We really only think about our water usage when we’re actually using it. For example, when we buy a one-litre bottle of water, we just think about the litre of water in our shopping bag. But there are a lot of hidden factors involved. Did you know, for example, that it takes 1.39 litres of water in order to make a one-litre bottle? This valuation of the total amount of water used to make the products you eat, or drink is known as the ‘virtual water content’ (VWC) amount.

What is virtual water content?

Everything you eat or drink at work uses water in its production. This includes watering the plants we eat and giving the animals enough to drink. It also incorporates the direct use of water in cleaning, production, packaging, and transport, as well as indirect use, such as the water used by the farm and farmers. So, whatever you consume will have a virtual water content, and the more processed your food and drink is, the higher the VWC.

However, there are also huge variables in virtual water content when it comes to crops and farm animals. Soy has a higher VWC than wheat, for example. Meat products have a much higher VWC than crops because the water used to produce the crops that feed the livestock is also considered. And the larger the animal, the more it consumes and therefore the higher the VWC.

Water footprint

It’s not just how much water is used in the production of your morning coffee - there are other variables that are taken into consideration. The Water Footprint Network (WFN) has gone further, splitting the water used in food and drink production into three subcategories: Green, Blue and Grey.

  • The Green water footprint derives from rain in the soil that is used by plants.
  • The Blue water footprint comes from the water that’s extracted from surface or groundwater sources.
  • The Grey water footprint is the additional amount of water that’s required to assimilate pollutants to enable the water to meet quality standards.

How what you eat and drink at work affects the environment

The WFN has calculated the global average water footprints of the most common products consumed at the workplace, and published them in its Product Gallery.

Tea or coffee?

It’s always great when a colleague offers to make you a cuppa, but if you’re undecided whether you want tea or coffee, it might be useful to know its VWC to help you decide. According to the WFN, a 125ml cup of coffee takes 132 litres of water to produce, but tea only uses 27 litres. So, if you’re thinking about your environmental impact, you might want to cut down on the coffee.

Most of us like to put milk into our tea and coffee, but even our choice of milk will have an impact. A study published by UNESCO’s Institute for Water Education showed that the water footprint of a litre of soy milk is 297 litres, whereas the water footprint of a litre of cow’s milk is 1,050 litres. If your company is having a water efficiency drive, it might be a good idea to educate your employees to try plant-based milks instead.

Lunch and snacking

Bananas are a cheap and popular snack to take into work, and so are apples. But it’s surprising to find out that apples have a slightly higher VWC than bananas. A kilogram of bananas has a water footprint of 790 litres, whereas a kilogram of apples is 822 litres.

When it comes to lunchtime, you’ll probably nip to the shop for a sandwich. This is where we’re luckier in Western Europe as the water footprint of wheat is a lot lower than the global average of 1,608 litres per kilogram. But even so, the global average is 80 litres of water per slice of bread.

What you choose as your sandwich filling also has implications, especially if you think you’re being more sustainable by adding avocado. Simply growing one avocado takes 227 litres of water, but avocados can only grow in hot countries, which leads to huge problems. In Chile, droughts have been caused by the need to water avocado crops. Farmers have illegally diverted river water resulting in the rivers drying up and people who live downstream losing their source of water. In Mexico, deforestation is commonplace to make way for the so-called ‘green gold’ crops, which has caused loss of habitat, an increase in temperatures and more powerful cyclones. Mexico also suffers from illegal water extraction which has been shown to be the cause of small, localised earthquakes.

Perhaps you fancy grabbing a burger instead? Bear in mind that a 150g soy burger has a water footprint of 158 litres, whereas a 150g beef burger’s water footprint is 2,350 litres. Even if you opt for a simple margherita pizza, you’re still using an average of 1,259 litres - though this footprint varies around the world.

Finally, if you fancy something sweet for your afternoon snack, you may want to stick with fruit. Producing a 100g bar of chocolate uses an average of 1,700 litres of water, whereas for an orange, it’s just 80 litres.

So next time you put the kettle on or are thinking about getting a sweet snack to keep you going, think about making a choice based on your water footprint.

Water efficiency for your business

If you’re looking to start implementing water efficiency measures in your business, start by reading our helpful Water Efficiency Guide which is packed with easy and practical tips to help your business save water and money. It’s also useful to do a simple review of your business water usage by using our free Site Walk Around Checklist.

SWITCH & SAVE UP TO 80%

We're saving UK businesses up to 80% on their business water fixed charges, with more 5-star Trustpilot reviews than all other water retailers combined

Get a quote