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 is essential to life
Access to safe water and sanitation, together with sound management of freshwater ecosystems, is fundamental to human health, environmental sustainability and economic prosperity.
According to the UN, it’s through water that we will see – and indeed are already seeing – most of the impacts of climate change. Higher temperatures and more extreme, less predictable, weather conditions are changing rainfall distribution, snowmelt, river flows and groundwater, and leading to deteriorating water quality. More flooding and droughts are predicted, and these changes in water availability have already influenced refugee dynamics and political instability.1
Water scarcity and climate change are major risks to our business because of the potential disruption to our supply chain, such as the cost of the ingredients we use to make our products. Water is also critical for the manufacturing and use of our products. As a result, water is one of our most material issues.
The actions of one user in a watershed can determine the water supply for everyone else. For example, if the water system in which we’re manufacturing our products depletes in quality or quantity, our business is at risk. Because of this, in areas where there are higher water risks, 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.
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. Specifically, we are contributing to target 6.3 on increasing the recycling and safe reuse of water globally, and to target 6.4 focusing on increasing water-use efficiency and sustainable withdrawals.
Managing scarcity and other water risks
The impacts of water scarcity are caused by global climate change but are experienced as local issues. 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 and declining water quality because of climate change, increasing demand, land use change and poor sanitation are all threats to long-term water security – both for local communities in areas in which we have factories, and for us.
Water scarcity is a major challenge in some regions, affecting people’s lives and livelihoods as well as local ecosystems. We have already experienced water scarcity at some of our manufacturing sites. For example, in 2015, the drought in Brazil required some of our factories to source their water from another area, transporting water through tankers while water access was restricted.
Today, around 40% 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.
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 2018, we invested around €1.6 million into projects at water-scarce sites.
Doing more with less
By the end of 2018, we had achieved our 2020 target, cutting the amount of water our factories use by 44%† per tonne of production since 2008. We achieved this despite growth in our production volume since 2008. Through continuous improvement initiatives across our factory network to reduce, reuse and recycle water, we’ve successful decoupled the amount of water we use in our factories from the growing volume of products we manufacture.
By the end of 2018, we had achieved our 2020 target, cutting the amount of water abstracted by our factories by 44%† per tonne of production since 2008. We save 22 billion litres of water each year versus 2008. This is equivalent to around 2.9 litres of water for every person on the planet.
In 2018, we reduced the absolute quantity of water abstracted by our sites by 7.2% and cut water intensity by 7.2% per tonne of production, compared to 2017. Through improving our water efficiency, we’re building up our resilience to the impacts of climate change and helping Unilever prepare for a future where natural resources will be increasingly scarce.
How are we reducing water use in our factories?
We have a number of water reduction initiatives in place, ranging from process improvements and behaviours to improved water efficiency cleaning technologies. It’s important that our efforts lead to improvements where it matters the most. This is why we regularly conduct water scarcity assessments and engage with local authorities to monitor the short and medium-term risks related to water access. We have extended the payback of projects in water-scarce locations to ensure more sites have access to capital.
For example, in 2018 we invested €32k on a rainwater harvesting project around the Tapti River in India, saving an estimated 43,000 m3 of water per year. The water harvesting potential of this project is 9,000 m3, which would be enough water to meet our needs for 30 days. In 2018, we also launched a rainwater harvesting challenge in South Asia to encourage factories to collect and reuse as much water as possible during the rainy season. In total, 33 million litres of water were collected and reused, with factory teams aiming to collect even more rainwater in 2019.
We promote water reuse and recycling in our factories. We now have over 68 zero liquid discharge 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.
Through our water-efficiency improvements, we have directly avoided costs of around €105 million since 2008
Our new factory programme is also 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 €105 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 (1995-2018)
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.
- 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.
- 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 2018 the team at our Cavite factory in the Philippines used the data to identify water inefficiencies related to their shutdown processes. They have now identified which equipment is critical to ensure the safety of our people and quality of our products, and ensured nothing else remains operating during non-productive periods. This is saving the factory €5k each year with no costs being created.
- 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 Cavite example above to best practices such as the installation of nozzles on hoses and large-scale water recycling schemes.
- Zero loss mindset: We want to drive a zero loss mindset, not only to support our people to rethink the way we use water, but also to reassess our processing methods, adopt new technologies and, encourage as much reuse as possible on site. For instance, in 2018 our Homecare factory in Vinhedo, Brazil, has stopped all water discharges, through installing innovative equipment in their tertiary wastewater treatment and redirecting all treated water to various processes on site (e.g. cooling towers, fire suppression systems, irrigation, wastewater treatment plant).
- Investment in water efficiency: Our centrally-managed ring-fenced capital fund invests in water projects, particularly in water-stressed locations. 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. In 2018, we invested in 57 projects which are expected to save around 900 million litres of water per year and generate €2.5 million in cost savings.
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, share best practices between sites and develop a zero liquid discharge roadmap for those sites which are in water-stressed locations.
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.
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.
Going a step further: Unilever Ceytea factory & Project Arunella
One of our factory sites, Ceytea in Sri Lanka, has gone further. The Kotmale Oya tributary was being severely polluted through the dumping of waste. So, in 2016, a joint initiative between Unilever, the Nuwara Eliya Pradeshiya Sabha, the Agarapathana and Dayagama Police and members of the local community, the Arunella Waste Management and Segregation Programme, was launched to tackle the issue.
The Ceytea factory team kick started the project with a series of awareness sessions covering all towns in the area with the support of the Nuwaraeliya Pradeshiya Sabha and the Agarapathana Police. Dedicated garbage bins for segregating biodegradable and non-biodegradable waste were distributed to the community. The Nuwara Eliya Pradeshiya Sabha processes biodegradable waste at the Pathana Composting plant with non-biodegradable waste being recycled.
Environmental committees comprising of members of the local community were set up to make the initiative self-sustainable. These teams of volunteers monitor the situation on the ground and ensure proper segregation, collection and disposal of waste. Working closely with the Nuwaraeliya Pradeshiya Sabha, the Agarapathana Police and the Unilever Ceytea Factory, they meet once a month to discuss the progress of the project. By 2018, zero waste was being dumped into the Kotmale Oya tributary and the local community was able to use it again.
The programme is expanding to include schools near the Ceytea factory and hopes to reach 20,000 students. The aim is to sustain the project in the long-term by educating the next generation of local residents.
Contextual water targets
We identify sites in areas of water stress using the World Resources Institute’s (WRI) Aqueduct Tool. We support this with media reviews and discussions with our local site teams.
We adopt a contextual approach to our internal water targets in these areas, broadening our focus to beyond our factories to consider factors such as community use and local population growth. 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 2018, sites located in water-stressed locations were 18% more water efficient per tonne of production than the average for Unilever sites.
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.