Water use

Unilever's work on water use supports

4 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals

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Climate Action

Climate Action

Few now seriously challenge the need for urgent action on climate change – from greening the grid to eliminating deforestation. Thanks to the Paris Agreement, nearly 200 countries are pressing ahead with low-carbon reforms, helping to open up around $23 trillion in opportunities for climate-smart investments by 2030. Investing to eliminate carbon emissions from our operations is the smart choice for Unilever, reducing costs and risk. For example, our eco-efficiency savings have avoided cumulative energy costs of over €490 million since 2008.

We have already increased the amount of energy purchased from renewable sources and aim to eliminate coal from our energy mix by 2020 – with an ambition to become carbon positive by 2030, making the surplus energy available to the markets and communities where we operate.

Unilever has long recognised the interdependency of climate and forests. We helped lead the Consumer Goods Forum towards a zero-deforestation commitment across four commodities, including palm oil. We are tackling deforestation in the palm oil industry through our own sustainable palm oil commitment and partnerships. We have committed to invest up to $25 million between 2018 and 2022 to support sustainable commodity projects via the &Green fund. Our investment will focus on smallholder palm oil farmers in Indonesia, thereby securing the supply of sustainable palm oil.

In support of enhanced disclosure of climate risk, Unilever has committed to implement the Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosure recommendations, including the impact of 2°C and 4°C global warming scenarios.

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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 limits our ability to operate effectively and meet the needs of our consumers.

2.8 billion people around the world are experiencing poor access to water. And this number is estimated to increase significantly, with the Water Resources Group estimating that 25% of the total water demand in 2030 will not be met. 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 and localised shortages such experienced in Cape Town.

Tackling this challenge 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. The Home Care and Beauty & Personal Care product categories in which we operate account for more than 90% of the water used in people’s homes, from washing dishes to washing hair, skin and clothes. As a result of this, and the impact of water scarcity because of climate change, 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 both safeguard our ability to operate whilst contributing to SDG 6.

Water is essential for people to enjoy our products. With limited water, we struggle to wash our hands, our clothes, our bathrooms or make a refreshing cup of tea. 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 and 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’s chaired by our Home Care Category President, Kees Kruythoff.

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 around access to water, sanitation and hygiene.
Our commitment

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 reduced by around 2% 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 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, at this stage, significantly reduced our water impact per consumer use and encouraged consumer behaviour change.

Because of this, we want to broaden our water strategy by recognising the role of water in our consumers’ lives and its importance as a growth driver for our business. We are developing 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, and our Love Beauty and Planet range, which uses fast-rinse technology in its conditioners, are helping people to use less water, as they require less water to work effectively.

We are also developing products which use no water at all, such as Domestos Flush Less, a toilet spray that disinfects and eliminates odours without the need to flush, and our Love Home and Planet and Day2, first dry wash sprays, which are made with only 0.02% of the water used in a normal UK laundry load. Furthermore, we’re continuing to develop products that improve water quality, through our Pureit and Truliva drinking water purification brands.

We have made significant reductions in the water used in manufacturing, where our factories have abstracted 22.5 million fewer cubic metres of water in 2018 than in 2008, achieving our target two years ahead of schedule. This equates to a reduction of 44% per tonne of production.

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. And almost all, when using irrigation, have water management plans in place and report on the water used.

Our suppliers are also adopting an additional set of farm practices in their uptake of the updated 2017 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, as well as encouraging suppliers to influence 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.

∞ The spreads business was sold in mid-2018 and is excluded from the performance measure (including the baseline) to ensure alignment with the existing business structure.

† Independently assured by PwC


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Water use
Our commitment

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

Our performance

In 2018, our water impact per consumer use decreased by around 2% since 2010.*∞

Our perspective

We have made significant reductions in the water used in manufacturing, achieving our target two years of schedule. We have reduced the water abstracted for manufacturing by 44% per tonne of production compared to 2008.

In 2018, the water associated with the consumer use of our products reduced by around 2% 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 want to broaden our water strategy by recognising the role of water in our consumers’ lives and its importance as a growth driver for our business. We are developing innovative products which deliver the benefits people need and provide the same performance with less water. For example, our Rin and Sunlight smart-foam fast-rinse laundry detergents available in India and South Africa respectively, and our Love Beauty and Planet range, which uses fast-rinse technology in its conditioners, are helping people to use less water, as they require less water to work effectively.

We are also developing products which use no water at all, such as Domestos Flush Less, a toilet spray that disinfects and eliminates odours without the need to flush, and Love Home and Planet and Day2 dry wash sprays, which are made with only 0.02% of the water used in a normal UK laundry load. We’re also continuing to develop products that improve water quality through our Pureit and Truliva drinking water purification brands.

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.

* 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.

∞ The spreads business was sold in mid-2018 and is excluded from the performance measure (including the baseline) to ensure alignment with the existing business structure.

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.

22.5 million fewer cubic metres of water abstracted in 2018 than in 2008 (a reduction of 44% per tonne of production). This is 1.67m3† of water abstracted per tonne of production. This is an absolute reduction of 1.29 m3 of water abstracted per tonne of production.

Compared to 1995 this represents a 79.1% reduction in absolute terms.


Our Perspective

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

In 2018, we achieved a reduction of 44% per tonne of production compared to 2008, meeting our target two years ahead of schedule. The reduction equates to around saving 2.9 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 products which 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 | 2MB) since 2011. We are close to 100% coverage now in key crops like vegetables and tomatoes.

An important step in our sustainable sourcing programme has been the launch in 2018 of the renewed Sustainable Agriculture Code, 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. In 2018, we began climate risk modelling for the various crops we buy. This will help 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 have been working with the Cool Farm Alliance to develop an online Water Footprint Calculator. This feature went live in 2018, complementing the Carbon Footprint Calculator and the Biodiversity Effectiveness assessment tool.

Working with suppliers & farmers to manage water use
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