Water use

Unilever's work on water use supports

4 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals

Select one of the goals to find out how we're taking action in support of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

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Water use

Water scarcity is a huge problem for people, society and business.

Water is critical for the planet, its ecosystems and its inhabitants to survive and thrive. At a human level, it is essential for life, and at an economic level, it is a central fuel for the global economy. Unilever is no different. Water is critical for the manufacturing and use of our products. Constraints on the quality and quantity of the water available limit our ability to operate effectively and meet the needs of our consumers.

Over 2 billion people across the world are currently experiencing high water stress and this is expected to worsen significantly. Within the next ten years, we could already be facing a 40% gap in water supply and demand. Household water scarcity is becoming a major issue in fast-growing cities in developing countries where infrastructure has not kept pace with the growth in population and income. Climate change, urbanisation, population growth and a growing middle class have combined to create a global water crisis – characterised by droughts, floods, pollution and localised shortages such as experienced in Cape Town and Chennai.

Tackling these challenges requires collective action from companies, governments, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and consumers. Here, the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 6 (SDG 6) provides a common framework for achieving sustainable water access for all by 2030. We believe that a world with water for all is a critical platform for achieving the rest of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Through the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan (USLP), we are responding directly to a number of macro forces. A number of our USLP targets directly address the risks and opportunities in our markets, including water scarcity that’s caused by climate change. The water pillar of our USLP contributes to a number of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), primarily: Clean water and sanitation (SDG 6); Responsible consumption and production (SDG 12); Climate action (SDG 13); and Partnerships for the goals (SDG 17).

Our strategy

We’re addressing the challenge of water scarcity holistically, so people can continue to enjoy our products and we can enable our business to thrive in a water-constrained world.

Water use and water centre

The business case

Our activities impact the environment largely as a result of consumer use. Our Home Care and Beauty & Personal Care divisions account for more than 90% of the water used in people’s homes, from washing dishes to washing hair, skin and clothes. Due to this, which is compounded by increasing pockets of climate change related water scarcity, water is one of our most material issues.

People experiencing water scarcity are making trade-offs about how they will use their limited supply of water. In turn, this limits the growth of our products. We also know that when droughts strike, agricultural prices often increase, and an energy crisis often follows as water is a critical ingredient in energy production. This drives up prices, creating a triple hit on our business.

Our approach

Water systems are hugely complex and interconnected. For example, what impacts suppliers can impact the availability of raw materials to our business and ultimately, impact our consumers. We have set out a global water strategy to safeguard our ability to operate while contributing to SDG 6 at the same time.

Water is essential for people to enjoy our products. With limited water, we struggle to wash and clean ourselves and our homes. This is reflected in our water footprint; over 99% of our water use occurs when consumers use our products, particularly when doing laundry, washing hair, showering or bathing.

So our Research & Development teams are focusing on developing products that provide the same performance with less water, poor quality water or no water at all. We’re also working with our suppliers to reduce the water used to grow our crops, and we’re reducing water use in our own factories across the world.

The actions of one user in a watershed can determine the water supply for everyone else. Because of this, we recognise the importance of engaging with local communities and taking collective action with others to contribute to better water security for all, and undertake this approach where appropriate.

Our focus

We’re accelerating our product innovation to meet the needs of people in water-scarce regions, while continuing to reduce water use in agriculture and our own manufacturing operations. Our efforts are focused on areas where we can have the biggest positive impact.

Our internal Water Board is responsible for our water strategy and our water targets. Its focus is on driving water-smart innovations to achieve business growth, and it is chaired by our Home Care President, Peter Ter Kulve.

Our activities are concentrated in four areas:

Brands & innovation

  • Develop innovative products which help people adapt to a water-scarce world.
  • Build our Pureit and Truliva (formerly Qinyuan) drinking water purification businesses.

Supply chain

  • Support agricultural suppliers on better irrigation techniques and equipment, to improve crop yields while using less water.
  • Proactively map and manage water and climate risk in the supply chain.

Factories

  • Continue to drive sustainable water use in our manufacturing operations.

Advocacy

  • Work in partnership with government, like-minded businesses and civil society in key water-scarce countries to tackle wider systems challenges to access to water, sanitation and hygiene.

Our water use commitment

We have committed to halve the water associated with the consumer use of our products by 2020.*

In addition, in our own operations, the water abstraction by our global factory network will be at or below 2008 levels, despite significantly higher volumes, by 2020.

Progress to date

In 2018, our water impact per consumer use increased by around 1% compared to 2010.†* We recognise that we are a long way short of halving our water impact and we will not achieve this very challenging target by the end of 2020. This is partly because our portfolio is now made up of more products that have a higher than average water footprint compared to 2010, and that our biggest water impact – over 99% – occurs when consumers shower, bathe and wash clothes with our products.

