Infographics, $19.95 Paperback

(Also avail in hardcover)

Order on Amazon

In Canada:  Order on Chapters-Indigo

In UK:  Order on WH Smith

“Taking Responsible Actions to Reduce Our Water Footprints” – Review

Stephen Leahy provides some sobering information pertaining to our use of water. For example, the jeans that you are wearing took more than 7,600 litres of water to produce. According to Leahy “the average American’s ‘water footprint’ — the total amount of direct plus virtual freshwater use — is about 8,000 liters (2,115 gallons) per day…

While the statistics provided by the author can be somewhat depressing, he does include a section on “Water-saving Tips”. When it comes to our dependence on water, ignorance isn’t bliss. Once we are aware of how our day-to-day living impacts the world’s most precious resource we can start taking responsible actions to reduce our water footprints.

–Glenn Perrett Northumberland News 2014-10-09

Your Water Footprint:  The Shocking Facts About How Much Water We Use To Make Everyday Products

Published Nov 2014 Firefly Books  160 Pages, 125 Unique Infographics, only $19.95 Paperback (Also avail in hardcover) Order on Amazon In Canada:  Order on Chapters-Indigo In UK:  Order on WH Smith

How to save 900,000 litres (238,000 gal.) of water at the dinner table

meat sample

 Graphic from  ‘Your Water Footprint’ 

How to save 900,000 litres of water at the dinner table

I have a confession: I used 1100 litres of water to make my breakfast today. It was nothing special, just a small glass of orange juice, a cup of coffee, two eggs, toast and two pieces of bacon. But it did take 1100 litres of water to grow and process the ingredients. Thats a whole lot of water considering the average bathtub only holds about 80 litres.

Even after 20 years of covering environmental issues in two dozen countries I had no idea of the incredible amounts of water needed to grow food or make things. Now, after two years working on my book Your Water Footprint Im still amazed the T-shirt Im wearing needed a whopping 2500 litres to grow and process the cotton. Or that 140 litres was needed to grow and process the coffee beans to make my morning coffee. Since a litre of water weighs a kilogram, thats 140 kilos of water, imagine having to haul that much in a bucket every morning!

Water more valuable and useful than oil

Researching all of this I soon realized were literally surrounded by a hidden world of water. Although we cant see it, there is water in everything we eat, everything we use and buy. Almost anything you can think of – cars, furniture, books, dishes, TVs, highways, buildings, jewelry, toys and even electricity would not exist without water.

Its no exaggeration to say water is far more valuable and useful than oil.

Unfortunately, water is often taken for granted and undervalued, resulting widespread misuse and waste. The idea behind my book is to increase awareness of huge quantities of the hidden water our entire way of life depends on. Your Water Footprint uses colourful infographics to illustrate the size of the water footprints of a wide range things from shoes to whiskey. A water footprint is the amount of water consumed’ to make, grow or produce something. I use the word consumed to make it clear this is water that can no longer be used for anything else. Water can often be cleaned or reused, so those amounts of water are not included in the water footprints in the book.

For example, when you drink a half-litre of bottle water youre actually consuming 5.5. litres. Why so much? Making the plastic bottle consumed 5 litres of water.

After poring through many studies on water footprints, I was really surprised to see how tiny my direct use of water for drinking, cooking, showers and so on was by comparison. Each day the average North American uses 300 to 400 litres. (FYI: Flushing toilets is the biggest water daily use, not showers.) Now, 400 litres is not a trivial amount of water, and we can all get by using less by employing some water-savings tips.

How big is your water footprint? Take a quick test

However, compared to the hidden water, also known as virtual water, thats in the things we eat, wear and use for a day averages an incredible 7500 litres. That means our daily water footprint is almost 8,000 litres (direct + hidden freshwater use). Carrying all this water would be like trying to haul the weight of four mid-size cars every day.

Peak water is here

Water scarcity is a reality in much of the world. About 1.2 billion people live in areas with chronic scarcity, while two billion are affected by shortages every year. That’s two in seven people. And as the ongoing drought in California proves, water scarcity is increasing reality for many of us in the US and Canada. Water experts estimate that by 2025, three in five people may be living with water shortages.

While low-flow shower heads and toilets are great water savers, the water footprint concept can lead to even bigger reductions in water consumption. If a family of four replaced beef with chicken in all their meals, they would reduce their water use an astonishing 900,0cropped-front-cover.jpg00 litres a year. That’s enough to fill an Olympic-sized pool to a depth of two feet. The reason is the water footprint of beef is four times larger than chicken.

