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The Sabie River running through Kruger National Park in South Africa

This issue relates to the following Sustainable Development Goals

  • Clean water and sanitation

Water stewardship

Average read time: 7 minutes

Water is critical to both mitigating and adapting to the effects of climate change. It’s also essential for our business – from growing crops to manufacturing, to how people use our products.

Two bottles of Seventh Generation laundry detergent on a kitchen counter

Why water matters

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 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.

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.

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. Having made good progress with water reduction in our own factories, we’re expanding to water stewardship beyond our factory walls. We’ve begun programmes at 12 of our manufacturing sites in Indonesia, Brazil, South Africa and Turkey in line with the Alliance for Water Stewardship (AWS) standard.

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 by applying the AWS standard, the site has been broadening water security engagement with other stakeholders in the region.

In India, we’ve been working with communities in our Prabhat programme for over eight years to tackle water quality and supply risks. By working with farmers to reduce water demand, Prabhat’s water conservation programmes have saved more than 50 billion litres of water.

Working with our partners 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.

We signed the Glasgow Declaration for Fair Water Footprints at the UN Climate Change Conference, COP26. Together with Water Witness, CDP and several national governments, we’re calling for businesses, governments, civil society and other partners to set policies and incentives which encourage more responsible use of water and increase the resilience of local communities by 2030.

Children washing their hands

WASH support 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.

Working towards 100% 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. Today, most of our ingredients in our Home Care, Beauty & Wellbeing and Personal Care portfolios are biodegradable. We’re focusing on the ingredients that aren’t yet biodegradable and looking for alternatives that break down easily and quickly after use without compromising our products’ performance.

What do we mean by biodegradability?

There is no universal definition of biodegradability – or consensus as to how quickly materials should break down. Our position is to have ‘ultimate biodegradation’ which means something breaks down completely to its component parts – carbon dioxide, water and mineral salts – and then gets returned to the earth’s natural cycles. And it must be quick – within hours, days or at most weeks.

Our Clean Future strategy is creating a new generation of cleaning and laundry products that biodegrade in the environment and are derived from renewable and recycled carbon sources, instead of from fossil fuels. We’re innovating with new types of polymers and other slowly degradable ingredients that leave no trace behind. For instance, Seventh Generation has pioneered 100% biodegradable liquid laundry formulas across its range which are better for aquatic systems as the product rapidly and safely degrades, without leaving a trace. The brand has extended its biodegradable formulas for new body washes and deodorants.

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. Scientists in our Safety and Environmental Assurance Centre and material sciences teams are collaborating with suppliers, partners and academia to find innovative solutions.

For example, we’re partnering with biotechnology leader Evonik, in Slovakia, to develop nature-based surfactants for laundry detergents and dishwashing liquids. 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.

Lifebuoy product range

Nature-powered hygiene

Lifebuoy’s BotaniTech cleaning and disinfection range harnesses the power of nature at home. The new patented pH-neutral formula is 100% biodegradable and uses naturally derived cleaning ingredients and essential oils to kill 99.9% of bacteria and viruses.

Six bottles of Comfort Ultimate Care

Biodegradable fabric care

Comfort’s Ultimate Care fabric conditioner range for clothes uses new biodegradable pro-fibre technology. Created from wheat protein, this plant-based formula breaks down easily, and it reduces the friction that occurs during washing which helps extend the life of consumers’ clothes too.

Overhead image of Love Beauty and Planet biodegradable shampoo

Better beauty formulas for our planet

Love Beauty and Planet launched Unilever’s first-ever 100% biodegradable shampoos and conditioners. This means 100% of the ingredients break down into their basic components shortly after use or are already in the form that can be readily returned to nature, minimising our impact on aquatic ecosystems.

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.

Around 40% of clothes are washed before they really need to be, which wastes a lot of water in unnecessary laundry loads and damages clothes. Our Robijn dry wash sprays are helping customers in the Netherlands refresh clothes between washes so they do less laundry and save water. 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 hair care brand, ‘the good stuff’, which includes eight no-rinse conditioners.