Significant behaviour change is needed to reduce water consumption when our products are used in people’s homes. Furthermore, despite some progress, our efforts to launch more water-smart product innovations – products that use less water – have not been sufficient, at this stage, to significantly reduce our water impact per consumer use and encourage consumer behaviour change. Because of this, we are developing innovative products that deliver the benefits people need and provide the same performance with less water.

For example, our Love Home and Planet and Day2 dry wash sprays are made with only 0.02% of the water used in a normal UK laundry load. Our SmartFoam technology in our Sunlight 2-in-1 Handwashing Laundry powder and our Rin detergent bar use 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’. The range, which we launched in 2019, includes six no-rinse conditioners that save on average 99 seconds per shower.

We have made significant reductions in the water used in manufacturing, achieving our target in 2018, two years ahead of schedule. By 2019, we had reduced the water abstracted for manufacturing by 46.8% per tonne of production compared to 2008. This reduction equates to around 3.4 litres of water for every person on the planet.

We are also working with our agricultural suppliers; water management is an integral part of our Sustainable Agriculture Code (SAC). Close to 100% of our vegetable suppliers, including tomato suppliers, now comply with our SAC, which has clear guidance on all aspects of climate smart agriculture. These include ensuring that water infrastructure, like pipes and canals, are readily maintained, reducing leakage, as well as encouraging suppliers to influence the water management decisions of their farmers, to conserve water and improve the efficiency of their water use.

Future challenges

Investment in natural and man-made infrastructure, government regulations and action by the private sector are all essential to any lasting solutions. Through our advocacy work we are promoting policies and market-based solutions that enable more people to have access to water, sanitation and hygiene.

Water pricing, water metering, efficient household appliances and water-saving products are all necessary levers to create the systemic change urgently needed for sustainable water use. However, in some countries it will take time for governments to improve the quality and quantity of water supply. There is an immediate need for new products that use water much more effectively in the home and which work well in low-quality water. Our challenge is to accelerate our innovation pipeline to meet people’s needs.

Our environmental targets are expressed against a baseline of 2010 and on a 'per consumer use' basis. This means a single use, portion or serving of a product. We are reporting against our five water-using sub-categories (Laundry, Hair Care, Oral Care, Skin Cleansing and Household Care) in seven water-scarce countries: China, India, Indonesia, Mexico, South Africa, Turkey and the US.

† Independently assured by PwC

Targets & performance

We have an ambitious commitment to halve the water associated with the consumer use of our products in water-scarce countries.*


Water use
Our commitment

Halve the water associated with the consumer use of our products by 2020.*

Our performance

In 2019, our water impact per consumer use increased by around 1% since 2010.†*

Our perspective

We have made significant reductions in the water used in manufacturing, achieving our target in 2018, two years ahead of schedule. We have now reduced the water abstracted for manufacturing by 47% per tonne of production compared to 2008. This reduction equates to around 3.4 litres of water for every person on the planet.

In 2019, the water associated with the consumer use of our products increased by around 1% versus 2010.†* We recognise that we are a long way short of halving our water impact and we will not achieve this very challenging target by the end of 2020. This is partly because our portfolio is now made up of more products that have a higher than average water footprint compared to 2010, and that our biggest water impact – over 99% – occurs when consumers shower, bathe and wash clothes with our products.

Significant behaviour change is needed to reduce water consumption when our products are used in people’s homes. Furthermore, despite some progress, our efforts to launch more water-smart product innovations – products that use less water – have not been sufficient, at this stage, to significantly reduce our water impact per consumer use and encourage consumer behaviour change. Because of this, we are developing innovative products that deliver the benefits people need and provide the same performance with less water.

For example, our Love Beauty and Planet range, which uses fast-rinse technology in its conditioners are helping people use less water as they need less water to work effectively. And our Love Home and Planet and Day2 dry wash sprays are made with only 0.02% of the water used in a normal UK laundry load. Our SmartFoam technology in our Sunlight 2-in-1 Handwashing Laundry powder and our Rin detergent bar both use up to half the water needed for rinsing, making the washing process easier and quicker for consumers in water-scarce regions.

We are also developing products which use no water at all, such as our new hair care brand, ‘the good stuff’, which we launched in the US in 2019. The good stuff’s range includes six no-rinse conditioners, which save on average 99 seconds per shower. This could amount to 460 litres of water saved per bottle of no-rinse conditioner – equivalent to the typical volume of water a person would drink over seven months.

