Revealed: The shocking amount of resources needed to make products such as mobile phones, coffee and T-shirts

The sheer scale of the resources used to make everyday products such as coffee and T-shirts – often in parts of the world where the environment is under strain – is laid bare in a new report, showing that 240 gallons of water is needed to make a smartphone.

The “resource footprint” report, commissioned by Friends of the Earth, finds that water and land use can be reduced considerably when companies consider the environment in their manufacturing processes. But all too often, it says, producers pay scant regard to the strain they are putting on crucial resources, putting extra stress on an environment that is already stretched to the limit.

“The snug fit of that phone in your pocket or the crumpled heap of boots in the corner masks the breathtaking amounts of land and water required to make our favorite products,” said Friends of the Earth’s resource use campaigner Julian Kirby. “The good news is that armed with land and water footprint information, companies can redesign products and business models, to save cash and tread more lightly on the Earth.”

The Water Footprint Assessment Tool is a free online web application that provides clear insight into how water is appropriated for human uses and the impacts resulting from those uses.

The research is the most thorough to be conducted into the footprint of everyday items. It looks at how much land is used as well as the amount of water – which it breaks down into three types: blue (freshwater), green (rainwater) and grey (water lost to pollution).

How Big Is Your Water Footprint? You’ll Be Surprised

Check out the calculator here.

GRACE Communications Foundation built the new Water Footprint Calculator to help people figure out how much water they use through a series of simple questions about their daily routines. The calculator accounts for not just how much water we use from the tap, but also the water it takes to produce the food we eat, the energy we use and the products we buy. This is called “virtual water,” and it is by far the biggest part of our water footprint.

The almond and its surprisingly large water footprint (one gallon – per nut!), has recently become the poster child for virtual water, but this world of hidden water is far bigger than thirsty almond groves. Consider these surprising numbers on the unseen water in everyday items:

  • A single avocado uses 60 gallons of water to grow
  • One cell phone takes 240 gallons to manufacture
  • It takes 713 gallons to produce one cotton t-shirt
  • A hamburger uses 660 gallons of water to make
  • One gallon of gasoline takes three-to-six gallons of water to produce

We need to think of the big picture and in creative ways. Choosing pasture-raised instead of industrially produced meat, for example, will support farmers who don’t rely largely on feed grains irrigated with limited groundwater or surface water supplies. Investing in energy efficiency or even renewable energy at home will help reduce our need for water-dependent power plants. Avoiding “fast fashion” clothing brands and instead buying vintage or well-made and long-lasting pieces will reduce how much water is required to grow cotton and manufacture your clothes.

Water is indeed everywhere, but it is also needed to do just about anything. The important first step that we can all take right now is to find out how much water we really use. The daily choices we make to waste less water today, whether directly through the tap or virtually through our food, energy and shopping habits, can help us make sure that there’s enough for all of us now and in the future.

To learn about the water footprint of production for your country or others, go to the Water Footprint Assessment tool. To calculate your own personal water footprint (of consumption) try the Personal water footprint calculator.

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