Our Water Footprint

We have conducted detailed measurement and analysis of our water footprint 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 the growing of crops;

  • in our factories both as an ingredient in our products and during the manufacturing process; and

  • by our consumers when they use our products to do their laundry and when showering, cleaning and cooking.

Our biggest impacts on water use occur in the use of our personal care and laundry products.

Measuring our water footprint

Our water metric considers the water added to the product and the water used by consumers in water-scarce countries. It is expressed on a ‘per consumer use’ basis, for example the water needed for one hair wash with shampoo.

To set the baseline we assessed the water impact of more than 1,600 representative products in 2008. We calculated it at an absolute level as well as on a ‘per consumer use’ basis.

We assessed domestic water used with our products in 14 countries and chose to focus on those seven countries that we have defined as water scarce. These are: China, India, Indonesia, Mexico, South Africa, Turkey and the US, representing around half of the world’s population. 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 have access to an improved water source. Our calculation covers 70% of our volume in these water-scarce countries.

Our 2008 baseline was a relatively manual process. In 2012 we invested in an automated process to improve the speed and accuracy of our footprint calculations, which we measure on a rolling basis from 1 July to 30 June. The new measurement has also expanded the number of representative products we assess to over 2,000.

The automated process starts with 2010 data, not the original 2008 data, and so we have decided to use the 2010 footprint as the new baseline for our Plan goal to halve the environmental footprint of the making and use of our products in water, waste and GHG by 2020. This will enable us to report like-for-like figures which can be externally assured.

More on our water footprint

We consider water across the full value chain and we are making progress in this. Water used in our manufacturing operations is captured separately as part of our eco-efficiency in manufacturing programme.

We have also made great progress in assessing the water used to produce our agricultural materials. We have found that the water used in agriculture was less than we previously thought – about 15% versus our 2008 estimate of 50%. 

Water footprint

We used the Waterstat database from the Water Footprint Network to estimate the water used to produce our agricultural raw materials. For this study we included all the water-scarce countries in the world from which we source agricultural raw materials. Unlike for domestic water, access to an improved water source is not relevant for growing crops. As such our calculations only included physical water scarcity as defined for the water footprint based on domestic water.

Our water footprint by category (2013)

2013 data = 1 October 2012 - 30 September 2013. Previous years are calendar year (1 January to 31 December).

Water - Total load (1995-2013)

2013 data = 1 October 2012 - 30 September 2013. Previous years are calendar year (1 January to 31 December).

In November 2010, as part of our Unilever Sustainable Living Plan, we made a commitment to halve the water associated with the consumer use of our products by 2020.

Understanding our footprint

Our analysis has helped us to see which of our product categories are more water-intensive than others, and therefore yield the biggest opportunities for reductions. Our analysis shows that around 41% of our water footprint comes from the laundry process - a significant proportion of this is washing laundry by hand in the developing world. A further 37% of our footprint comes from showering, bathing and washing hair with our products and 13% from household care, largely washing dishes by hand.

To see the data behind the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan we have devised a Product Analyser that shows the environmental impact of a selection of our products across their lifecycle. This provides the greenhouse gases, water or waste impacts of a representative Food, Home or Personal Care product on a 'per consumer use' basis.

At the touch of a button, people can find out the water used for one wash with laundry powder, the greenhouse gas emissions associated with one cup of tea, or the waste associated with one use of a roll-on deodorant. See the Product Analyser(Link opens in a new window) for more.

We have developed our understanding of water impacts further. A key part of this is calculating the water use associated with the sourcing of our raw materials. Our assessment of agricultural water use identified tomatoes and sugar as key crops from a water use perspective, and also identified priority locations. We are developing plans with our suppliers to reduce water use where this can have the greatest impact.

We are also investigating the water used to produce our key non-renewable raw materials. We are contributing to research in Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) to develop better data on the virtual water used in producing industrial products. We have also assessed water use across the lifecycle of a laundry detergent, including the virtual water in raw materials.

External review

Feedback and external scrutiny is important in helping to strengthen our analysis. We invited an external panel of environmental LCA experts to review our approach.

The panel was led by Professor Roland Clift, Professor of Environmental Technology at the University of Surrey’s Centre for Environmental Strategy. The outcome of the peer review exercise has been published. See Our Metrics for more.