Water-smart products for water-stressed living
With half of the global population expected to live in areas of water stress by 2025, new approaches to cutting water use at home have never been more important.
Water scarcity - a problem for people, societies and business
Our daily lives and simple chores depend on water. But in water-scarce regions, where the supply and quality of water is unreliable, people must go to great lengths to obtain the water they need. They may be forced to walk long distances to collect and carry water by hand, or to buy expensive and potentially unsafe bottled water.
Lack of access to water reinforces many other problems in society and makes it hard for individuals to break out of poverty. In sub-Saharan Africa, 40 billion working hours are lost every year to collecting water. More often than not, the responsibility for collecting water falls on women’s shoulders, reinforcing gender inequality.
Water stress is also a business issue. When water is scarce, or supplies are unreliable, people limit how frequently they wash or do the laundry. This can reduce demand for our products. Climate change is set to increase the challenge of water scarcity, so the impact on individuals and our business will grow. By helping to tackle water scarcity we can change people’s lives, build our brands and contribute towards UN Sustainable Development Goal 6 – ensure access to water and sanitation for all.
Water-smart products and new ideas
We’re investing in product innovation to cut water use, and we’re exploring options beyond our traditional business model to find new solutions for communities. One priority is to research, develop and launch water-smart products – that is, new products or formulations that work well with less water such as easy-rinse laundry products. We call these water-smart products.
Our biggest water use - over 99% of our water footprint - occurs when consumers use our products. So we’re concentrating on product divisions which require most water to use including laundry, household cleaning, skin cleansing, oral and hair care. Water-smart products are particularly suited to the needs of people living in water-stressed areas but can also help encourage a wider shift to more sustainable consumption of water. They will help our business become more resilient to the impacts of climate change.
However, water-efficient products on their own aren’t enough when many communities still lack access to a clean, reliable local water supply. That’s why we’re also investing in new projects and business models that can increase access to water, including the creation of community hygiene and water centres.
A bold approach to urban hygiene
Rapid urbanisation means many low-income people in India live without easy access to clean water, a flushing toilet and other basic services. For example, more than half of Mumbai’s 12.5 million inhabitants don’t have their own toilet. The urban poor may pay up to 50 times more for a litre of water than their richer neighbours, as they often have to buy their water from private vendors.
Now, over 1,500 people in one of Mumbai’s largest slums are benefiting from clean water and facilities at our pioneering Suvidha Centre (PDF | 2MB) which opened in 2016. Suvidha (which means ‘facility’ in Hindi) was built with our partners, the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai and Pratha Samajik Sanstha, a non-profit community organisation. The Centre is the first of its kind in India. It provides flushing toilets, handwashing facilities with soap, clean showers, safe drinking water and state-of-the-art laundry operations at an affordable cost for low-income households.
Located in the heart of Azad Nagar, one of Mumbai’s many slums, the Centre meets almost 80% of people’s basic water needs for laundry, showers, toilets and handwashing. The services are provided on a pay-per-use basis, which are below market rates.
Saving water is a priority for the Centre - and circular economy principles have been integrated into its design. Fresh water is first used for bathing, handwashing and laundry. The wastewater from these activities is then used for flushing toilets. The Centre’s water recycling unit helps to recycle 90% of the water used – and a rainwater harvesting system helps to reduce the demand on mains water supplies.
"Go easy on the tap": cutting water use with fast-rinse
Product innovation in our beauty & personal care ranges can help people to reduce how much water they use in their home. For example, our new Love Beauty and Planet range in the US – launched in 2018 – uses fast-rinse technology in its conditioners. These conditioners give great results while being quicker to rinse out.
If every woman in the US saved even 10 seconds per shower, it would save enough water to meet all the water needs of half a million people for that year. Through providing fast-rinse conditioners, sharing ‘how to use’ instructions and social engagement, Love Beauty and Planet encourages people “to go easy on the tap” and cut their water use.
Smarter rinsing with SmartFoam
In many developing and emerging countries, clothes are still washed by hand. This time-consuming task uses up to 40% of a household’s domestic water consumption. Rinsing uses around 70% of this water and our research shows that people continue to rinse until there are no visible soap suds left.
The SmartFoam technology is a patented anti-foam molecule, which reduces the number of rinses needed by up to half, by breaking down soap suds more quickly. This saves significant amounts of water - and makes washing easier and quicker. It was first launched in South Africa in 2016 in our Sunlight 2-in-1 Handwashing Laundry Powder and in India in our Rin soap bars.
Washing dishes can take up to 20% of daily domestic water but switching products can help people to use less water. In India, our market research shows that people who use a liquid detergent, rather than a detergent bar, use one-third less water when washing dishes. This is equivalent to saving two buckets of water every time the dishes are cleaned – a significant reduction, particularly for a country prone to water scarcity and drought.
