Reduce Your Water Footprint: Simple Changes, Big Impact

From Chad Hunter, Aspiration's Head of Sustainability.

Hello Aspiration community!

Welcome back to the next chapter in my ongoing series on sustainable living. Today, I’d like to talk about one of the most important resources we have and how it relates to living sustainably: water.

This was a topic I’ve heard a lot about but never really dove into the research, so it was a fun one for me (and hopefully you’ll find it interesting as well!). Let’s go! 🚀

 

💡 Key Takeaways:

  1. Indirect water usage, especially from your diet, likely accounts for the majority of your water consumption. Most people don't realize how their daily choices impact water resources.
  2. Animal-based foods generally have a much higher water footprint than plant-based options. Reducing meat consumption can save the equivalent of 33 showers per day! (Ruini et al. 2015)
  3. While food is a major factor, direct water use at home shouldn't be ignored. Simple changes in bathrooms, laundry, and landscaping can add up to significant savings.

 

🙌  How to take action today:

  1. Eat More Plants, Less Meat: Try plant-based meals a few times a week. Even just small dietary changes or reducing beef consumption can make a significant difference in water consumption.
  2. Fix, Upgrade, Conserve: Address plumbing leaks, consider water-efficient appliances, and change habits (shorter showers, wait for full washing machine loads) to save direct water usage in your home.

A Quick Introduction to Water Conservation


Water conservation simply means that you are using water efficiently and reducing unnecessary water usage. 

It’s so important to conserve water because freshwater is a limited and valuable resource, not just for humans but for all living things.

The Surprising Way You Use More Water Than You Think


Pop quiz: What uses the most water in your daily life? Is it your shower? Your laundry? Your dishwasher? Landscaping? That gallon of water you carry around at the gym? 🏋️

None of the above! 🤔 (Most likely of course! Everyone’s situation is unique so I can’t be totally sure, but I’m pretty sure.)

It turns out that indirect water usage (sometimes called “virtual” water usage) of the food you eat is the largest contributor to how much water you use and are responsible for. Don’t believe me? Read on to find out more. 🧠

 

 



Direct vs. Indirect Water Usage


First, let’s talk about your direct water usage versus your indirect water usage. Direct water usage can be thought of as the water usage that you directly use in your home or life. For example, this could include the water that you use for your shower, that you drink, that you used to wash dishes, or the water you use to water your lawn. 🚿

Indirect water usage is all the water that is associated with the goods or services that you purchase. For example, indirect water usage could include the water that was used to grow the food that you eat or that was involved in the manufacturing process of the basketball you bought. 🏀 

One of the most surprising facts about water usage is that your indirect water usage is typically much higher than your direct water usage. And your indirect water usage is primarily driven by the foods that you eat. 😲


Food? Really?


I’m a data nerd so I wanted to see this for myself. 🤓 I calculated my water footprint using watercalculator.org’s online calculator and was astonished to see how my water usage stacked up (GRACE Communications Foundation 2024). The indirect water usage from food was by far the highest consumption area, accounting for nearly half of my water consumption even though I eat a mostly plant-based diet, and nearly 10 times my direct water usage. 🫢

The second largest category was from spending on other things like clothing or durable goods, and I barely shop! Third was my dog’s food which makes sense given how much water it takes to produce food. 🐕 Well below these were other areas that I’ve typically focused much more on from a water sustainability perspective, like showers and washing dishes.


Your hidden water usage


While the calculator was really eye-opening, I had to do some more research on this, especially the impact of food. My findings continued to surprise me! 😅

It turns out that the food we eat is critical to reducing how much water we use. And that within food, animal based foods typically require significantly more water than plant-based foods. For example, eating a diet that contained higher amounts of animal products (in particular, beef) versus one with lower amounts of animal products used over 2,700 gallons more water each week (not to mention the reduction in energy, fertilizer, and pesticides), the equivalent of more than 150 showers per week (Marlow et al. 2015)[1]! Another study showed that eating kidney beans to get protein used 10 times less water than getting the equivalent amount of protein from beef (Sabaté et al. 2015). Finally, another study showed that eating a vegetarian diet 5 days per week compared to a more typical omnivore diet could save over 4,000 gallons of water a week, the equivalent of over 33 showers per day (Ruini et al. 2015)[2]! 🚿 


Okay, but what’s the deal with almonds?


So food is important and animal products, as shown above, can be the biggest water user within your diet. But you may have also heard about the water impact of almonds and be wondering how those stack up.

And it's true. Almonds use a significant amount of water, just over 1.5 gallons per almond (Marlow et al. 2015). However, per gram of protein, beef uses over 4.5 times as much water as almonds, and chicken or eggs use approximately half as much water as almonds (Sabaté et al. 2015). Even other nuts like walnuts and pistachios are high in water usage, so be mindful of how much you eat them (although they are incredibly healthy!) (Fulton, Norton, and Shilling 2019).


