Our water strategy

The Unilever Sustainable Living Plan commits us to halving the water associated with the consumer use of our products by 2020.

Our approach

Water shortages are an increasingly common concern around the world and are exacerbated by a number of factors including climate change and population increase. By 2025, 1.8 billion people will be living in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity and two-thirds in water-stressed conditions.To grow our business sustainably, we must reduce the total amount of water used across our value chain - from raw material sourcing through to the design of our products.

Using 2008 as our baseline we have assessed the water footprint of over 1,600 of our products in seven water-scarce countries, accounting for around half the world’s population. They include China, India and the US. This is based on our water metric which currently considers only the water in the product and the water used by consumers in water-scarce countries.

We are making progress in considering water use across the value chain. In 2012 we estimated the water used to produce our agricultural raw materials. Our estimate is that when agricultural water is included, 85% of the water use associated with our products occurs in the consumer use phase.

Water used in our manufacturing operations is captured separately as part of our eco-efficiency in manufacturing programme.

The work we conducted on our footprint has helped us to develop our strategy and set targets to manage our impact. See Our water footprint.

Our strategy

Our strategic approach to water covers reducing water in agriculture, manufacturing and the water associated with consumer use.

  • Water in agriculture: we have made a commitment to source 100% of our agricultural raw materials sustainably by 2020, according to the Unilever Sustainable Agriculture Code. One of the 11 indicators in the Code relates to water. The requirements of the Code are shared with all our suppliers of agricultural raw materials who must comply with our ‘Scheme Rules’. We are working with them to minimise water, and pollution, from growing our key crops.

Since 2010 we have worked with the Water Footprint Network to measure our agricultural water impact. We have learnt that our priority water-intensive crops are tomatoes and sugar cane and that overall our footprint is lower than we had previously estimated. We have been working with our tomato suppliers for many years and we will continue to introduce drip irrigation to our suppliers for this and other crops. See Our water footprint for more.

  • Water in manufacturing: we have set a target that by 2020 water abstraction by our global factory network will be at or below 2008 levels. We have made good progress through continuous improvement and since 2008 we have saved the equivalent of around 1.5 litres of water for every person on the planet. We also have a target that all newly built factories will aim to abstract less than half the water of those in our 2008 baseline. See Reducing water use in manufacturing.

  • Water in consumer use: one of the seven commitments of the Plan is to halve the water associated with the consumer use of our products by 2020 in seven water-scarce countries which represent more than half the world’s population. The water used by our consumers in washing and cleaning is approximately seven times greater than the water embedded in the agricultural raw materials we buy.

For people in emerging countries, the proportion of their household water needed for washing clothes can be considerable, taking up to one-third of a their water supply. To meet their needs, we are making some progress in designing and rolling out products which require less water. See Water use by consumers.

An analysis of our absolute water footprint associated with the consumer use of our products shows that around 38% comes from the laundry process – a significant proportion of this is washing laundry by hand in the developing world. A further 39% comes from showering, bathing and washing hair with our products. The water associated with cooking with our food products is minimal in comparison.

Our future strategy for water therefore focuses on our most material impacts – in personal care and laundry. The main approach will be to design innovative products and tools which help consumers reduce water when doing the laundry, showering and washing hair, combined with behaviour change programmes to help shift to a new habit.

Why it matters

Water stress is a very local issue affecting regions and countries differently. Therefore, the social, environmental and political aspects of managing water differ greatly between countries and even within countries.

The average amount of water people use varies across the world but increases with industrialisation. The United Nations states that each person needs 50-100 litres of water per day for drinking, cooking and washing. Yet in the poorest countries people live on as little as10 litres a day.

The collection of water, typically undertaken by women, is also an issue. According to the UN, sub-saharan Africa alone loses 40 billion hours per year collecting water. In 2010 the UN stressed the importance of this precious resource as it declared safe and clean water to be a basic human right.

Some 70% of total water consumption around the world is used for agriculture. As global populations grow, so too do the demands from farming. Furthermore, access to fresh water is increasingly problematic as demand grows and water sources become polluted. Even where adequate supplies of clean water exist, they may simply be unaffordable to people on low incomes.

Climate change will exacerbate the problem of water scarcity. Where this pressure on water supplies brings communities and countries into opposition, social and political conflicts may arise.

Future challenges

The largest part of our water footprint is associated with showering, bathing and washing clothes, just as our greenhouse gas footprint is associated with heating that water for showers.

In those parts of the developing world where water is scarce, women often have to walk long distances to collect water, or they have to become ‘water managers’ in the home – storing and rationing scarce water carefully. If we can develop more innovations like Comfort One Rinse, which reduce the water needed for doing the laundry, these will save people time collecting water as well as being more convenient when doing the laundry.

Long-term lack of investment in water infrastructure will exacerbate the problem of water scarcity in many countries. We need to work in partnership with governments, NGOs and consumers to address and manage water use effectively. Water pricing and water metering, alongside consumer education, will ultimately be necessary to drive systemic change.

External recognition

Unilever has participated in the CDP’s Water Request for Information since collection started four years ago. This initiative aims to improve and standardise corporate water measurement and reporting and raise awareness of water-related issues. In 2013 more than 593 of the world’s largest companies engaged with CDP to enable effective measurement and management of water-related issues including reduction of risks and detrimental impacts. The resulting report ‘Moving beyond business as usual’ was backed by 530 institutional investors representing approximately $57 trillion in assets.

Unlike the CDP Investor (carbon) request, companies are not ranked or scored on either the quality of their disclosures or on their performance in water management. Individual company responses are available to read on the CDP website.