Water use

This work supports the following UN Sustainable Development Goals

  • Responsible Consumption and Production
  • Partnership For The Goals
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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.

Dry wash spray

Water scarcity – a problem for people, societies and business

Our daily lives and simple chores depend on water. But in water-scarce regions, the supply and quality of water is unreliable.

Water stress is also a business issue. Water is fundamental to the manufacturing and use of our products. Constraints on the quality and quantity of the water available limits our ability to operate effectively and meet the needs of our consumers.

When water is scarce, or supplies are unreliable, people limit how frequently they wash or do the laundry, which can reduce demand for our products. Climate change is increasing the challenges of water scarcity, so the impact on individuals and our business will grow. As a result, water is one of our most material issues.

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 – new products or formulations that work just as well but with less water, poor quality water or no water at all.

Our biggest water use – over 99% of our water footprint - occurs when people use our products at home. So we’re concentrating on product categories which require the 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 water consumption. 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 projects and business models that can increase access to water, including the creation of community hygiene centres.

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.


Why water scarcity is everyone’s problem


Kees Kruythoff

Kees Kruythoff, President, Unilever Home Care and Chair of Unilever’s Water Board

“I can’t believe that Cape Town, a place close to my heart, could become the first major city to run out of water. We have seen many droughts in the country, but never thought an entire city could be restricted to 50 litres of water per person, per day. -That’s a 90-second shower, flushing the toilet only once and not using the washing machine.

Having also lived in Brazil and the US – two countries heavily affected by drought in recent years – I’ve seen first-hand the impact this has on families and communities. But what’s even more alarming is the fact that millions of people on this planet live without access to water every single day.

This is wholly unacceptable. As a business, we must ask ourselves what we can do to address challenges like these and improve people’s lives. That’s why we launched the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan in 2010.

Reaching 2.5 billion people a day with our products, we know we are uniquely placed to use our size and scale for good. In concrete terms, that means working on innovative solutions that help people cope with situations where they have little or no water, and improve the quality of the water available to them for drinking, washing and cleaning.”

Spotlight

Domestos' "flush less" product

Flush less with Domestos Flush Less

Even though Day Zero – the day when the taps are expected to run dry – has not happened, the City of Cape Town – the metropolitan municipality which implements all the functions of local government - continues to impose heavy water consumption restrictions. Current water-saving measures include asking people to flush the toilet only when necessary, keeping the ‘If it’s yellow, let it mellow’ philosophy in mind.1

To respond to the water crisis in South Africa, in 2018 we introduced Domestos Flush Less, a toilet spray that disinfects and eliminates odours without the need to flush. The smell of urine is neutralised and eliminated by the spray’s sophisticated fragrance. And odour-causing bacteria is killed by the spray’s disinfecting active ingredient.

“The fragrant odour-killing spray is easy to use, effective and gives residents some reprieve from the dire situation they face,” says Domestos Marketing Manager, Elizabeth Mokwena. “It serves to help households and businesses save water by reducing the number of times they flush their toilets.”

Laundry, just not as you know it

Mashign machine
0.02%

Each bottle of Day2 is made with only 0.02% of the water used in a normal laundry load

The right outfit can make you feel on top of the world, but unfortunately fast fashion is one of the worst things for our world. 80 billion pieces of clothing are consumed every year, and almost 3,000 litres of water are needed to produce just one t-shirt – that’s enough water to keep the average person hydrated for three years!

The average shirt can be washed 35–50 times during its life span. 40% of the clothes we wash don’t really need to go through a full wash. So in 2018 we launched Day2, a dry wash spray that revives clothes to look, feel and smell ‘just-washed’ in between washes – saving water and time.

Think dry shampoo for clothes. They go from being just-worn to refreshed in just 15 minutes. Day2 removes odours using our latest malodour technology. It also restores shape and softness to the clothes, giving them an instant iron effect.

Designed to make people’s lives a little bit easier, a bottle of Day2 gives approximately 25 uses. Day2 is made with only 0.02% of the water used in a normal laundry load. By prolonging the time between washes, each bottle saves 60 litres of water. The Day2 spray can is powered by air – it’s an air-o-sol – making it carbon neutral when used. And when the bottle is empty, people can download a postage label from our Day2 website and return it free of charge, so that it can be recycled.

And in early 2019, we launched a dry wash spray as part of our new Love Home and Planet range in the US. This innovative dry wash format revives clothes, helping people to wear previously worn clothes that don’t yet need to be washed, reducing water use in the process.

Cutting water with Love Beauty & Planet and Love Home & Planet

Product innovation in our personal care ranges can help people to reduce how much water they use in their home. For example, our Love Beauty and Planet range in the US and Europe – 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.

Our SmartFoam technology is an anti-foam molecule which reduces the amount of water needed by up to half, by breaking down soap suds more quickly. 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 and Rin laundry powder. Since then, we have launched SmartFoam products in Indonesia and Vietnam.

A bold approach to urban hygiene in India

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 - 1.8MB), 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.

Suvidha Centre, India

Water, time and opportunities for women

Collectively, women and girls in water-scarce areas spend around 200 million hours every day getting water for domestic use. So we opened 18 Water Centres in Nigeria to help give women back this time by providing easy, affordable access to clean water. The first two Water Centres opened their doors in 2014 through a partnership between Sunlight – our laundry and dishwashing brand – and Oxfam. We then worked with non-profit organisation TechnoServe to open 16 more centres during 2015 and 2016, each benefiting more than 500 people.

The Water Centres were designed to be sustainable local businesses. They sell clean water at an affordable price, and double up as the village shop offering food, goods, phone charging and mobile banking facilities. We train local women to run the centres, giving them new skills and an opportunity to earn a salary. The local community provides the land and in return has an equity stake. The retail businesses help subsidise sales of water at an affordable cost, and provide the resources and incentive needed to maintain the water boreholes.

However, the Water Centres have not become as self-sustaining as we hoped, and there have been difficulties in ultimately scaling up this approach, leading to no further centres being opened. We are working with TechnoServe to help ensure that the water activities of the centres continue in the future.

Local women are continuing to run the retail aspect of the centres, and we have included this activity within our Shakti Entrepreneurs programme, which is designed to empower women entrepreneurs through access to training and support, as they in turn empower our business. We are continuing to explore different business models that can improve access to clean water.

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-consumption uses. They have also developed materials to help people implement greywater recycling methods at home.

The UCEWQ – which is located 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 the Caring for Catchments programme, which aims to make 30% more water available in two water catchments in South Africa by 2030.

In 2019, the UCEWQ and Unilever South Africa will embark on a Caring for Catchments project in the Klip River catchment area, where a Unilever factory is situated in the Gauteng Province. The project will address water quality and governance challenges through tools that improve the link between resource conditions and water use licensing. The findings of this project will be used to contribute to tackling systemic governance failures within the river catchment area.

Explore our safety and environmental science approaches to learn more about our work.

1The City of Cape Town

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