Water use by consumers

Our deep understanding of what motivates consumers gives us a unique opportunity to encourage people to make small changes to their everyday habits.


Reducing water use where it matters most

As a consumer goods company, we put the needs of the consumer at the heart of what we do. When it comes to the water used with our products, we have conducted research on local consumer habits as well as how to motivate changes in behaviour. These insights will enable us to develop new products and innovative formulations that require less water in their use. Reducing the quantity of water required for handwashing laundry can, for example, free up water in the home for other important uses.

Creating water-efficient products

An assessment of our product portfolio shows that our laundry, skin and hair products account for over three-quarters of our water footprint. This is because of the large amount of water needed to wash clothes or take a bath. Using innovative technology, we have created laundry products that require less water in use.

Water can have an impact on the affordability of our products. In developing and emerging countries, scarcity and shortages mean that water is often costly for consumers to purchase. By developing products that use less water we can help consumers save money too.

Laundry products that save water

Our Unilever Sustainable Living Plan sets stretching targets for reducing the water people need to do their laundry.

Targets & performance

Reduce water use in the laundry process (M)

We will reduce the water required in the laundry process by:

  • Making easier rinsing products more widely available.
  • Providing 50 million households in water-scarce countries with laundry products that deliver excellent results but use less water by 2020.
  • In 2012 we launched Comfort One Rinse, our fabric conditioner, in India and Cambodia and expanded the Comfort One Rinse range in Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines.
  • In 2012 One Rinse products were used in 1.4 billion washes in 28.7 million households worldwide, a 66% increase on 2010.
  • achieved
  • on-plan
  • off-plan
  • %of target achieved

† Independently assured by PwC - see Independent assurance

Our perspective

We assessed both these targets as off-plan in our last Progress Report 2011. Compared to 2011, we now have more projects agreed in our innovation pipeline that give us confidence we will make greater progress in the coming years. We have also significantly expanded One Rinse products and sales are growing, so we have assessed our progress as back on-plan to reach our 2020 target.

Changing laundry habits

In water-scarce countries, around 38% of domestic water is used to clean clothes. In many of these areas, people wash garments by hand. More water is used in the rinsing phase than in the cleaning part of the laundry process. A few years ago we developed a fabric conditioner called ‘One Rinse’. With this product consumers only need one bucket for rinsing out detergent residues rather than three buckets, saving time, effort and up to half the water per wash, around 30 litres, if used correctly.

We have increased the availability of single-rinse products through the launch of new variants as well as making One Rinse available through more sales outlets. In 2012 we continued to introduce this product to new countries and it is now available in India and Cambodia. It has a leading position in some markets, accounting for 38% of the fabric conditioner market in Vietnam and has risen to a quarter of the market in Indonesia.

The potential water saving is huge. Around 500 billion litres of water would be saved if all our laundry consumers in Asia and South Africa used One Rinse, and used it in the right way. Although the potential is large, the use of these products is still relatively small and we still have much to do to hit this target. This builds on work we have been doing for many years using our consumer understanding and marketing expertise to encourage consumers to change everyday laundry habits in developed markets.

Communications campaigns

We support an industry-led pan-European communications campaign called ‘Washright’(Link opens in a new window) that uses on-pack advice, an internet site and TV advertising to give consumers information on how to get the laundry results they need with the least environmental impact. The guidelines were developed by the International Association for Soaps, Detergents and Maintenance Products (AISE).(Link opens in a new window)

For many years, as part of our membership of AISE, we have encouraged consumers in Europe to save water and energy by adopting more sustainable laundry habits. Using colder, quicker wash cycles where possible, doing a full load when machine washing and avoiding the pre-wash cycle will all save energy, time and money.

We continue to promote the Save Energy and Water Campaign to promote sustainable machine dishwashing, by including usage advice on our labels.

Understanding consumer behaviour is key to success. We use a variety of tools and techniques to enhance our knowledge, such as the use of electronic loggers which we are trialling in washing machines. The loggers help us assess the energy and water impacts of laundry by tracking how long the machine runs, how fast it spins and the temperature and amount of water used. This information will enable us to design more effective communication campaigns as well as plan product design.

Skin cleansing & hair washing products

Given our target to reduce the amount of water associated with the consumer use of our products, we need to find ways that allow consumers to continue to enjoy showers while reducing their impact on scarce water supplies. This is one of our greatest challenges.

Our skin cleansing products alone account for approximately one-third of Unilever’s total water footprint.

But the water actually contained in our products is less than 1% of the total.

Target & performance

Reduce water use in skin cleansing and hair washing (M)

  • By 2015 we intend to reach 200 million consumers with products and tools that will help them to use less water while washing and showering. Our goal is to reach 400 million by 2020.
  • In 2012 we have improved our understanding of this area but progress remains slow.
  • achieved
  • on-plan
  • off-plan
  • %of target achieved

Our Perspective

Around 39% of our domestic water footprint occurs when people use our soaps, shower gels and shampoos and they can be slow or reluctant to change their habits. We have undertaken several studies in different countries to improve our understanding of people’s showering behaviour and how it can be influenced.

