Water use

Unilever's work on water use supports

4 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals

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Partnership For The Goals

Partnerships For The Goals

The social and environmental change required to meet the SDGs cannot be addressed by one business acting alone. Zero hunger, zero poverty, climate action, eradicating modern slavery – these are transformational goals, and they require transformational change, brought about by a concerted effort. Business, governments and civil society all have a role to play.

We’re involved in a wide range of partnerships, which often include new types of funding and new ways of working, whether with fellow companies or with other agencies. The Consumer Goods Forum’s sector-wide commitment to zero net deforestation by 2020, and the Unstereotype Alliance, a partnership with UN Women and other businesses aimed at eliminating gender stereotypes from advertising, are good examples of what’s possible.

Our global partnerships with NGOs and others address issues ranging from water and sanitation, to sustainable sourcing, to improving health and nutrition. Many harness the strength of our brands – such as the Vaseline® Healing Project, a partnership with NGO Direct Relief which aims to help heal the skin of 5 million people by 2020.

But we want to go much further – both in the impact of our partnerships, and in their alignment with the SDGs. A good example is TRANSFORM, our partnership with the UK government's DFID, which uses a public–private finance model to address persistent developmental challenges and aims to enable 100 million people in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia to gain access to products and services that have been shown to improve health, livelihoods, the environment or wellbeing.

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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 manufacture 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 as recently 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.

The water pillar of our Unilever Sustainable Living Plan (USLP) contributes to a number of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), primarily: Clean water and sanitation (SDG 6); Decent work and economic growth (SDG 8); Industry, innovation and infrastructure (SDG 9); 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 consumers 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

The Home Care and Beauty and Personal Care product categories in which we operate consume more than 90% of the water used at home, from washing dishes to washing hair, skin and clothes. As a result, people experiencing water scarcity are making trade-offs about how they will use their ration 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 and help contribute 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. If the water system in which we operate - whether we’re growing tea, manufacturing our products or selling to consumers - depletes in quality or quantity, our business is at risk. Because of this, in areas where there are higher water risks, or we own agricultural sites, we’re building our water efficiency efforts through engaging with local communities and taking collective action with others to contribute to better water security for all.

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 Qinyuan drinking water purification business.

Supply chain

  • Support agricultural suppliers on better irrigation techniques and equipment, to improve crop yields 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 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 2017, our water impact per consumer use reduced by around 2% compared to 2010.* We recognise that we are well behind the target. The main cause for the difference between our 2016 and 2017 result, is that our portfolio is now made up of more products that have a higher than average water footprint. Because of this, we have increased our focus on product innovations that use less water, whilst also encouraging consumer behaviour change.

We have made significant reductions in the water used in manufacturing, where our factories have abstracted 19.8 million fewer cubic metres of water in 2017 than in 2008. This equates to a reduction of 39% per tonne of production. We are also working with our agricultural suppliers; in 2018 we are launching our renewed Sustainable Agriculture Code, which as clear guidance on all aspects of Climate Smart Agriculture, including water management. By the end of 2017, we had jointly developed over 4,000 water management plans with our agricultural suppliers.

Future challenges

To move to a circular economy approach we will need to fundamentally rethink the way we design our products and packaging. This means carefully considering the systems in which our products flow. Through our advocacy work we will promote 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


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Water use
Our commitment

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

Our performance

In 2017, 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, reducing the water abstracted for manufacturing by 39% per tonne of production compared to 2008. However, the biggest impact comes from water used by consumers when they shower, bathe and clean with our products.

In 2017, the water associated with the consumer use of our products reduced by around 2% versus 2010. The main cause for the difference between our 2016 and 2017 result, is that our portfolio is now made up of more products that have a higher than average water footprint. Over the last seven years we have learned more about people’s needs in water scarce situations – so we have sharpened our internal strategy to align with this, considering water quality and quantity issues.

We have continued to make progress in designing and rolling out products which require less water. Our patented 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. This innovation has contributed to Sunlight, part of our global Surf brand, increasing its market share in South Africa.

In 2016 we opened our Suvidha Hygiene Centre in India. Located in one of Mumbai’s largest slums, the Centre provides water, sanitation and hygiene pay per use services, including laundry and washing facilities, and safe drinking water, to over 1,500 people. The Centre uses circular economy principles to reduce water use. Fresh water is first used for bathing, handwashing and laundry. The waste water from these activities is then used for flushing toilets.

This business model is an opportunity to unlock new markets, investments and innovation, whilst meeting consumer needs and contributing to the delivery of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) - particularly SDG 6 on clean water and sanitation provision.

We also continued to scale up our Sunlight Water Centres in Nigeria, with 18 centres opened by the end of 2017.

*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-divisions (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


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  • On-Plan 3

  • Off-Plan 1

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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

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    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.

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.

We will focus in particular on factories in water-scarce locations.

19.8 million fewer cubic metres of water abstracted in 2017 than in 2008 (a reduction of 39% per tonne of production).

Compared to 1995 this represents a 77.4% reduction in absolute terms.


  • All newly-built factories will aim to abstract less than half the water of those in our 2008 baseline.

New factories in Turkey, Vietnam, India and Iran started production in 2017. When fully operational each aims to abstract only half the water for factory operations than those factories in a representative 2008 baseline.


Our Perspective

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

In 2017, we achieved a reduction of 39% per tonne of production compared to 2008, achieving this despite growth in our production volume since 2008. The reduction equates to around saving 2.6 litres of water for every person on the planet.

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

Although we achieved our target ahead of schedule, we have continued to reach households in water-scarce countries. Comfort One Rinse products are available in Brazil, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam – all countries experiencing water scarcity.

In 2013, we began a partnership with the Vietnamese Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment to raise awareness about water scarcity in rural areas, educate people to change their laundry rinsing habits, and show how the benefits of using Comfort One Rinse can help reduce water use. This campaign was particularly resonant during 2016 and 2017, when Vietnam endured its worst drought in 100 years.

During 2017 alone, our Comfort One Rinse campaign enabled people to reduce their own water use and donate water to drought-affected regions, reaching 14 million people across Vietnam.

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.


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 will be the launch in 2018 of the renewed Sustainable Agriculture Code, which has 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 will commission detailed studies of where climate risk is highest for the various crops that we buy. These 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 will go 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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