We are addressing the challenge of water scarcity holistically to enable our business to thrive in a water-constrained world.
We will accelerate product innovation to meet the needs of consumers in water-scarce regions, while continuing to reduce water use in agriculture and our own manufacturing operations.
The business case
2.8 billion people live in water-stressed regions1. This number is estimated to increase to 4 billion by 2025. That is expected to be around half the world’s population. The social and economic consequences of this scale of water scarcity are immense. By 2030, it is estimated that the world will face a 40% global shortfall between water demand and supply.
We see consequences for our business if we don’t adapt to this new reality. The product categories in which we operate consume more than 90% of the water used at home - from washing dishes to cleaning hair, skin and clothes. As a result, consumers experiencing water scarcity in developing countries are making trade-offs about which tasks will get their small ration of water. This limits the growth of our products.
Sustainable Development Goal 6 sets out an ambition to “ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all” by 2030. Yet today, billions of people experience poor access to water due to insufficient quantity and quality.
Lack of water in the home is a social issue first and foremost. It affects women in developing countries the most. They are typically the ‘water managers’ of the home - collecting, storing and rationing water throughout the day. This is a time-consuming chore which constrains their opportunities for employment, and affects their safety and health – as well as the welfare of their families.
Household water scarcity is becoming a major issue in fast-growing cities in developing countries where infrastructure has not kept pace with the growth in population and income. The effects on lower and middle income urban populations can often be overlooked by governments, NGOs and businesses.
In 2010, we set ourselves the ambitious goal of halving the water associated with the consumer use of our products by 2020 because the water consumers need when they shower, bathe and clean with our products makes up the majority of our water footprint. However we have only reduced the water consumers’ use by 1%† since 2010.
Over the last five years we have learned more about people’s needs in water scarce situations - so we are sharpening our internal strategy. We will be refining our commitment for the water pillar of our Plan so that it better aligns with the ambitions of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), in particular SDG 6 on clean water and sanitation provision.
As a result of our refreshed strategy, two targets (on easy rinse products and water use in skin cleansing and hairwashing) are no longer included in our Plan to avoid repetition as we intend to drive these actions through our new commitment.
We will accelerate our efforts to develop water efficient products which meet the needs of urban consumers in water-scarce developing countries. We believe this group is among the most under-served – and is best aligned to our business growth priorities.
We focus our efforts on areas where our portfolio and scale allow us to have the biggest impact and which offer the biggest opportunities for our business.
Brands & innovation
- Develop innovative products which help consumers adapt to a water-scarce world.
- Build our Pureit and Qinyuan drinking water purification business.
- Support agricultural suppliers on better irrigation techniques and equipment, which will improve crop yields.
- Proactively map and manage water and climate risk in the supply chain.
- Continue to improve water efficiency in our factories.
- Create strong community watershed stewardship programmes in key factory locations.
- Work in partnership with government, retailers, like-minded businesses and civil society to tackle wider systems challenges around domestic water infrastructure, availability and use.
Halve the water associated with the consumer use of our products by 20201.
Progress to date
In 2015, our water impact per consumer use reduced by around 1%† compared to 2010.
However, we have made significant reductions in the water used in manufacturing, where our factories have abstracted 19 million† fewer cubic metres of water in 2015 than in 2008. This equates to a reduction of 37%† per tonne of production.
Investment in infrastructure, government regulation and action by the private sector are all essential to any lasting solutions. Water pricing, water metering, efficient household appliances and water-saving products will all be necessary levers to create the systemic change urgently needed for sustainable water use.
However, in some countries it will take time for governments to raise the quality and quantity of water supply. So there is an immediate need for new products that use water much more effectively in the home. Our challenge will be to accelerate our innovation pipeline to meet consumers’ needs.
Through our advocacy work we will promote policies and market-based solutions that enable more people to have a water supply which is enough for their basic household needs.
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Unilever Sustainable Living Plan, Mobilising Collective Action: Summary of progress 2015 (PDF | 8,638KB)
Download the Annual Report and Accounts 2015 (PDF | 9,308KB)