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

Sustainable water use in our manufacturing operations

Water is a vital shared resource for us, and those around us. We depend on sustainable access to water to keep our manufacturing operations running, as an ingredient in our products, to run our heating and cooling systems, and to clean our facilities.

water efficiency in factories

Water: essential to life, essential to health, essential to business

Access to safe water and sanitation, and the sound management of freshwater ecosystems are fundamental to human health, environmental sustainability and economic prosperity.

According to the UN, it’s through water that most of the impacts of climate change will be felt – and we're already seeing the effects. 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 migration and led to political instability.

Water scarcity and climate change are also major risks to our business. They have the potential to disrupt our supply chain, and impact the cost of the ingredients we use to make our products. What's more, water is a critical ingredient for us, as well as essential for the manufacturing process of most of our products. As a result of all these factors, water is one of our most material issues.

Water is also a key focus of the global sustainable development agenda. 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 water risk: a social and business necessity

While water scarcity is an issue on every continent, its impacts – and often its causes – are very local. With the important exception of climate change and its impact on water globally, addressing water scarcity means addressing thousands of local water crises that are affecting water availability and quality. Competing demands, land use change and poor sanitation: these are all threats to long-term water security.

In some regions, water scarcity is already affecting people’s lives and livelihoods, as well as their local ecosystems. And our manufacturing operations are not immune. For instance, water shortages in South Africa in 2018 led the city authorities of Boksburg – a manufacturing hub close to Johannesburg – to request industrial support to restrict operations. Secondary impacts of water shortages are also having an effect on energy generation resulting in increased load shedding.

Today, around 40% of our manufacturing sites are located in areas classified as water stressed. It’s never been more important to save water and manage water-related risks at our sites in water-stressed areas.

Going beyond our target

By the end of 2019, we had reduced the amount of water our factories use by 47% per tonne of production versus our 2008 baseline, despite growth in our production volume. We achieved – and surpassed – our 2020 target of reducing the volume of water we abstract by 40% per tonne of production in 2018, two years ahead of schedule. We've achieved this alongside an absolute water reduction of 81.6% since 1995. In 2019 alone, we reduced the absolute quantity of water abstracted by our manufacturing sites by 5.4% per tonne of production compared to 2018.

We have continued to go beyond our target, after having achieved and exceeded it in 2018, two years ahead of our deadline. In 2019, we cut the amount of water abstracted by our factories by 47% per tonne of production since 2008. This is equivalent to saving around 3.4 litres of water for every person on the planet.

Our water reductions have been delivered through our continuous improvement programme and achieved while meeting competitive financial requirements.

By improving our water efficiency, we’re building up our resilience to the impacts of climate change and preparing for a future where natural resources will be increasingly scarce. And despite meeting our 2020 target, we are continuing to drive an aggressive programme on water reductions in our manufacturing – increasing resilience, delivering cost savings and giving our business more agility when it comes to changing market demands.

Changing mindset, changing manufacturing

Reducing water use in our manufacturing operations has meant changing the way we think. In the past, water was widely undervalued by all manufacturers – despite its importance operationally and as an ingredient, it has typically had a low purchase price and been seen as abundant in supply.

That mindset has changed. We are getting better at understanding the costs of water to our business, and seeing how water-related events have an impact on our operations directly or indirectly.

Our water stress assessment process helps us focus efforts in places where water represents a current or short-to-medium term risk to our operations, communities and consumers. We track the water used in water-stressed sites separately, and allocate stretching targets. Monthly performance updates are shared across the business: this greater visibility helps us to maintain focus.

How we're delivering continuous improvement on water

Euros money
€122 million

Through our water-efficiency improvements, we have directly avoided costs of over €122 million since 2008

With the insights we gain from our assessment process, we're delivering a structured continuous improvement programme through our World Class Manufacturing Environmental pillar. It includes environmental compliance, optimisation and risk management. Our online 'best practice portal' contains over 600 water-related projects, which are evaluated by a central team and delivered to relevant sites.

While many of these best practices are 'no or low capital', for instance, revised cleaning matrices or improved level controls, some projects require capital investment. We have a sustainability capital programme, which is funded through our internal carbon penalty, and €6 million of the programme is ring-fenced for water-related projects. That means water projects still need to meet our internal investment criteria, but do not need to compete against energy efficiency projects.

As the cost of water rarely reflects its availability, we've given sites in water-stressed areas extended investment criteria, to ensure that we are allocating funding where it is needed the most and enhancing our business resilience through the water efficiency programme.

