Our water footprint

Our products rely on water at all stages of their lifecycle. We have conducted detailed measurement and analysis of our water footprint to inform our strategy.

Our impacts

Our use of water resources is both direct and indirect. Water is used:

  • by our suppliers of agricultural raw materials for the growing of crops
  • in our factories both as an ingredient in our products and during the manufacturing process, and
  • by our consumers when they use our products to do their laundry, shower or cook.

In the absence of a quantified value for the water used in agriculture, our biggest impacts occur in the use of our laundry and personal care products.

Measuring our water footprint

Using 2008 as our baseline we have assessed the water impact of 1 600 of our products in 14 countries, representing over 70% of our volume sales. We conducted this assessment using our metric which measures the water in the product as well as the water required for its use. We have done this on a ‘per consumer use’ basis, eg the water needed for one hair wash with shampoo. Our water metric excludes the water used in our manufacturing operations which we measure as part of our eco-efficiency programme.

We chose to base our analysis on seven countries that we have defined as water-scarce. These are: China, India, Indonesia, Mexico, South Africa, Turkey and the US, representing around half of the world’s population. In our definition of water scarcity, we evaluate of how many people in each country experience physical water scarcity as well as the number of people who have access to an improved water source. This means our assessment considers social issues of access as well as environmental factors.

Our water footprint by category (2008)

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USLP logoIn November 2010, as part of our Sustainable Living Plan, we set an ambitious target to halve the water associated with the consumer use of our products by 2020. 

Understanding our footprint

Our analysis has helped us to see which of our product categories are more water-intensive than others, and therefore yield the biggest opportunities for reductions. For example, nearly 40% of our water footprint comes from the laundry process – and a significant proportion of this comes from washing clothes by hand in the developing world.

We recognise that there is a significant volume of water associated with the sourcing of our raw materials, but we cannot currently measure it accurately. We aim to extend our metric to include raw materials, and we are actively supporting international efforts to develop the methodology of water footprinting as, for example, through our membership of the Water Footprint Network.

Our Footprint

To see the data behind the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan we have devised a Product Analyser that shows the environmental impact of a selection of our products across their lifecycle. This provides the greenhouse gases, water or waste impacts of a representative food, home or personal care product on a 'per consumer use' basis. So, at the touch of a button, people can find out the greenhouse gas emissions associated with one cup of tea or the water use for one wash with laundry powder or the waste associated with one use of a roll-on deodorant. See the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan for more.