Water is a precious resource. Although we live on a blue planet, only 0.5% is available, fresh water. The rest is locked up in glaciers and ice caps or forms saline water in oceans too salty for drinking or growing crops.

Today, 2.2 billion people lack safely managed drinking water, and around 20% of the world’s population live in areas of physical water scarcity and changing weather patterns caused by the climate crisis. Increasing pollution from untreated wastewater is expected to compound this further.

So imagine a day when you could swim in rivers that run through your city, when waterways flow naturally and habits are healthy, when the growing of food restores the water quality and green jobs support a healthy economy. Imagine a time when wastewater could be considered a nutrient-rich energy source to be recovered and reused, a time when people all over the world have access to safe clean water to meet all their needs.

Water is a shared resource we all depend on

Our end-to-end business is dependent on continued access to water - from our farmers and raw material suppliers to our manufacturing sites and the consumers who require it to use our products.

And because it's a shared resource, everyone can influence how it is used and managed. As a business we're taking this responsibility seriously.

Three commitments to protect and preserve water

In June 2020, as part of our Climate and Nature goals, we set out ways to move from a strategy focused on improving water efficiency across our value chain to one that works to improve water security for everyone.

We made three commitments:

  • To make our product formulations biodegradable by 2030
  • To implement water stewardship programmes around 100 Unilever manufacturing sites in water-stressed locations
  • To join the 2030 Water Resources Group (2030 WRG) to contribute to transformative change and build water management resilience in key water-stressed markets.

These come on top of our continued commitment to develop water smart products and drive water efficiency and the nearly 50% we’ve saved in the last 10 years across our manufacturing sites.

Partnerships are key to our engagement on water resource management. Here are just six of the actions we are taking to create societal and business value on the journey to a water-secure future for all.

1. Through product formulations

We’re aiming to make our product ingredients and formulations biodegradable by 2030 – this means that the ingredients in our products are capable of being completely broken down naturally in the environment.

Today, more than 90% of our ingredients in our Home Care and Beauty & Personal Care portfolio are biodegradable. We’re using science and technology to continually trial and assess new formulations across a range of our products.

One example in our Home Care division is our partnership with speciality chemicals company Clariant to develop more nature-based ingredients in laundry liquids such as Omo. Clariant have helped us develop ‘soil release’ polymers, which are more biodegradable and renewable than previous ingredients while still giving great cleaning.

Product formulations are also in development that work to help consumers use less water and achieve the same results. For example, on the back of research that found that 95% of conditioner ends up washed down the drain, Unilever’s Beauty and Personal Care division created a brand called ‘the good stuff’, which offers a leave-in conditioner made to nourish hair without weighing it down. Watch out for more new product innovations coming soon.

“#Water2Me is about connecting with consumers,” says Omo Brand Manager Beatriz Machado. “We want to connect with consumers through something they care about. So they think of us as top performers not just because of a quality product but also because we are impacting the environment positively.”

2. Through nature-based solutions

Our Knorr brand and WWF are working on a three-year programme for water source protection in Northern Drakensberg, South Africa. It aims to improve biodiversity and environmental services across 200 hectares. As well as supporting up to 250 million litres of water released through replacement of invasive specifies with native ones, it’s creating jobs in the region. This region forms a vital part of the Integrated Vaal River System, which supplies most of the water in the Gauteng province in South Africa, and the programme has a key role in integrating drought-resistant crops into Knorr’s supply chain.

“#Water2Me is partnership for preservation,” says Knorr Sustainability Marketer Dorothy Shaver. “It’s about working together to safeguard this precious resource for future food supply.”

Farmer in field tending crop

Farmers and Knorr are using crop species native to South Africa to help safeguard water

3. Through new business models

Hindustan Unilever Limited and HSBC Bank have recently partnered to open a fifth Suvidha community hygiene centre in Mumbai. These centres offer affordable drinking water, clean flushing toilet facilities for women, men and children, accessible toilets for people with disabilities, facilities for feminine hygiene needs and state-of-the-art laundry services for urban low-income households.

