Changing Planet

The Water Costs of the Choices We Make

This interactive shows how consumer choices impact river basins around the world.


In the crush of advertising from Black Friday to Super Saturday, all geared toward revving up our holiday buying, one ad stood out like an oasis in the desert.

It was a full-page spread in the New York Times from Patagonia, the California-based retailer of outdoor apparel, and it was repeated online on Cyber Monday.  The ad depicts the company’s popular R2 Jacket, with big bold type above it urging, DON’T BUY THIS JACKET.

On the surface, it seems like corporate suicide:  A company asking the world not to buy one of the most popular items it makes – and during the holiday season, to boot?

But from at least this one company’s perspective, this wasn’t an act of suicide, but of sustainability.

The scale of human consumption is draining rivers, depleting groundwater, eroding soils and wracking up ecological debts with consequences for our future far more severe than those of the financial debts that have sent economies the world over into a tailspin.

Patagonia explained its unusual request:  “Because Patagonia wants to be in business for a good long time – and leave a world inhabitable for our kids – we want to do the opposite of every other business today.  We ask you to buy less and to reflect before you spend a dime on this jacket or anything else.”

It’s a call, in a way, for a new spirit of buying – one that considers the Earth as well as each other.  It’s a call to replace rampant consumption with conscious consumption.  It’s a call for each of us to walk lighter on this finite and precious planet.

With our partners, the Water Footprint Network and The Nature Conservancy, National Geographic’s Freshwater Initiative has just launched a tool to help us all take a step in that direction.   It shows where the American water footprint lands around the globe, and how our consumption of coffee and cotton, barley and rice impacts river basins the world over.

This tool is the third in our National Geographic water footprint toolkit.  Hidden Water reveals how much H2O is embedded in everyday products – from our morning cup of coffee to a juicy hamburger. Our Water Footprint Calculator helps you figure out your personal water footprint – how many gallons flow through your life every day.  (Your number might surprise you!)  Now, with our global water footprint map, we can trace our collective American water footprint to rivers the world over.

So have some fun.  Learn what river basins supply the water for your chocolate fix (hint: several are in West Africa), or for your afternoon snack of nuts (think California), or for the coconut for your cream pie (good chance it’s a river in Indonesia).

Learn more about the water costs to the Earth of our everyday choices.  And then figure out some ways to shrink your personal water footprint.

Most importantly this holiday season, let’s take the Earth into account in our buying as well as our giving.

View the interactive

Sandra Postel directs the independent Global Water Policy Project and lectures, writes, and consults on international water issues. She is also Freshwater Fellow of the National Geographic Society, and serves as lead water expert for the Society's freshwater initiative. Sandra is the author of several acclaimed books, including the award-winning Last Oasis, the basis for a PBS documentary. Her essay "Troubled Waters" was selected for Best American Science and Nature Writing. Sandra is a Pew Scholar in Conservation and the Environment, and has been named one of the "Scientific American 50" for her contributions to water policy.

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