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The Sabie River running through Kruger National Park in South Africa

Water stewardship

Average read time: 5 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 around 50% 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 have identified a number of factories to introduce programmes in line with the Alliance for Water Stewardship (AWS), and by the end of 2023 we had implemented 13.

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 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.

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 and Beauty & 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.

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.

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.

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