The theme of this year’s World Water Day was ‘water and jobs’. It recognises both the people who work in water-related sectors and the importance of water to economies – from keeping workforces healthy and productive, to providing the energy and materials that fuel growth.
Water is also essential to our own business. Unilever needs water to ensure a continuous supply of raw materials, to keep our factories running and for consumers to enjoy great results when they wash, clean and cook with our products.
To tackle increasing global water stress, we are taking action across our value chain to encourage good water stewardship in our sourcing and manufacturing operations – and to help people gain access to and enjoy the benefits of clean water, toilets and hygiene.
In doing so, we’re contributing to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal framework which brings together, for the first time, the economic, social and environmental aspects of the water cycle under one overarching ambition: Sustainable water and sanitation access for all (SDG6).
How our employees are taking action
The interviews below showcase some of the incredible work being done by six individuals across Unilever to drive sustainable water use in agriculture and manufacturing, innovate for water-saving devices and products, and help people access safe drinking water and water for sanitation and handwashing.
Meet the employees
Tell us about your role: I find ways to promote our brands and campaigns to consumers in stores across the Gulf region.
How do you work with water? The Gulf has some of the world’s lowest renewable water resources but has the highest consumption rates per capita. Research indicates that a major portion of this consumption comes from households and is three times higher than the world average. Awareness levels are exceptionally low and, in particular, discerning consumers are not willing to compromise water consumption over indulgent lifestyle choices. That’s why it’s so important that our campaigns must make an impact.
How does your job support Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan? With water so closely linked to the use of our products, Unilever Gulf has taken the onus to lead this agenda through the Water Savers initiative – a campaign to create awareness about water scarcity and educate consumers to reduce their water consumption. My work focuses on communicating these messages to shoppers. I also engage with retailers to help them set up, monitor and sustain sustainability best practices that help save water and electricity and reduce their carbon footprint.
How does your work help people, communities or the environment? We have incorporated water-saving tips endorsed by the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority on promotional packs which have reached more than 700,000 consumers. We’ve also forged partnerships with government bodies and large-scale retailers which have given our campaigns extra credibility while driving scale.
What inspired you to get involved in this type of work? Sustainability is something I personally believe in. I think this is the right thing to do for our families, communities and the world at large. Additionally, the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan provides me with the perfect opportunity to bring together my work with my passion.
What has affected or surprised you most about the things you’ve seen through your work with water? I’ve been surprised how many people are unaware of the massive shortage of water we are experiencing in the Gulf region. A lot of people want to do something but they don’t know how. This is where we’ve been able to make a difference by telling consumers about our key Water Savers brands – such as Lux Shower Gel, Lifebuoy Hand Wash, Sunlight Dishwashing Liquid and Comfort Concentrate – which deliver high efficiency with lower water consumption versus competing products.
What one thing would you suggest we can do to use water more sustainably? I think installing a water meter at home makes a big impact. It allows you to track how much water you use on a day-to-day basis, making you aware of your actual water consumption and able to take action to reduce it.
Tell us a little about your role: I lead product innovations designed to help consumers reduce the amount of water they need to do their daily dishwashing. I also drive our social enterprise model in Nigeria – the Sunlight Water Centres. Working in partnership with Oxfam and TechnoServe, we’ve established ten centres so far to provide semi-urban communities with access to clean affordable water.
How do you work with water? Household Care is the third most water-intense category in Unilever, and as consumers around the world wash their dishes on average three times a day, helping them reduce the amount they need to use presents a huge challenge and opportunity.
I’m also focused on understanding how difficult it is for millions of people to access water in the developing world. It’s usually down to the women and girls in such communities to travel miles to fetch water and the precious time they spend doing so prevents them from fulfilling their potential in school, at home or at work.
How does your job help people, communities or the environment? Globally, women spend 200 million hours every day collecting water. Our Sunlight Water Centres are making a small but significant difference in ten communities across Nigeria, giving people a safe, clean and reliable source of water close to home. It means women and girls can reclaim their time, spending it instead on looking after their families, attending school or earning an income.
What one thing can we all do to start using water more sustainably? Since we have most control of our own behaviours I would say we should start with ourselves. Most of the time we don’t even think about how much water we’re using – we’ve just got used to having it. Being a little more attentive is a good first step towards an important long-lasting impact.
Tell us about your role: My job is to design laundry products which are effective, but which allow consumers to reduce the amount of water they need to use to get the job done. It all starts with understanding consumer preferences, behaviour and practices.
How do you work with water? As a technology developer, my aim is to reduce water consumption in the handwash laundry category by applying innovative technologies which will make a difference for consumers in water-scarce locations. As well as helping deliver on the water-reduction aims of Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan, and help consumers save time and money, my goal is to give an effortless laundry experience to every Unilever handwash-powder user, in turn increasing preference for our brands and supporting business growth.
What inspired you to get involved in this type of work? I see my work as an opportunity to touch and improve people’s lives by providing them with simple solutions to save water without radically changing their habits.
What has affected or surprised you most about the things you’ve seen through your work with water? Laundry habits and consumer behaviour are so diverse globally that one solution for all does not work. That’s why we need more consumer insights to create the right solution for each market while ensuring our internal complexity doesn’t increase. It’s both my biggest challenge and the factor that constantly keeps me engaged and excited about my work.