Examples of projects funded under this initiative in 2019 include:

  • Rainwater harvesting expansion project to increase capacity by a further 5,500 m3
  • Optimisation of vacuum pumps systems saving 38,000 m3 of water and 1.1 GJ electricity
  • Expansion of the metering programme to provide greater granularity of water data
  • Installation of solar water heating systems which eliminate the need for steam, saving 1,500 m3 of water and 63 tonnes of carbon

Water-saving projects can often help us save energy and support our climate goals, as we’re not pumping, heating and treating so much water. This in turn enables more competitive investment criteria and challenges misconceptions that water is cheap. We estimate that the real cost of water – which includes the pre-treatment, heating and wastewater treatment costs – is up to ten times the purchase price of water.

We also promote water reuse and recycling in our factories. For example, at one of our water-stressed sites in Brazil, we have implemented advanced water treatment technology to create a fully circular water process. Water which is used for washing mixing tanks is treated to very high standards, and reused over and over again. This has a significant impact on the water resources needed to run the factory, and means our environmental impact is lower during times of drought.

Spotlight

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. 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 all sites on a single online platform. This data is giving us new insights into losses and wasteful behaviours, and helping to identify better ways of working.

  3. Sharing of good practice: We encourage factory teams to share achievements through our online best practice portal. Our teams can now learn from nearly 400 water-saving techniques including new technologies, process optimisations and behaviours. These range from zero cost initiatives such as how to refresh the site cleaning matrix, to best practices such as the installation of nozzles on hoses and large-scale water recycling schemes.

  4. 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. In fact, 49 of our factories are zero liquid discharge sites. That is, 100% of the wastewater is reused and recycled in our manufacturing operations.

    For instance, in 2019 our home care factory in Vinhedo, Brazil, has further developed its water recycling programme and now has a fully circular solution which treats washwater to give it high water quality and allow for its reuse back into the process.

  5. 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 1.5 years. In 2019, we invested in 47 projects with a combined payback of 1.3 years, which are expected to save around 640 million litres of water per year and generate nearly €2 million in cost savings.

We’re always on the lookout for new ways to help us save water during the manufacturing process.

This work contributes to the following UN Sustainable Development Goals

  • Clean Water and Sanitation)
  • Responsible Consumption and Production)

Water targets that reflect local need

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 beyond our factories to consider factors such as community use and local population growth. We track the performance of these sites 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 2019, our sites located in water-stressed locations were 13% more water efficient per tonne of production than the average for Unilever sites.

Protecting water quality

In our manufacturing, a proportion of the 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 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.

Spotlight

Beyond our factory: a new start for ponds & canals in Pondicherry

Beyond our factory: a new start for ponds & canals in Pondicherry

In the Indian state of Puducherry, the region’s canals and abandoned ponds are the focus of a coordinated clean-up as part of the government of India's Water Rich mission. Neglected, blocked, and polluted, these waterways and ponds can prevent water from flowing away from farmers' fields, leading to flooding and damage to crops.

A team from our Home and Beauty & Personal Care factory in Pondicherry is lending its support to the Water Rich Puducherry programme, and in the last year has cleared weeds and debris from a total of 26 ponds and lakes while removing silt from 7.5 kilometres of canal. Working with the Pondicherry collectorate, the Governor house of Puducherry and local schools, they've also planted 500 saplings around these newly-cleared canals to protect the surrounding environment and increase vegetation.

The work, which has run alongside a programme to educate thousands of farmers on sustainable water irrigation, has improved overall water quality. Our team's contribution was recognised through the Swachhata Hi Seva (cleanliness is service) campaign award from the Puducherry Governor House.

This work contributes to the following UN Sustainable Development Goals

  • Responsible Consumption and Production)
  • Partnership For The Goals)

Cutting water pollution and consumption through tea sludge

According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, textile production uses around 93 billion m3 of water each year. Furthermore, 20% of industrial water pollution globally is from fabric dyes and treatments.

But our Ceytea factory in Sri Lanka is working with SLINTEC, a nanotechnology institute, and garment-dyeing and wash firm, Dynawash to transform their waste tea sludge into a suite of natural fabric dyes. The process sees the tea waste segregated, filtered and spray-dried to create the base for tea dye in powder form. This can then be transformed into a range of 15 natural colours to suit textile manufacturers’ needs, providing the fashion industry with non-toxic, biodegradable dyes that also cut water consumption.

The dyes, with the brand name T-Hues in a nod to their origin, have been used to dye all the fabric in our Ceytea factory team’s uniforms. And workwear is just the start. The T-Hues team are in the process of presenting ranges of naturally dyed scarves, shawls, hoodies and t-shirts to large retailers, including the UK’s Marks & Spencer.

† Independently assured by PwC.

Back to top

Connect with us

We're always looking to connect with those who share an interest in a sustainable future.

Contact us

Get in touch with Unilever and specialist teams in our headquarters, or find contacts around the world.

Contact us