500 Gallons of Water in Every Burger

December 3, 2009 Updated: December 3, 2009

GOTHENBURG, Sweden—Ever wonder how much water it takes to make a pair of blue jeans? Likely not, but you might start to once there are global standards for measuring how much “hidden” water is needed to make the goods we use every day.

The Swedish Standards Institute (SIS) is working on creating this standard for measuring the “water footprint” that will be able to compare water consumption across products and countries.

For example, it takes over 792 gallons of water to make and maintain those blue jeans over a lifetime according to Levi Strauss; 53 gallons of irrigation water is required to produce the enough sugar for a single can of Coke; the meat, bread, onions, lettuce, and dressing used to produce one burger consumes 528 gallons of water.

According to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), cotton items like jeans and T-shirts can consume between 1,840 – 2,110 gallons of water over the lifetime of the clothes.

Although Sweden is home to around a quarter of a million lakes, including the many small ones, there are other places in the world where people must travel miles on foot to fetch their water. This makes the issue of water consumption highly relevant for companies with production facilities in such countries.

Anna Forslund, water adviser of WWF Sweden, calls cotton a “thirsty crop" requiring a lot of water and growing in arid regions where farming methods can be inefficient.

India, for example, is the world’s second highest cotton producer and is currently experiencing its worst draught in 40 years.

The exact figure for the water footprint of your jeans therefore isn’t consistent because it depends on the amount of cotton is in your jeans, the country where the cotton is grown, and the local climate, said Forslund.

“Although the water shortage nowadays as well as the carbon dioxide issue is a global problem, since patterns of trade and our consumption have an impact on the water situation, the solutions to water problems must, unlike carbon dioxide, always be found locally,” said Forslund.

The average Swedish citizen uses 567,970 gallons water per year. Globally, the average is 413,165 gallons while in the U.S. the footprint is 764,778 gallons per person, according to the WWF. India’s water footprint is roughly a third of that at 258,888 gallons.

While 70 percent of the earth’s surface is covered by water, only 2.5 percent is fresh water and of that, only 1 percent is easily available to human beings.

According to Anneli Rafiq, project manager at SIS the water footprint standard should take three years to develop and should, if all goes according to plan, be in place by 2012.