For example, our shower study of 100 households in Australia gathered data on shower habits and the relationship between consumer behaviour and product use. We installed sensors to measure the duration, water use and frequency of showers.

We found the average shower lasts about 9 minutes, longer than the average UK shower of 8 minutes. We have also introduced two innovations that provide consumer benefits and encourage less water use: dry shampoo, which refreshes the hair without water, and Lifebuoy foam handwash which can cut water use by 18%.

Our dry shampoos allow women to refresh hair between washes, saving time and extending their style. They may also encourage people to wash their hair with hot water less often. We have now rolled out our dry shampoos to ten countries under nine brands, including TRESemmé, Suave, TiGi and VO5. Sales grew by over 19% in 2012. We are the market leader in the US with 75% share and in 2012 launched the product under the Dove brand.

We will continue to improve our products so that they demand less water for their use as well as promoting behaviour change. Our Radox brand of shower gels in South Africa gave consumers a free aerator when they purchased two products. These can be fitted to shower heads to reduce water.

Water management in India

In India more than 50% of the population lives on less than 10 litres of water a day. Demand for water resources will increase significantly as populations, economies and consumption rates grow. Estimates tell us that by 2030, the supply of water in India will be half the demand for it.

Given the enormity of the challenge that faces India on the availability of water and its nexus with food and livelihood security, we have set up the India Water Body. Acting in partnership with governments and NGOs, Hindustan Unilever (HUL) aims to implement a holistic approach towards mitigating the economic, health and social problems caused by water scarcity.

By 2015, we hope to create a water conservation capacity of a hundred billion litres to enable a better future for a million people. We are working across the value chain using our products, such as Comfort One Rinse and Pureit as well as communicating with consumers about behaviour change. We have also established several initiatives to improve water management. For example, in Maharashtra, HUL has partnered with BAIF to build bunds, structures to harvest spring water for domestic use and a check dam in Nasik and Ahmadnagar districts.

This initiative aims to improve water availability through run-off water harvesting measures and to conserve fertile soil through moisture conservation, thus improving production from the landscape and subsequently generating more employment opportunities for the local population. About 574 litres of water will be harvested at the end of project which will bring an additional area of 287 acres under irrigation. Crop production is expected to rise by 50%.

Another example is a project in Tamil Nadu which aims to revive indigenous rainwater harvesting systems. This began in 2010 and is a partnership between HUL and the DHAN Foundation and involves reviving tank cascades (a traditional method of water storage) in the Gundar Basin, Tamil Nadu. After renovation, the tank cascades can capture and store excess run-off during monsoons. The project area covers 13 tank cascades with 250 tanks, serving many across almost 70 villages in Madurai, Ramanad, Sivagangai and Virudhunagar districts. It will create the capacity to conserve 11.3 billion litres of water in the project area, increase crop production and generate additional net income for the farmers.

Understanding showering in the UK and Australia

In 2011 our UK business undertook a study to better understand shower habits. The aim of the research was to use the findings to encourage consumers to save energy, water and money.

Using a shower sensor, an innovative technology, researchers were able to monitor actual showering behaviour, rather than relying on self-reporting which until now has been the only way of understanding shower habits. The study monitored 2,600 showers taken by 100 families over ten days – totalling 1,000 days of research.

Results, published in the Sustainable Showering Study, showed that the average shower is eight minutes long – three minutes longer than the received wisdom of the ‘five minute shower’ – and costs the average UK family £416 a year [around €500]. The study helped us to understand the triggers for changing people’s behaviour. The methodology was rolled out to a showering study in Australia in 2012.

Tackling water scarcity in Saudi Arabia

In January 2012 we signed a memorandum of understanding with the Saudi Arabian National Water Company (NWC) to address water scarcity. A water study by NWC identified that laundry, household cleaning, personal hygiene and dishwashing – all areas where our products are used – accounted for 83% of Saudi Arabian domestic water use. The project’s aim is to educate children and families about the importance of water conservation.

Water quality

Our commitment to water sustainability also extends to the quality of water once products have been used by consumers. This is reviewed by our Safety & Environmental Assurance Centre in line with our policies on ingredients and materials in products. See Environmental safety for more information.

In addition to this, our Pureit water purifier provides high-quality drinking water for our consumers in India and elsewhere. It improves lives by providing people with safe, affordable drinking water where supplies are of poor quality, without the need for gas, electricity or a pressurised water supply.

In our Unilever Sustainable Living Plan we have set ourselves an ambitious target to reach 500 million people with the Pureit in-home water purifier by 2020. We believe our technology has the potential to bring safe, affordable drinking water to millions more people in the developing world. So far, a total of 45 million people have gained access to safe drinking water from Pureit since its launch in 2005. See Providing safe drinking water for more information.

We have also been working with the Royal Society of Chemistry and the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa to investigate the possible uses of ‘greywater’ (water that has been used for washing dishes or laundry).

Greywater is a potential source of water and nutrients which could aid plant growth, but it also poses a challenge because of its salt content. The project is evaluating the suitability of greywater for growing vegetables in South Africa. Initial results are encouraging and show that laundry greywater does not inhibit plant growth.