Some pretty sizeable misconceptions around water – where it comes from and how it’s used - have led the world into a false sense of security. We did some research into water usage after watching a documentary about water scarcity and what we discovered shocked us. Learning about virtual water was a particular eye-opener - that is, the largely unseen water that goes into making the food we eat and the products we buy.
It’s a slightly longer read than our normal emails (about 4 mins reading time), but it’s an important topic so we encourage you to make a cup of tea and take it on.
Water is a global issue
Water scarcity - the imbalance between supply and demand for freshwater resources - is the result of several factors including climate change, booming industry, urban growth and bad planning.
At this very moment in time, water shortages are affecting 3 billion people. Which is easier to comprehend when you learn that water consumption has increased sevenfold in the last century. And that, across the world, water use has been growing globally at more than twice the rate of population increase in the last century.
In a country like the UK, it’s very difficult to grasp the notion that we might run out of water when it falls from the sky with such seemingly unending regularity. But, as things stand, even England faces potential water shortages by 2040.
Where is all the water going?
It’s easy to think we should focus our efforts on reducing our personal consumption of water – shorter showers, efficient washing up, fewer clothes washes. But the reality is, personal consumption only represents 8% of the world’s total water usage. 22% is consumed by industry, while 70% is dedicated to agriculture to grow the food we eat and crops like cotton.
Until agriculture and industry drastically change the way they use water, the minimal savings we make through our personal consumption are fairly meaningless. The thing we can be mindful of that will actually make an impact is our consumption of the virtual water used to make the things we eat and the stuff we buy.
Virtual water cannot be used for anything else because it has either evaporated or is too contaminated for reuse because of things like pesticides.
Putting virtual water into tangible terms
To put it into perspective. The average person in the UK directly consumes 54,000 litres of water per year. The average cotton shirt, on the other hand, requires 2,700 litres of water to produce. A pair of jeans requires 10,000 litres. And a single beef burger 1,650 litres.
So, if you go buy a new t-shirt and a pair of jeans, then stop for a quick burger on your way home, you’ve consumed nearly 15,000 litres of virtual water. That’s more than a quarter of the water you directly consume over an entire year.
Our indirect usage of virtual water, to obtain the goods we buy and the things we eat, far outweighs what we consume directly.
The commercial incentives, or lack thereof
Farmers typically pay nominal fees for water, so the true cost of water doesn’t end up being reflected in the cost of, say, a cotton shirt. A key factor in why mass-produced cotton shirts can cost as little as they do, regardless of how much water they use. Water is priced in a way that ignores the notion that we might run out of it which naturally encourages farmers to use it in wasteful ways.
It doesn’t help that water-thirsty crops, including cotton, are grown in wildly inappropriate places where the natural rainfall doesn’t come close to providing the requisite amount of irrigation.
Nowhere is this clearer than India. The global average water footprint for 1kg of cotton is 10,000 litres. In India it takes a staggering 22,500 litres of water to grow 1kg of cotton! Until the demand for cheap cotton reduces and we start holding companies to account, nothing will change.
So, what can we do?
Accountability is a bit of a chicken and egg situation. As a company that provides a commodity, we are well aware of this conundrum. We personally think it has to be a combination of consumer demand and corporate action that drives change.
We can do our bit by offering a product made in the right way and educating our customers about issues which are all too easy to bypass if they don’t directly affect you. And hopefully that kickstarts the consumer demand required to cajole bigger brands to make more water-friendly decisions.
This conundrum is not exclusive to the issue of water scarcity. It applies to most of the sustainability issues the world faces, as we try to instil practices that will support our collective futures in a planet-friendly way.
As ever, let us know if you have any questions or thoughts. We’re not experts, but we'd like to engage more on the topic.