What one thing would you suggest we can do to use water more sustainably? I believe it’s vital to educate consumers about how to use water sustainably. It’s our responsibility to do so.
Tell us about your role: I look after the environmental metrics for our manufacturing sites across South Asia. This involves working in partnership with teams at our factories in Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Pakistan, Unilever Engineering and various technology suppliers to put in place initiatives which will reduce our impact on the environment.
How do you work with water? Reducing water abstraction (drawing water from natural sources) is one of the key goals of Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan, so it’s absolutely vital to my work. Recently I’ve been involved in programmes to pilot the latest effluent treatment technologies which are just as effective as conventional treatments but require less space. I’ve also been helping to implement automated systems to reduce blowdown/bleed-off water from cooling towers, working with our R&D colleagues to identify specific wastewater treatment requirements, and carrying out water audits to identify where we can further reduce water use.
How does your job help people, communities or the environment? Minimising the environmental impact of our manufacturing process is the main aim of my job. I connect with our factories on a regular basis and work with the teams on-site to ensure everyone based at the production plants is aware of the importance of minimising our water requirements. Limiting the amount of water we use isn’t just an environmental responsibility – it makes strong business sense too, and in the long term will reduce our costs.
What inspired you to get involved in this type of work? Safe, clean water is a fast-depleting resource. In my role, I have a great opportunity to support the factories to minimise our demands on fresh water.
What has affected you most about the things you’ve seen through your work with water? I’m very proud of the work South Asia as a cluster has done to reduce water consumption. Thanks to our commitment to continuous improvements, we reduced our absolute water consumption by 72,000 m 3 in water-scarce sites from 2014 to 2015. Across all 45 of our South Asia facilities, we reduced total water consumption in that time by 145,000 m 3 .
Factories like Agarapathana, Chiplun, Chittagong, Dapada, Garden Reach, Hosur, Khanewal, Rahim Yar Khan, Rajpura, to name a few, have done a remarkable job reducing their specific water consumptions by more than 10% individually. Compared to our baseline figures from 2008, we’ve managed to cut the specific water consumption at our sites by 50%.
Tell us about your role: I work with teams across Unilever to design and implement programmes that deliver on our sustainability commitments and contribute value for our business and the people that we serve in Africa. I also develop and activate meaningful partnerships that support our work to create a brighter future, and lead the Unilever Foundation’s work for sub-Saharan Africa.
How do you work with water? My work with water has mainly focused on improving people’s access to water across Africa. Most recently, I helped to shape Unilever’s multi-country partnership with UNICEF to establish sustainable water management systems in communities towards improving hygiene and handwashing practices.
How does your job support Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan? We have identified that one of the barriers to practising handwashing with soap at key moments, especially in rural areas, is access to reliable sources of safe water. As a result, the UNICEF partnership I’m helping to roll out in Kenya, Nigeria, Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire seeks to help us better understand what happens when reliable water is made available to communities alongside handwashing and hygiene education.
We expect that this collaboration will also contribute to our broader work on improving livelihoods through the participation of young people, women and entrepreneurs in sustainably managing community water systems.
What inspired you to get involved in this type of work? Being a Nigerian and an African, it’s not difficult to appreciate the great need and opportunity across the continent. I’m driven by the passion to do more and create scalable solutions to improve life across Africa.
What one thing would you suggest we can do to use water more sustainably? When you leave the tap running while brushing your teeth, for example, remember people and families somewhere in the world that are doing without. Water is a precious resource and we must all treat it as such.
Tell us a little about your role: My job is to help Unilever suppliers and farmers globally to comply with Unilever’s Sustainable Agriculture Code and eventually to impact positively on their livelihood and environment.
I work with procurement managers and suppliers of fruits, vegetables and cereals, starting in the morning with the eastern countries and ending the day in the evening with the western countries.
How do you work with water? Water is one of the 11 indicators of the Unilever Sustainable Agriculture Code, the standard that we launched in 2010 after about 15 years of tests in our own internal agriculture supply chain. Water is one of the most important agriculture inputs, provided naturally by rainfall or artificially through irrigation, and water balance in the system soil-vegetation is a key parameter farmers have to consider when growing any crop.
How does your job help deliver on Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan? It’s all about helping Unilever to ensure the safety of supply now and in the future. By working with suppliers to increase yield, we also help farmers to increase their income and consolidate the entire value chain. Often quality of ingredients can improve as well, directly or indirectly, by our actions. Water management is a good example as in many crops – onions and tomatoes in particular – accurate water management before the harvest ensures higher sugar content resulting in a higher-quality crop and tastier products.
How does your job help people, communities or the environment? Some 70% of drinkable water is used in agriculture. Several areas in the world suffer drought and water scarcity, so by implementing the Sustainable Agriculture Code practices, my job contributes towards mitigating this important issue.
What has surprised you most about the things you’ve seen through your work with water? It was both surprising and rewarding to see yields double after introducing drip irrigation in our oregano crops in Turkey. And more sustainable irrigation isn’t just in use in our drier countries. In water-rich Germany, it’s improved leek and potato yields too.
It’s also been fascinating to see the impact of advanced technologies such as satellite field mapping to manage irrigation on tomatoes in Italy. And I enjoyed introducing simple tools, such as tensiometers, to measure humidity in the soil for farmers in Greece, enabling them to rely on a more accurate reference test instead of guessing.