Smart solutions for a water-scarce future
We are investing in solutions for water-scarce communities.
Broadening our traditional business model
Our daily lives and simple chores depend on water. But in water-scarce regions, where supply is unreliable both in quality and quantity, people sometimes go to great efforts to obtain water. Many will buy expensive bottled water, or buy unsafe water at high prices from vendors. Others may even invest in roof tanks for storage or private borewells. These are expensive as well as unsustainable in the long-term.
Water scarcity is a risk and opportunity to our future business success. So, as well as investing in developing products that are more water-efficient, we are exploring options beyond our traditional business model by investing in solutions for communities.
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 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 Global Goals, particularly Goal 6 on clean water and sanitation provision. Find out more about the Suvidha Centre here.
It is estimated that in water-scarce areas, women and girls spend 200 million hours every day1 collecting water for themselves and their families. In Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, 40 billion working hours are lost every year to water collection.
Sunlight, our liquid hand dishwash brand, is dedicated to developing solutions that help free up women’s time and change their lives for the better. We are doing this in two ways. Firstly, through superior and faster liquid de-greasing products. Market research on dishwashing in India shows that consumers who use a liquid detergent instead of a bar use one-third less water – equivalent to saving two buckets of water every time the dishes are cleaned.
Secondly, in partnership with NGOs Oxfam and Technoserve, we have opened ten Sunlight Water Centres in Nigeria – two in 2014, and eight more in 2016. The aim of the project is to set-up a sustainable business model to increase the economic empowerment of women by providing access to clean water and everyday products for peri-urban (rural-urban transition zone) communities.
We train local women entrepreneurs to run the centres, giving them the skills, experience and an opportunity to earn a salaried income. The local community for each centre provides the land and in return has an equity stake in the centre. The centres sell clean water at an affordable price, along with food and household products. Selling Unilever products has been a key part of making the Water Centres sustainable. All proceeds go towards the management of the centres and any profit is reinvested into the centres.
One of the big impacts of making clean water more accessible in water-scarce areas has been helping women save time, as well as preventing dirty water from being used. Mnguswan, a Nigerian woman who lives near one of the Sunlight Water Centres used to walk two kilometres each way to a river, often queuing for three hours before it was her turn to collect water. Since her local water centre opened, it takes 30 minutes. She can use the time saved to generate additional income for her family, on education or simply enjoying leisure time. Find out more about Mnguswan’s story here.
Sunlight report highlights importance of water to women’s empowerment
For World Water Day in March 2015, Sunlight published a report together with WaterAid, Oxfam, UNESCO, the World Water Assessment Programme (WWAP) and NextDrop. The report, ‘Water for Women’, looked at the cost of time lost across the world by women and girls through the simple act of accessing clean water. In water-scarce locations, the issue is particularly prevalent and the report highlights why the link between water, sanitation and gender equality must be recognised at every level – by government, civil society, business and communities.
The report was part of our efforts towards an integrated water and sanitation goal in the UN Global Goals for Sustainable Development. We believe that access to safe drinking water and clean, safe toilets is essential, that it underpins progress across all other development areas, and is of particular benefit to women and girls. Universal access to clean water and sanitation was announced as the sixth of the 17 Global Goals, which were adopted by world leaders in September 2015.
Giving ‘H2OPE to Others’ with Walgreens
In 2015, we partnered with the US pharmacy Walgreens and Canadian social enterprise Me to We, to launch our Give H2OPE to Others campaign. Consumer purchases made at Walgreens’ stores of our TRESemmé, Suave or Caress products during the two-month campaign funded the digging of a well in rural Kenya, providing 17.5 million gallons of clean water to water-scarce communities.
Building on the success of the previous year, in 2016 we deepened our partnership to raise awareness of the global water crisis while raising funds for another well in rural Kenya. We expanded the campaign to include Axe products in addition to the existing three personal care brands. Additionally, we made multiple purchases more valuable, with one product purchased equaling five gallons of water donated, and two or more products purchased equating to 15 gallons donated.
During the campaign, we engaged over 2.5 million people on social media, increasing our engagement rate threefold compared to 2015. The campaign also led to a 7.1% increase in the number of products sold per basket, and generated a sales increase of around 28%.
“Clean water isn’t a luxury, it’s a basic human right,” says Craig Kielburger, Co-Founder, Me to We. “The Give H2OPE to Others partnership will ultimately make a tremendous impact on the lives of so many families overseas, helping to break the cycle of poverty.”
Researching water solutions
We are conducting research into how household greywater – wastewater generated through consumer use, such as washing and cooking – can be safely reused and recycled to support the development of new product innovations for our consumers in water-scarce environments. This is reviewed by our Safety & Environmental Assurance Centre, in line with our policies on ingredients and materials in products. Explore our safety and environmental science work to learn more about our approach.
Unilever’s Centre for Environmental Water Quality in South Africa conducts research to guide national policy development and water sustainability implementation. The Centre is situated at the Institute for Water Research at Rhodes University. It partners with industry, local and national government, water resource management forums, communities and other academic institutions, to increase knowledge about, and practical methods for the sustainable management of water resources in South Africa.
In 2016 the Centre completed a risk analysis review of using greywater, illustrating how greywater can be reused in small-scale agriculture, toilet flushing and other non-consumptive uses. They have also developed materials that guide people through behaviour change as well how to successfully collaborate with water catchment agencies, NGOs, community based organisations, and national and provincial government departments.
1 Unilever, Water Aid, Oxfam, and NextDrop; Water for Women (PDF | 33MB), 2015, p.2