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Why water for all is everyone’s business


The world is off track in delivering clean, secure water and sanitation for all by 2030. Unilever’s Chief Sustainability Officer Rebecca Marmot joined UNICEF and Oxfam at the UN 2023 Water Conference to make the business case for joint funding and action and what it delivers.

Girl cupping her hands and drinking clean, safe water from a community tap

It’s been called a watershed moment.

For the first time in 50 years, governments, NGOs, global businesses and youth representatives met at the UN 2023 Water Conference to find ways to accelerate the world’s progress in ensuring a clean, secure and sustainable supply of one of the world’s most precious resources.

And speed is of the essence. Currently 2 billion people in the world are without safely managed water, and 3.6 billion are without safely managed sanitation.

The world has promised to ensure access to clean, safe water and sanitation for all by 2030 (SDG6). Yet the latest UN data shows that, on average, governments will have to accelerate their progress by four times to meet this goal.

2 billionpeople globally are without safely managed water

Why water is all of our business

Water is critical to both mitigating and adapting to the effects of climate change, and access to safe water sources is essential to reduce the spread of disease and provide opportunities for women and girls.

It’s also critical for businesses like ours, from helping our crops to grow and being a vital ingredient in our foods and manufacturing to enabling people to use our products.

To de-risk our business and capture new growth opportunities, water security across our value chain and equitable access to hygiene and sanitation are essential.

Chief Sustainability Officer Rebecca Marmot

To this end Unilever committed to the following by 2030

  • to make 100% of our product formulations biodegradable
  • to implement water stewardship programmes around 100 Unilever manufacturing sites in water-stressed locations
  • to empower farmers and smallholders to protect and regenerate farm environments, including introducing a pioneering regenerative agriculture code for all our suppliers
  • to take action through our brands, such as Lifebuoy and Domestos, to improve health and wellbeing and advance equity and inclusion (including hand hygiene and sanitation), to reach 1 billion people per year
  • to work with the 2030 Water Resources Group (WRG)[a] to contribute to transformative change and build water management resilience in key water-stressed countries.

To achieve these goals, we recognise collaboration and innovation are critical.

Three ways we’re working towards SDG6

Schoolchildren in green uniforms with white hijabs washing their hands at a public tap
Photo credit: BRAC, HBCC
  1. Public–private partnerships

    The Hygiene and Behaviour Change Coalition (HBCC) is an innovative public–private partnership set up by Unilever with the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) in response to Covid-19. Over ten months with the help of 21 NGOs and UN partners, it reached up to 1.2 billion people with hygiene messages and behaviour change programmes across 37 countries. Today it continues to build on that resilience to respond to future health-related crises.

  2. Supply chain

    In Konya, Turkey, 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 by applying the Alliance for Water Stewardship standard, the site has been broadening water security engagement with other stakeholders in the region.

  3. Innovative R&D

    Today, more than 90% of the ingredients in our Home Care and Beauty & Personal Care portfolio are biodegradable. For example, our partnership with speciality chemicals company Clariant helped us develop ‘soil release’ polymers, which are more biodegradable and renewable than previous ingredients but still provide great cleaning for laundry products such as Omo.

A call to action for global business

“We cannot do this alone,” says Rebecca. At the UN 2023 Water Conference, Unilever and UNICEF took the opportunity to rally all global businesses to commit to the following five actions to achieve access to safe, affordable water for all:

  • Engage in water stewardship both in operations and ‘beyond the walls’ in wider supply chains.
  • Work in partnerships to scale access to emerging technologies and innovations.
  • Support the rapid scale-up of investments and climate financing.
  • Build capacity and expertise to transform ideas into action and promote a thriving water and sanitation innovation system.
  • Join others to call for policies and regulation that prioritise and protect water, sanitation and hygiene services so that no one is left behind.

3.6 billionpeople globally are without safely managed sanitation

Joint investment in WASH is key for economic resilience

Global water security is just one part of the water equation.

Equitable access to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) is also fundamental to every aspect of our social, environmental and economic prosperity.

Covid-19 starkly highlighted this reality through the impact that the lack of WASH infrastructure had on low to middle-income countries and on sustainable development.

Over the past decade, with partners like GAVI, UNICEF, UNHCR and the governments of India, South Africa, and the UK, Unilever’s leading hygiene brands Lifebuoy and Domestos have reached over 1.3 billion people through their WASH partnerships.

Why targeted investment is required from all stakeholders

“We’ll continue to do this work, but I wanted to call on governments to increase their focus on WASH and to really think about how to invest in and partner on these kinds of different innovative models that bring together the complementary expertise of different sorts of stakeholders,” Rebecca told delegates.

In a joint report, Unilever and Oxfam also warned that “without radical investment that considers the unique vulnerabilities of communities impacted by climate, conflict and deepening inequality, investments in WASH will not suffice to reduce people’s exposure to the threats of future pandemics.”

Safeguarding water for the future

“If we step up, together, as the private sector, national governments, civil society and the academic community,” says Rebecca, “we can safeguard against future pandemics and other health crises, and ensure access to water, sanitation and hygiene for all.”


Unilever’s membership of 2030 Water Resources Group (WRG) ended 30 June 2023.

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