Another partnership opening up secure and affordable access to water is TRANSFORM, a joint initiative between Unilever, the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) and EY. TRANSFORM aims to accelerate impact enterprises – social enterprises that create positive social change – by blending funding and support to deliver market-based solutions to the world’s biggest development challenges in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. One social enterprise supported is Drinkwell.

Drinkwell partners with utilities and provides filtration technology and ATM-enabled services that support pay-as-you-go water to low-income urban households in Bangladesh who are not currently supplied by piped network systems. Working through the Pureit brand, Unilever has been supporting Drinkwell to scale.

“#Water2Me is about market transformation,” says Prashanth Venkatesh, Unilever Brand Director. “The joy of working on this is when you see thousands of people coming day in and day out and using our facilities. Many tell us that it’s actually transformed their lives.”

A Suvidha community hygiene centre in Mumbai

Suvidha centres offer affordable drinking water and clean flushing toilets to Mumbai’s urban low-income households

4. Through stewardship programmes

In September 2020 we started our first wave of Water Stewardship activities in 12 of our manufacturing sites across four water-stressed locations in Turkey, Brazil, South Africa and Indonesia.

“Through innovation, partnership and stewardship, we can change the narrative around water from one that’s solely focused on risk to one that is focused on resilience. From one where water is a threat to one that is thinking about water as an opportunity,” explains Rochi Khemka, Global Partnership Co-ordinator with the 2030 Water Resources Group.

In Konya, Turkey, for example, much of the water used by our ice cream factory comes from groundwater – a shared aquifer used by other industry and agriculture organisations. Unregulated irrigation in the region is resulting in declining ground levels. Today, the factory is implementing water recycling and reuse practices. And this year the site has been applying the Alliance for Water Stewardship standard, broadening water security engagement with other stakeholders in the region.

“#Water2Me is about being a pioneer,” says Konya Ice Cream Environmental Engineer Pinar Tuncer. “Being pioneers, being stewards and being mindful about water is very important to preserving it for the future.”

5. Through finance

In Belgium, one of our Knorr suppliers is recycling an annual 155,000 cubic metres of vegetable wastewater from their factory to irrigate their farmers’ field crops. With funding from the European Union, the local province of West-Vlaanderen, Ardo and the Knorr Partnership Fund (KPF), a co-operative of local farmers built a €3.3 million reservoir and piping system which provides 50 vegetable growers with access to recycled vegetable wastewater for crop irrigation. It’s now being scaled up to give more farmers access so they can use irrigation water more efficiently.

“#Water2Me is about best practice,” says Cornelie Smallegange, Sustainable Sourcing Assistant Manager. “We are working with suppliers to implement techniques to provide water only when necessary and at the right time. And we do that with techniques like drones, satellites and advanced water management software systems.”

6. Through digital

Working through the 2030 Water Resources Group Bangladesh Water Multi-Stakeholder Partnership, Unilever’s Pureit brand has launched a month-long youth challenge to find solutions to drive better water use through awareness, benchmarking and behaviour change. The aim is support the Dhaka Water and Sewerage Authority with improved infrastructure investments. Applications close on 31 March 2021.

Meanwhile, in India, where the practice of flooding rice fields is a major cause for Punjab’s declining water table, the Hindustan Unilever Foundation and a partner NGO are working with rice paddy farmers using digital solutions to help rural communities tackle water insecurity.

Customised soil moisture sensors are placed in farmer fields, and each sensor measures moisture levels and sends data in real time to servers in the cloud. When moisture levels drop in the soil, the farmer receives a text message to irrigate his fields. Once soil moisture reaches the correct level, they get another message to stop the pump. This detailed and precise advice allows the farmers to let the fields dry up and flood alternately, saving 50% of water, electricity and fertiliser.

“#Water2Me is the unifier for our collective future,” says Reshma Anand, CEO of the Hindustan Unilever Foundation. ‘It’s a source of deep inequity and great joy. A source of conflict and immense collaboration. How you harness all of that into meaningful change is probably the most important problem that we should set ourselves to solve.”

Find out more about why people at Unilever value water in this film created to celebrate World Water Day.

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