Water use

This work supports the following UN Sustainable Development Goals

  • Clean Water and Sanitation
  • Responsible Consumption and Production
  • Climate Action
  • Partnership For The Goals
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  3. Water use
  4. Our water footprint

Our water footprint

We measure the water that people use when showering, bathing, cleaning and cooking with our products. We also measure the water we add to products during the manufacturing process. Accurate measurement and transparent reporting of our water footprint helps us adapt our strategy, set ambitious targets, and assess our progress towards our 2020 halving commitment.

Tresemme dry shampoo bottles

Why do we measure our water footprint?

We rely on water to run our business – from growing crops, to operating our factories. People need water to use many of our products – from cooking food, to washing their hair or doing the laundry. More and more regions in the world are experiencing water scarcity, and many communities lack a reliable supply of clean water. Climate change is making this worse by increasing droughts and disrupting weather patterns. This is why it is important for us to measure our water footprint to track our progress towards halving our water impact by 2020.

Measuring our water footprint enables us to see which of our products require the most water. We can help our consumers reduce their water use through product innovation; bringing them new formulations – such as SmartFoam – and product formats that work well with less water, for example our Comfort One Rinse. We pay particular attention to the water used with our products in areas of water scarcity. We’re looking at how climate change may affect the availability of water and what risks this creates for our consumers, our suppliers and our business.

Water used in agriculture

In 2012, we assessed the water used to produce our main agricultural raw materials. For this one-off study we used the WaterStat database from the Water Footprint Network. The study indicated that agricultural water use makes up approximately 15% of our footprint. Although we are a big company, some of our largest volume raw materials, such as palm oil and tea, are generally rain-fed and therefore not water-intensive. We have not repeated this study since 2012. The image below shows the relative impact of agricultural crops in our value chain.

Graphic showing Unilever's water footprint

Measured 2012

How do we calculate our water footprint?

We’ve been calculating our consumer water footprint since 2010, using data from a representative group of products in our five water-using sub-divisions: Hair Care, Household Care, Laundry, Oral Care and Skin Cleansing. We use data from seven water-scarce countries: China, India, Indonesia, Mexico, South Africa, Turkey and the US.

We calculate our water impact annually, both at an absolute level and ‘per consumer use’, which is the water impact of our consumers doing a load of laundry or taking a shower. These measurements enable us to see where we are making improvements and where we still have work to do - for example, by innovating new fast-rinse products, or by moving towards product formats that either require less or no water.

Our definition of domestic water scarcity is based on how many people in each country experience physical water scarcity and the number of people who lack access to sanitation and clean water. So even though our water-scarce countries represent only about 40% of our sales volumes, these are the areas where our water saving innovations have the greatest benefits for our consumers.

Our 2017 water footprint

In 2017, we estimated that consumers used around 6.7 billion m3 of water when using our products. On average, each use of our products required 13.8 litres of water. Our 2017 water footprint per consumer use is 2% lower than in 2010 because we now sell more products that work well with less water, such as our Rin SmartFoam laundry bar.

However, we also acquired skin cleansing and hair care brands in countries that use above-average amounts of water. This overshadows the progress we’ve made and makes it difficult for us to reach our committment of halving our water impact by 2020.

Our biggest water use – over 99% – occurs when consumers use our products. Our analysis shows that most water is used for laundry, particularly washing clothes, and for showering, bathing, and washing hair with our products. In contrast, the water used as a product ingredient accounts for less than 1%.

Graphic showing Unilever's water footprint

Measured 1 July 2016 – 30 June 2017

Measuring our water footprint is just the first step. We use our footprint to help us to reduce the water required to use our products. We also measure the water used in manufacturing as part of our eco-efficiency in manufacturing programme.

Assurance of our 2017 water performance measure

In 2017, PwC carried out independent assurance of our latest water performance measure for the third year. Please see Independent Assurance for more details of our assurance programme.

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