So what foods should I eat to save water?


Choose to eat more plant-based or vegetarian, but also be aware of your almond or nut consumption! If you are looking for a protein substitute, consider choosing beans and lentils as they use significantly less water (Sabaté et al. 2015) and also have the lowest carbon emissions per gram of protein (Tilman and Clark 2014). 🙌 


How to conserve water at home


Direct water consumption in your home is also really important! Why? Because this one you have a lot of control over. Most of the water we use in our homes comes from toilets (24%), showers (20%), faucets (19%), and clothes washing machines (17%) (US EPA 2017). 🚽 


4 simple examples of water conservation you can start today

  1. You have permission to “let it mellow” or opt for more efficient toilets if you need to replace yours.
  2. Take shorter showers or get a high efficiency shower head that can really improve your shower while also saving water!
  3. Don’t leave faucets on while brushing your teeth
  4. Always try to do full loads of dishes or laundry. 🧺

Re-evaluate your landscaping situation

One final big area for many locations is landscaping! If you have a yard or sprinklers, water usage for landscaping may be one of your largest direct water usage areas. Consider a sprinkler spruce-up to identify if there are any leaks or ways to reduce your water usage. Alternatively, consider lower-water usage landscaping like xeriscaping to reduce or eliminate the need for watering. 🌵 

All of these measures should help you reduce your water consumption and likely also save you money on your water bill or your electricity bill since you would have to heat less water! 💸

 

 



Wait, so how does this relate to sustainable living?


Water is essential for all life to thrive and continue to live over time. So from a sustainability perspective, we want to ensure proper management of water sources, so that they are used effectively. This can have a huge environmental impact by helping to ensure we have enough to support ourselves and the plants and animals on Earth. 🌎 

Second, building and operating the pipes, pumps, and other infrastructure to pump, treat, and heat water require significant amounts of electricity which often comes from fossil fuels. So the less water we use and treat, the less electricity and carbon dioxide emissions we generate! 💡 

By understanding which areas of our life consume the most water, either indirectly or directly, we can start to make informed decisions on how to reduce it. Food is a major area and moving towards lower-water consumption proteins like beans and lentils, we can really reduce our water consumption a lot. And in the home, we can take practical and simple steps to reduce our water consumption, save electricity, and hopefully save money as well! 👏 

 

Feedback welcome! 🙏

As always, I hope you found this insightful and actionable! To better provide you with useful content and insights on living sustainably, please share your feedback here on what you liked, didn't like, found useful, or want to understand better.

 

References

Fulton, Julian, Michael Norton, and Fraser Shilling. 2019. “Water-Indexed Benefits and Impacts of California Almonds.” Ecological Indicators 96 (January): 711–17. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecolind.2017.12.063.

GRACE Communications Foundation. 2024. “What’s Your Water Footprint.” Water Footprint Calculator. March 4, 2024. https://www.watercalculator.org/.

Marlow, Harold J., Helen Harwatt, Samuel Soret, and Joan Sabaté. 2015. “Comparing the Water, Energy, Pesticide and Fertilizer Usage for the Production of Foods Consumed by Different Dietary Types in California.” Public Health Nutrition 18 (13): 2425–32. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1368980014002833.

Ruini, Luca Fernando, Roberto Ciati, Carlo Alberto Pratesi, Massimo Marino, Ludovica Principato, and Eleonora Vannuzzi. 2015. “Working toward Healthy and Sustainable Diets: The ‘Double Pyramid Model’ Developed by the Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition to Raise Awareness about the Environmental and Nutritional Impact of Foods.” Frontiers in Nutrition 2. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnut.2015.00009.

Sabaté, Joan, Kitti Sranacharoenpong, Helen Harwatt, Michelle Wien, and Samuel Soret. 2015. “The Environmental Cost of Protein Food Choices.” Public Health Nutrition 18 (11): 2067–73. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1368980014002377.

Tilman, David, and Michael Clark. 2014. “Global Diets Link Environmental Sustainability and Human Health.” Nature 515 (7528): 518–22. https://doi.org/10.1038/nature13959.

US EPA, OW. 2017. “How We Use Water.” Overviews and Factsheets. January 16, 2017. https://www.epa.gov/watersense/how-we-use-water.


[1]  Marlow et al. report a savings of 10,252 liters per week (2015). This was converted to gallons and it was assumed each shower lasted 7 minutes and the shower head was a 2.5 gallon per minute shower head, the upper limit of U.S. federal mandates for shower heads newer than 1992.

[2] Ruini et al. report a savings of 15,527 liters per week (2015). This was converted to the equivalent number of showers using the same approach as footnote (1).




Chad Hunter is Aspiration’s Head of Sustainability, with over 13 years in the consumer sustainability, carbon accounting, and renewable energy fields. His passion is to enable and empower individual’s and organizations to take action to help solve climate change.