* Our environmental targets are expressed against a baseline of 2010 and on a 'per consumer use' basis. This means a single use, portion or serving of a product. We are reporting against our six water-using sub-categories (Hair Care, Home & Hygiene, Fabric Solutions, Fabric Sensations, Oral Care and Skin Cleansing) in seven water-scarce countries: China, India, Indonesia, Mexico, South Africa, Turkey and the US..

 Independently assured by PwC


  • Achieved 2

  • On-Plan 1

  • Off-Plan 1

  • %

    Of target achieved 0

Key to our performance
  • Achieved

    This is the number of targets we have achieved

  • On-Plan

    This is the number of targets we are on track to achieve

  • Off-Plan

    This is the number of targets we are currently not on track

  • %

    Of target achieved

    This is the percentage of the target we are on track to achieve

Our targets

Please see Independent Assurance for more details of our assurance programme across the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan.

Reduce water abstracted by manufacturing sites

  • By 2020, water abstraction by our global factory network will be at or below 2008 levels, despite significantly higher volumes.

Measured against a baseline of 2.97 m3 of water abstracted per tonne of production.

This represents a reduction of around 40% per tonne of production.

Versus a 1995 baseline, this represents a 78% reduction per tonne of production and a 65% absolute reduction.

26.5 million fewer cubic metres of water abstracted in 2019 than in 2008 (a reduction of 47% per tonne of production). This is an absolute reduction of 1.58 m3 of water abstracted per tonne of production.

Compared to 1995 this represents an 81.6% reduction in absolute terms.


Our perspective

We have reduced the total volume of water abstracted for use in manufacturing by more than 80% since 1995.

By the end of 2019, we had reduced the amount of water our factories use by 47% per tonne of production versus our 2008 baseline, despite growth in our production volume. We achieved – and surpassed – our 2020 target of reducing the volume of water we abstract by 40% per tonne of production in 2018, two years ahead of schedule. The reduction equates to around saving 3.4 litres of water for every person on the planet. We achieved this despite growth in our production volume since 2008.

Our progress has been driven by continuous improvement initiatives at all sites to reduce, reuse and recycle water. We do this through a combination of low-cost and no-cost techniques and behaviours, and a water-specific capital investment programme.

We continue to track and drive improvements in water performance as a component of our overall water strategy. Water efficiency has demonstrated strong financial paybacks, reduces our dependency on water resources and supports process innovation.

Sustainable water use in our manufacturing operations

Reduce water use in the laundry process

We will reduce the water required in the laundry process by:

  • Providing 50 million households in water-scarce countries with laundry products that deliver excellent results but use less water by 2020.

In 2016, One Rinse products were used in 4.9 billion washes in over 59 million households worldwide.


Our perspective

Since achieving our target, we have continued to develop innovative products which deliver the benefits people need, but use less water. For example, our Rin and Sunlight smart-foam fast-rinse laundry detergents available in India and South Africa respectively are helping people to use less water, as they require less water to work effectively.

We are also developing laundry products that use no water at all, such as Day2, the world’s first dry wash spray, which is made with only 0.02% of the water used in a normal laundry load.

Water-smart products for water-stressed living

Reduce water use in agriculture

  • We will develop comprehensive plans with our suppliers and partners to reduce the water used to grow our crops in water-scarce countries.

Water management is an integral part of our Sustainable Agriculture Code. Close to 100% of our vegetable suppliers, including tomato suppliers, now comply with our Code. Almost all, when using irrigation, have water management plans in place and report on water used in irrigation. Suppliers are further adopting an additional set of farm practices, in their uptake of the updated 2017 Sustainable Agriculture Code. These include ensuring that water infrastructure, such as pipes and canals, are readily maintained, as well as encouraging suppliers to influence water management decisions of their farmers to drive water use efficiency and conservation.


Our perspective

We have been collecting irrigation data from our suppliers as part of the implementation of our Sustainable Agriculture Code (PDF | 8MB) since 2011. We are close to 100% coverage now in key crops like vegetables and tomatoes.

An important step in our sustainable sourcing programme was the launch of the renewed Sustainable Agriculture Code in 2018, which contains clear guidance on all aspects of Climate Smart Agriculture, including water management. Impacts of climate change on agriculture will be different in different parts of the world. We began climate risk modelling for the various crops we buy since 2018. This is helping us understand where we must focus our efforts to support suppliers and farmers to adapt to and mitigate contributions to climate change.

To further support farmers in their understanding of water management on their farm, we developed an online Water Footprint Calculator with the Cool Farm Alliance. This feature, which went live in 2018, complements the Carbon Footprint Calculator and the Biodiversity Effectiveness assessment tool.

Working with suppliers & farmers to manage water use
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