Our water footprint

We measure the water impact of our products to inform our strategy.

Our impacts

Our use of water resources is both direct and indirect. Water is used:

  • by our suppliers of agricultural raw materials for growing crops
  • in our factories for the manufacture of our products
  • in our factories as an ingredient in our products
  • by our consumers when they use our products

“Water shortages are already affecting many parts of the world, particularly developing countries where much of Unilever’s future growth is expected to come from,” explains Sarah McDonald, Global Sustainable Business Director. “We are particularly focusing on the water used by our consumers when washing and cleaning - which is more than five times greater than the water embedded in the agricultural raw materials we buy.”

Our metric

We measure the water impact of our products during consumer use, which accounts for the majority of the water use associated with our products. We also include water as an ingredient in our products. We calculate our water metric annually at an absolute level as well as ‘per consumer use’, which means the water impact of washing hands with soap or doing a load of laundry for example.

For this calculation, we gather data for a large group of products that is representative of our portfolio. We include products from our five water-using categories: Hair Care, Household Care, Laundry, Oral Care and Skin Cleansing. We focus our calculation on seven water-scarce countries: China, India, Indonesia, Mexico, South Africa, Turkey and the US. In our definition of domestic water scarcity, we evaluate how many people in each country experience physical water scarcity as well as the number of people who lack access to sanitation and clean water.

Our absolute water footprint associated with the consumer use of our products is around 7 billion m3. The water impact of our products is around 14 litres per consumer use. The 2014-2015 figures as well as the 2010 baseline include updated data around consumer habits.

The water used in our manufacturing operations is measured separately as part of our eco-efficiency in manufacturing programme. For more information, see Eco-efficiency in manufacturing.

In 2012, we assessed the water used to produce our main agricultural raw materials. For this one-off study we used the Waterstat database from the Water Footprint Network. The study indicated that agricultural water use makes up approximately 15% of our footprint. Although we are a large food company, some of our largest volume raw materials, such as palm oil and tea, are generally rain-fed and therefore not water-intensive.

Tomatoes and sugar cane are in fact the two most water-intensive crops we buy. We have not repeated this study since 2012. The image below shows the relative impact of agricultural crops in our value chain.

However our biggest water use - around 85% - occurs when consumers use our products. Our analysis shows that most water is used for laundry, particularly washing clothes, and for showering, bathing and washing hair with our products.

Our water footprint (2014-2015)

  • ~15%

    'Water used' icon

    Water used in the agricultural raw materials we source, measured in all water-scarce countries in the world

  • <1%

    'Water we add' icon

    Water we add to the product

  • 85%

    'Water used by consumers' icon

    Water used by consumers in water-scarce countries, measured in seven water-scarce countries representing around half the world’s population

Measured 1 July 2014 - 30 June 2015

Assurance of our water metric

PwC have undertaken independent assurance of our latest water performance measure (2014-2015 as well as the 2010 baseline). This is the second year PwC have assured our water approach. Please see Independent Assurance for more details of our assurance programme.

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