Water use

This work supports the following UN Sustainable Development Goals

  • Responsible Consumption and Production
  • Climate Action
  • Partnership For The Goals
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Sustainable water use in our manufacturing operations

In our manufacturing operations, we depend on sustainable access to water, both in terms of quantity and quality. We use water as an ingredient in our products, to run our heating and cooling systems, and to clean our facilities.

water efficiency in factories

Water is essential to life

Access to safe water and sanitation, and sound management of freshwater ecosystems, are fundamental to human health, environmental sustainability and economic prosperity. Through a number of initiatives, our global manufacturing water programme is contributing to UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6: Ensure access to water and sanitation for all.

Doing more with less

By the end of 2017, we had cut the amount of water our factories use by 39% per tonne of production since 2008, and are on track to meet our water target by 2020. Through continuous improvement initiatives across our factory network to reduce, reuse and recycle water, we’re decoupling our water use from the growing volume of products we manufacture.

We have cut the amount of water abstracted by our factories by 39% per tonne of production since 2008. This has saved approximately 19.8 million† litres of water in total, equivalent to around 2.6 litres of water for every person on the planet.

In 2017, we reduced the absolute quantity of water abstracted by our sites by 2.9% and cut water intensity by 2.8% per tonne of production, compared to 2016. Water reduction initiatives can range from process improvements and behaviours to improved water efficiency cleaning technologies. For example, in 2017 our Goiania factory in Latin America installed a new tank cleaning system which saves 3,500m3 of water per year and also delivers a high quality performance using fewer chemicals in the process.

We promote water reuse and recycling in our factories. We now have over 50 zero liquid sites - where wastewater is treated and then reused on site - meaning virtually no water is discharged to the environment. For example, our Amli factory in India is treating and reusing wastewater for utilities, such as cooling towers and boilers. This has created water savings of over 600m3 per year, with an investment payback of the project being less than a year. This is good for the environment and makes business sense.

Our new factory programme is helping us achieve our water targets. We integrate water-efficiency features into the core design of each new facility or factory upgrade, such as different technologies, low water cleaning and water recycling. And we use best practices, from inside and outside the business, that reflect the latest sustainable design techniques and technologies.

Using less water can often help us save energy as we’re not pumping, heating and treating so much water. Using less water also helps us to improve overall efficiency and reduce waste. Since 2008, our water-efficiency improvements have resulted in direct avoided costs of around €82 million. Water efficiency is also building up our resilience to the impacts of climate change and helping us prepare our business for a future where natural resources will be increasingly scarce.

Water - Total load (1995-2017)



Water efficiency in factories

Our five steps for water efficiency

We’ve already made big improvements in water efficiency in our factories, but we know we can still go further. The following five steps help us do just that.

  1. Clear objectives: We set specific water reduction targets for each factory. Sites submit data monthly with performance tracked on a site, regional and group basis. Reports are shared across the business each quarter.

  2. Data and insights: We have been reporting environmental data since 1995 but from 2014, we started the roll-out of our detailed Metering, Monitoring and Targeting (MM&T) system. This provides hourly data on water use across a site, giving us new insights into losses and wasteful behaviours, and helping to identify better ways of working.

    For instance, in 2017 our Caivano ice cream factory in Italy used the data to improve water use during multiple weekend shutdowns. They updated their shutdown procedures to include closing water access to non-essential area. In doing this they were able to reduce annual water use by 15,000m3 per year at no additional cost. Together with other actions throughout the year, the site has reduced annual water intensity by 9%.

  3. Sharing of good practice: We encourage factory teams to share achievements through our online best practice portal. Our teams can now learn from over 200 water-saving techniques including new technologies, process optimisations and behaviours. These range from zero cost initiatives such as the Caivano example above to best practices such as the installation of nozzles on hoses and large-scale water recycling schemes.

  4. Pioneering mindset: We support our people to rethink the way we use water, to reassess our processing methods and to adopt new technologies. For instance, in 2017 our Savoury Foods factory in Lerma, Mexico, replaced their traditional water based cooling system with an air based alternative, saving 4,860 m3 water per year. We are looking at how can implement this in our other factory locations. Where possible, we’re introducing waterless technologies such as waterless vacuum pumps and steamless heating systems.