Water, time and opportunities for women
Binta Musa lives in Kubacha, Nigeria. She used to struggle to get the clean water needed to run her household of ten people and missed out on time that could have been spent on education, running her business and looking after family. Binta’s story is far from unusual. Collectively, women and girls in water-scarce areas spend around 200 million hours every day1 getting water for domestic use.
Our 18 Water Centres in Nigeria are giving people like Binta back this time by providing easy, affordable access to clean water. The first two centres opened in 2014, through a partnership between Sunlight – our laundry and dishwashing brand – Oxfam and non-profit organisation Technoserve. With Technoserve, we have now opened 16 more centres, each benefiting more than 500 people.
The Water Centres are designed to be sustainable local businesses. They sell clean water at an affordable price, and double up as the village shop selling food, goods, phone charging and mobile banking facilities. The local community provides the land and in return has an equity stake. The village shops at the Water Centres help subsidise sales of water at an affordable cost, and provide the resources and incentive needed to maintain the water boreholes.
We train local women to run the centres, giving them new skills and an opportunity to earn a salary.
“The Centre provides for the daily needs of the community – access to clean water and other essential products that are required by families. I feel very happy, excited and fulfilled. I am meeting the needs of my community and making earnings from it. It’s my desire that the business expands and that there will be many women working for Sunlight Water Centres.”
Charity Dangana, Sunlight Water Centre entrepreneur, Kubacha, Nigeria
The Water Centres are good for our business too, as they provide opportunities to sell Unilever brands.
We’ve explored the links between access to water and gender equality in the ‘Water for Women Report 2015’ (PDF | 34MB) – published with WaterAid, Oxfam, UNESCO, the World Water Assessment Programme and NextDrop – and in our 2017 report, ‘Opportunities for Women: challenging harmful social norms and gender stereotypes to unlock women’s potential’ (PDF | 7MB). These showed the cost to women and girls of accessing clean water, particularly in water-scarce locations and called for action by government, civil society, business and communities.
One bucket, One Rinse with Comfort
Our Comfort One Rinse fabric conditioner cuts the volume of water needed for handwashing clothes by up to half per wash, saving around 20 litres. It’s designed to quickly dissolve the foam created by detergent, so just one rinse is needed – equivalent to one bucket of water instead of the usual three.
We first launched Comfort One Rinse in Vietnam in 2013 - a country where one in every three people has no access to fresh, clean water. Since then, we estimate that the use of Comfort One Rinse has saved 636 million litres of water being used in Vietnam – meaning we’re on track to achieve our ambition of saving 1 billion litres by the end of 2020.
We’ve learned that product innovation is often just the first step in getting people to change their laundry habits - raising awareness is equally important. So, when we launched Comfort One Rinse, we began a partnership with the Vietnamese Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment to raise awareness about water scarcity in rural areas, educate people to change their laundry rinsing habits, and show how the benefits of using Comfort One Rinse can help reduce water use. This campaign was particularly resonant during 2016 and 2017, when Vietnam endured its worst drought in 100 years.
During 2017, our campaign enabled people to reduce their own water use and donate water to drought-affected regions, reaching 14 million people across Vietnam. We also partnered with youth organisations, training 5,400 students to visit rural households with the One Rinse message. Over 61,000 people made a donation by purchasing special packs of Comfort One Rinse. In total: 350,000 m3 of water was donated; we installed 12 sustainable water systems; and a thousand 500 litre water tanks were provided to the 15 regions most heavily impacted by the drought, so rural communities could store clean water.
The campaign helped sales of Comfort One Rinse increase by 9.7%, compared to 2016. In 2017, Comfort One Rinse accounted for 24% of the total fabric conditioner market in Vietnam.
Researching the next new solution for water scarcity
Water recycling at home can help people in water-scarce areas to make better use of resources. We are conducting research into the recycling of household greywater – the wastewater generated through activities such as washing and cooking – to help us develop new product innovations for people who live in water-scarce areas.
Since 2017, the Unilever Centre for Environmental Water Quality (UCEWQ) in South Africa have been analysing the potential risks and opportunities from using greywater in small-scale agriculture, for toilet flushing and other non-consumptive uses. They have also developed materials to help people implement greywater recycling methods at home.
The UCEWQ – which is situated at the Institute for Water Research at Rhodes University - partners with industry, local and national government, water resource management forums, communities and other academic institutions, to increase knowledge about, and practice methods towards, the sustainable management of water resources in South Africa. The UCEWQ are experts on Integrated Water Resource Management, and are the knowledge hub for a Caring for Catchments programme, which aims to make 30% more water available in two water catchments in South Africa by 2030.
The UCEWQ are also working to develop a behaviour change programme for water which we can activate through our brands, with our consumers.
Explore our safety and environmental science approaches to learn more about our work.
1 Unilever, Water Aid, Oxfam, and NextDrop; Water for Women (PDF | 34MB), 2015, p.2