Water use

Growing water scarcity is a huge risk to our future growth – as well as a business opportunity to better meet people’s needs.

Lady washing clothes with one rinse

2.8 billion people around the world live in water-stressed regions. This number is estimated to increase to 4 billion by 2025. That is expected to be around half the world’s population.

At the same time, consumer demand for water has doubled since 1950. It is predicted to double again by 2030. The consequences for food security, health and living conditions are substantial. We are focusing our expertise and resources on developing products, devices and services that meet the domestic water needs of our consumers in water-scarce countries. We are working with suppliers to reduce the water used to grow our crops in these countries. We are also reducing water use in our own factories across the world.

Our strategy

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.

1 World Economic Forum Initiative, Managing Future Water Needs

Our approach

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.

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Our focus

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.

Supply chain

  • 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.

Factories

  • Continue to improve water efficiency in our factories.
  • Create strong community watershed stewardship programmes in key factory locations.

Advocacy

  • Work in partnership with government, retailers, like-minded businesses and civil society to tackle wider systems challenges around domestic water infrastructure, availability and use.

Our commitment

Halve the water associated with the consumer use of our products by 20201.

1 Our environmental targets are expressed against a baseline of 2010 and on a 'per consumer use' basis. This means a single use, portion or serving of a product. We are reporting against our five water-using sub-categories (Laundry, Hair Care, Oral Care, Skin Cleansing and Household Care) in seven water-scarce countries: China, India, Indonesia, Mexico, South Africa, Turkey and the US.

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.

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Future challenges

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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Downloads

Unilever Sustainable Living Plan, Mobilising Collective Action: Summary of progress 2015 (PDF | 8,638KB)

Download the Annual Report and Accounts 2015 (PDF | 9,308KB)

Taking action

We are taking action on water in our value chain.

Our water footprint

Our water footprint

We have conducted detailed measurement and analysis of our water footprint to inform our strategy.

Helping consumers maximise water

Helping consumers maximise water

Our deep understanding of what motivates consumers gives us a unique opportunity to encourage people to make small changes to their everyday habits and use water more efficiently.

Smart solutions for a water-scarce future

Woman collecting water from a Sunlight water centre

We are exploring options by investing in solutions for communities

Targets & performance

We have an ambitious target to halve the water associated with the consumer use of our products in water-scarce countries1.

Water

Our Commitment

Halve the water associated with the consumer use of our products by 20201.

Our Performance

In 2015, our water impact per consumer use decreased by around 1% since 2010.

Our Perspective

We have made significant reductions in the water used in manufacturing. However, the biggest impact comes from water used by consumers when they shower, bathe and clean with our products. In 2015 the water associated with the consumer use of our products has only reduced by around 1% versus 2010.

We have made some progress in designing and rolling out products which require less water such as Comfort One Rinse fabric conditioner and Sunsilk leave-on conditioners.

Towards the end of 2015 we announced the partnership between our Dove brand and Delta Faucet Company in the US, to reduce consumer water usage during showering without compromising on the showering experience. Together we launched the more water efficient Delta Hydrafall™ showerhead, which when used with Dove Deep Moisture Body Wash, provides a more nourishing skin experience compared with using a standard showerhead, and reduces water use. We have also continued to pilot our Sunlight Water Centres in Nigeria and opened five more in 2015.

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)2 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.

1 Our environmental targets are expressed against a baseline of 2010, as recalculated in December 2015, and on a 'per consumer use' basis. This means a single use, portion or serving of a product. We are reporting against our five water-using sub-categories (Laundry, Hair Care, Oral Care, Skin Cleansing and Household Care) in seven water-scarce countries: China, India, Indonesia, Mexico, South Africa, Turkey and the US.

2 See Our Metrics for more detail

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  • Achieved: 1
  • On-plan: 3
  • Off-plan: 1
  • % of target achieved: 0

Our targets

Please see Independent Assurance for more details of our assurance programme across the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan.

Reduce water abstracted by manufacturing sites

  • By 2020, water abstraction by our global factory network will be at or below 2008 levels, despite significantly higher volumes.

This represents a reduction of around 40% per tonne of production. Versus a 1995 baseline, this represents a 78% reduction per tonne of production and a 65% absolute reduction.

Versus a 1995 baseline, this represents a 78% reduction per tonne of production and a 65% absolute reduction.

We will focus in particular on factories in water-scarce locations.

  • All newly-built factories will aim to abstract less than half the water of those in our 2008 baseline.

19 million fewer cubic metres of water abstracted in 2015 than in 2008 (a reduction of 37% per tonne of production).

Compared to 1995 this represents a 77% reduction in absolute terms.

New factories in the US, China, South Africa, Brazil and Indonesia started production in 2015. When fully operational each aims to abstract only half the water for factory operations than those factories in a representative 2008 baseline.

Our Perspective

We have reduced the total volume of water abstracted for use in manufacturing by more than three quarters since 1995.

In 2015, we achieved a reduction of 37% per tonne of production compared to 2008. We have achieved this despite growth in our production volume since 2008. The reduction equates to around 2.5 litres of water for every person on the planet.

Our progress has been driven by continuous improvement initiatives at all sites to reduce, reuse and recycle water. We do this through a combination of low-cost and no-cost techniques and behaviours, and a water-specific capital investment programme.

In addition to our longer-term target to reduce total water abstracted, we also set stretching year-on-year targets that keep us on the trajectory required to achieve our 2020 targets.

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Improving water efficiency in our factories

Reduce water use in the laundry process

We will reduce the water required in the laundry process by:

  • Providing 50 million households in water-scarce countries with laundry products that deliver excellent results but use less water by 2020.

In 2015, One Rinse products were used in 4.9 billion washes in just over 50 million households worldwide.

Our Perspective

Comfort One Rinse continued its leading position in a number of markets: for example, in 2015 it accounted for 43% of the fabric conditioner market in Vietnam, and rose to over a quarter of the market in Indonesia.

As Brazil experienced an unprecedented drought in 2015, we leveraged our understanding of consumers’ habits to raise awareness of water wasted from doing more than one rinse through our #1RinseIsEnough social media campaign. We estimate it helped Brazil save a potential 229 billion litres of water a year. And underlying sales of Omo detergent rose 15% during the period of the campaign, helping the brand grow at nearly double the market rate. This helped us to reach our target of 50 million households early.

We also have a strong pipeline of future water-saving innovations. This gives us confidence that we will continue to make progress in the coming years.

Helping consumers maximise water

Reduce water use in agriculture

  • We will develop comprehensive plans with our suppliers and partners to reduce the water used to grow our crops in water-scarce countries.

In 2015 analysis of data from our supplier self-assessments showed that Unilever tomato suppliers in the top five sourcing regions have a lower water footprint per tonne compared to regional baselines calculated by the Water Footprint Network (WFN).

Our Perspective

Our supplier self-assessment software system has been in operation since 2011. Our third analysis in 2015 of data collected through this system showed a continued reduction in irrigation water use per tonne of crop grown.

We studied data on Californian tomatoes, comparing it with predicted values from the Water Footprint Network. The actual abstraction rate that our suppliers reported in California was 20 m3 per tonne less than expected, even when using conservative estimates. This suggests that our suppliers in the region are very efficient and the results back up on-the-ground reports.

With the sale of our pasta sauce business in the US in 2015, the volume of tomatoes that we source in California has decreased, and so the contribution tomatoes make to our overall water footprint has gone down too.

Using water wisely in agriculture

Key

  • Achieved
  • On-plan
  • Off-plan
  • Of target achieved
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