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

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 goal.

Washing hair in the shower

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 formulation technologies – such as SmartFoam – and product formats that work well with less water, for example our Sunlight 2-in-1 detergent. 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. The image below shows the approximate 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 six water-using sub-categories: Hair Care, Home & Hygiene, Fabric Solutions, Fabric Sensations, 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. Within the 14 key countries and within the water-using categories, the footprint accounts for at least 80% of sales volumes.

Our 2018 water footprint

In 2018, we estimated that consumers used around 7.1 billion m3 of water when using our products. On average, each use of our products required 13.8 litres of water. Our 2018 water footprint per consumer use is 2% lower than in 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 use – over 99% – occurs when consumers use our products. Our analysis shows that most water is used for laundry, showering, bathing, and washing hair with our products. In contrast, the water used as a product ingredient accounts for less than 1%.

Some of our skin cleansing and hair care acquisitions are in countries that use above-average amounts of water, and significant behaviour change is needed to reduce water consumption when our products are used in people’s homes. So we are developing innovative water-smart products – that is, products that use less water. For example, our Rin and Sunlight SmartFoam 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 our 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. Despite some progress, our efforts to launch more water-smart product innovations – products that use less water – they have not been sufficient, at this stage, to significantly reduce our water impact per consumer use and encourage consumer behaviour change.

Graphic showing Unilever's water footprint

Measured 1 July 2017 – 30 June 2018

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 our manufacturing operations.

* 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.

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.

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