  5. Investment in water efficiency: Our centrally-managed €6 million ring-fenced capital fund invests in water projects, particularly in water-stressed locations. In 2017, we invested in 87 projects, expected to save 1.1 million m3 of water per year and generate €2.8 million in cost savings. Our projects, which range from low or no-cost behaviour changes to large initiatives - such as the installation of water recycling centres -have an average payback of just over two years.

We’re always on the lookout for new ways to help us save water during the manufacturing process. Over the next year, we will be focusing on the use of data to develop new insights into how we’re using water and identify further reduction opportunities.

Protecting water quality

Within the production of our products, a proportion of water that we abstract is used for activities such as cleaning, heating and cooling. This water is then treated, reused on site where possible and/or returned to the environment.

Through water recycling and zero liquid discharge projects, we aim to minimise the amount of water that leaves our factory. To protect water quality, we make sure that all our manufacturing sites apply high standards for water discharge and meet local environmental regulation. To track performance, we set Chemical Oxygen Demand (COD) reduction targets every year as part of our eco-efficiency manufacturing programme.

Managing scarcity and other water risks

Unlike carbon, water is a local issue. Each river basin or catchment area is discrete, and in most cases our manufacturing operations are reliant on the local supply of a particular basin.

Water scarcity is a major challenge in some regions, affecting people’s lives and livelihoods as well as local ecosystems. Today, 48% of our manufacturing sites are located in areas classified as water stressed. It’s important that we pay even more attention to saving water and managing water-related risks at our sites in water-stressed areas.

Contextual water targets

We identify sites in areas of water stress using the World Resources Institute’s (WRI) Aqueduct Tool, which is supported by media reviews and discussions with our local site teams.

We adopt a contextual approach to our internal water targets. The performance of these sites is tracked separately, and the targets are often more stringent. These sites also receive priority funding for water efficiency projects through our Sustainability Capital Fund and activities such as metering, monitoring and targeting have been prioritised in these areas.

By the end of 2017, sites located in water-stressed locations were 24% more water efficient per tonne of production than the average for Unilever sites.

Corporate water risk management

But even in water-stressed locations, the cost of buying water is often low and does not reflect its availability or its true value to our business or to local communities. This means that many water efficiency measures may not meet our standard investment criteria. To address this, we place additional value on water where it is stressed to drive greater internal investment. In 2017, we invested 62% of our €6m capital fund for water into projects at water-stressed sites.

In 2016 we conducted research with Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which applied inventory management principles to understand the potential impacts and business disruption costs associated with risks, such as restrictions to water supply. We’re continuing to develop our understanding and actions around water pricing and water-related risks.

WASH in the workplace

In 2013, we signed the World Business Council for Sustainable Development Pledge for Access to Safe Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) in the Workplace. This means we have committed to implementing access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene for all employees in our manufacturing and non-manufacturing sites that are under our operational control.

The Pledge aligns with our hygiene and occupational health standards. We have further integrated the Pledge requirements into our Standards for Occupational Health & Safety, Health and Environment (SHE) reporting.

Supporting water security projects

Water scarcity and declining water quality due to climate change, increasing demand, land use change and poor sanitation are all threats to long-term water security – for local communities in areas in which we have factories, and for us.

So we’re taking action to protect water quality and help ensure the long-term security of water supplies. Many of these projects are developed in partnership with community groups and local government, and support the SDGs, specifically SDG 6, ensure access to water and sanitation for all.

In India, for example, our Prabhat factory volunteering programme - which began in 2013 – is running at over 30 Unilever sites. The programme - which is aligned to the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan and our Vision to grow our business, whilst decoupling our environmental footprint from our growth and growing our increasing our positive social impact - aims to contribute to the development of local communities around our key manufacturing sites.

The key areas of the Prabhat programme - enhancing livelihoods, water conservation, health and hygiene, and most recently nutrition – have been chosen as these contribute towards India’s goal of augmenting growth through appropriate development and fostering innovation.

The water conservation initiative is spearheaded by Hindustan Unilever Foundation (HUF), a wholly owned subsidiary of Hindustan Unilever. The Foundation works with NGOs to deliver the agenda on creating water for public good. HUF provides the programme framework, supports in identifying implementing NGOs and funds the water pillar, and the supply chain team at Hindustan Unilever drive the programme on ground. Prabhat’s water conservation programme is currently active across seven manufacturing locations.

Independently assured by PwC.

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