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Unilever Global Change location

Water dripping from a flower

This issue relates to the following Sustainable Development Goals

  • Clean water and sanitation
  • Life below water

Water stewardship

Average read time: 5 minutes

Water security represents a risk to our sourcing, our manufacturing operations, and consumers. And climate change is projected to further increase water insecurity. As water stewards, we’re engaging in innovation and collective action to preserve and protect water resources, to create a future where everyone has access to a safe and resilient water supply.

Water is essential for a healthy society, environment and economy. Today, 2 billion people live in countries experiencing high water stress – the gap between water availability and water use. The causes are wide-ranging and include deforestation and land use change, the over abstraction of groundwater from agricultural crops, pollution from industrial waste, poor infrastructure and solid waste management. And these causes are expected to continue as the impact of climate change is felt on water quality and availability across the globe.

Our latest Climate and Nature goals set the way forward for how we’re tackling water security. Collaboration is critical right across our value chain, from the public–private partnerships needed to address water security for our consumers, to the collective action in the communities around our factories, and the innovations needed in our ingredients.

A person washing their hands from an outside water tap

Boosting biodegradability

We’re aiming to make our product formulations biodegradable by 2030, to protect water resources. Biodegradability is a natural process where micro-organisms break down ingredients into their simple building blocks such as carbon dioxide, water and salts, without harming ecosystems.

We’re focusing on the products that are generally washed off after use in people’s homes. These include laundry, household cleaning, skin cleansing, oral care and hair care products. For instance, our Clean Future strategy is creating a new generation of cleaning and laundry products that biodegrade in the environment. We’re finding ways to use new types of polymers and other slowly degradable ingredients that leave no trace behind.

In many cases, we’ll replace our use of non-biodegradable ingredients with biodegradable alternatives. But some of the ingredients that we currently use have no viable biodegradable alternatives, so we’ll need to partner with our suppliers and others to find innovative solutions to reach our goals.

Brands with biodegradability built in

Bottle of Quix dishwash liquid with biodegradable ingredient

Biodegradable formulas for laundry detergents are better for aquatic systems as the product rapidly and safely degrades, without leaving a trace. Seventh Generation has pioneered this approach, working hard to achieve 100% biodegradable liquid laundry formulas across its range. It’s also developed biodegradable formulas for new body washes and deodorants.

Now we’re on the lookout for the next big biodegradability innovation. In Slovakia, we’re partnering with biotech leader Evonik Industries to develop new nature-based surfactants. The latest breakthrough is rhamnolipids, a renewable and biodegradable surfactant which is already used in our Sunlight (Quix) dishwashing liquid in Chile and Vietnam. We hope to significantly scale this technology and bring it to more products and markets.

Preserving water in our operations

Since 2008, we’ve reduced the volume of water we use in our manufacturing sites by 49%* per tonne of production. We continue to optimise our operations so we can do more with less through working with our manufacturing excellence network, industry groups and supplier expertise.

Today, around 40% of our manufacturing sites are located in areas classified as water stressed. We are placing more focus on these sites, setting more ambitious targets and supporting the sites in taking action.

Collective action on local water resources

We’re stepping up our efforts to mitigate water risks. Our goal is to implement water stewardship programmes in 100 of our most water-stressed areas by 2030, and working with others to address shared water challenges will be critical.

We're building on what we’ve learnt from our Prabhat programme in India, which works with communities to tackle water quality and supply risks, and adopting the Alliance for Water Stewardship Standard, as well as learning from our peers’ best practices.

Stakeholders for system change

Water scarcity and declining water quality affects people’s ability to use and enjoy our products, which is a key risk for our business. Addressing water security requires working collaboratively with public sector, civil society as well as other private sector organisations. We joined the 2030 Water Resources Group, a multi-stakeholder platform which builds resilience in water management through long-term system transformation, focusing on key water-stressed markets.

Children washing their hands

WASH in the time of Covid-19

Working with the multi-stakeholder 2030 Water Resources Group, Bangladesh Ministry of Health and Bangladesh Red Crescent Society, we provided emergency water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) support in response to Covid-19, reaching more than 20 million people. Collaboration meant we could quickly support national needs through an awareness-raising campaign, the expansion of handwashing facilities, and through distributing soap and hand sanitiser.

Water-smart products

As well as taking action to address water security, we’re creating water-smart products which make it easier for consumers to use less water in their homes.

For example, our Love Home and Planet dry wash sprays are made with only 0.02% of the water used in a normal UK laundry load. Our Rin detergent bar uses up to half the water needed for rinsing, making the washing process easier for consumers in water-scarce regions. We’re also developing products that use no water at all, such as our new hair care brand, ‘the good stuff’, which includes six no-rinse conditioners.