Vegetables have an even smaller water footprint. If the average family liked the idea of “Meatless Mondays,” they’d save 400,000 litres of water a year.

My hope with Your Water Footprint is to give you enough information to make water-wise choices to reduce your water use which will help you save money, be prepared for shortages and ensure our children and grandchildren will have abundant fresh water. This is all about smart substitutions and changes, rather than sacrifice and self-denial.

To do this we need to know how much we are currently using. We can’t make the water-wise choices unless we begin to see and understand the invisible ways in which we rely on water.

(First published Yahoo Canada News – Mon, 8 Sep, 2014)

Your Water Footprint: The Shocking Facts About How Much Water We Use to Make Everyday Products 

Now Available November  2014, 160 pages, 125 unique infographics, $19.95 paperback 

Order on Amazon

Planet dying of our thirst for water

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A tractor kicks up dust in Los Banos, California as the state suffers through a third straight year of drought, with reservoirs at record lows and fields in the central valley sitting unplanted.

Step away from that smart phone. Eschew that cheeseburger. Junk those jeans.

If you think that giving up your nightly tub-soak for showers or buying a low-flush toilet has cut your environmental footprint down to responsible size, think again.

The sad verdict is in, from a new book by environmental sleuth Stephen Leahy. Its title, Your Water Footprint: The Shocking Facts About How Much Water We Use to Make Everyday Products says it all.

If, for instance, you’re munching your burger while chatting on your cell and wearing jeans, you’ve just used up about 11,000 litres of water we’ll never get back, by Leahy’s painstaking calculation.

Take the burger: “a typical 160-gram (5-ounce) cheeseburger requires 2,400 litres (634 gallons) of water to produce,” he writes. “Many times the amount of water the average North American uses every day for drinking, bathing, washing dishes and flushing the toilet.” Most is used for producing the beef at a cost of 15,415 litres per kilogram. The cheese and bun add on about 100 litres (26 gallons) of “virtual water.”

As for the smart phone, Leahy says, every step of the production process sucks up water, “from creating the microchips to mining the metals for the batteries to polishing the silica glass for the touch screens.” And there’s worse news: “the number of activated cellphones is soon expected to exceed the world’s population. To manufacture these phones will require 6.7 trillion litres (1.8 trillion gallons) of water.”

The jeans? We won’t even go there.

Leahy, an award-winning Ontario environmental journalist who roams to the ends of the earth to report on environmental dangers, makes it clear that the most innocent-seeming actions and products are far from water-neutral. While billions of people on the planet face drought and water shortages, others in wealthy countries unwittingly splash the stuff around on goods that could be made or substituted for more frugally.

That’s important, Leahy points out, because while two-thirds of our “blue planet” is covered in water, only a tiny portion of it is drinkable. And when it’s gone it’s gone.

The huge amount of vital water used up every day to produce food, energy, goods and rides of all sorts is staggering. But the good news, says Leahy, is that we aren’t helpless in cutting the world’s water use. We can reduce our car, airplane and gadget use and dial back on power generation that drains huge quantities of water to produce. Also fossil fuels that siphon off way more water than the oil that’s produced – not to mention even worse biofuels with a water footprint more than 3,000 times bigger than crude oil!

But in the meantime, Leahy says, small stuff also helps. Apart from the obvious – don’t run the water while cleaning your teeth – here are some handy eco-tips to make you and the planet feel better.

If you have a garden, attach a rain barrel to your downspouts for watering.

Sweep your walkways instead of hosing.

Take your car to a car-wash instead of doing it yourself. They use recycled water.

Speed dial 311 when you see any public water leak.

Buy second hand clothing.

Go retro. With polyester you’ll gain 80s cred and save on the flood of water it takes to grow more chic fabrics like cotton and wool. If you’re over 50, dust off that leisure suit. Dude, what’s not to like?

Olivia Ward is a foreign affairs reporter for the Star. Link to Original Story 

 Your Water Footprint:  The Shocking Facts About How Much Water We Use To Make Everyday Products

Published Nov 2014 Firefly Books  160 Pages, 125 Unique Infographics, $19.95 Paperback (Also avail in hardcover) Order on Amazon In Canada:  Order on Chapters-Indigo In UK:  Order on WH Smith