Our Water Strategy

The Unilever Sustainable Living Plan commits us to halving the water associated with the consumer use of our products by 2020.

The business case

2.8 billion people live in water-stressed regions today. This number is estimated to increase to 4 billion - half the world’s population - by 2025. Yet as incomes rise, demand for water rises too. Consumer demand has doubled since 1950 and is predicted to double again by 2030.

70% of the world’s useable water is consumed in agriculture and a further 20% for industry. With the population growing to 9 billion by 2050, food production has to increase by 70% to meet global food security needs. This will require a huge increase in water needed for farming.

Only a small proportion - 10% - is used domestically. Yet for people short of water, the social and economic consequences are immense. Water management is a time-consuming chore for many women in developing and emerging countries with consequences for health, income and education. They often have to walk long distances to collect water, stand in queues or are restricted to the house until their water supply is turned on. Even water for basic hygiene - washing hands or cleaning dishes - can be limited.

At Unilever we see consequences for our business too. We are reliant on sufficient water to irrigate some of our crops. Our factories require water for processing. Perhaps most significantly, the product categories in which Unilever operates can account for more than 90% of domestic water use - from washing dishes to cleaning hair, skin and clothes - in some countries. Those consumers experiencing water scarcity in developing countries are making trade-offs about which tasks will get their scarce ration of water, which also limits the growth of our products.

Our water footprint

The majority of Unilever’s water footprint, 85%, is associated with the consumer use of our products whilst irrigation water for agricultural raw materials makes up about 15%.

We measured the consumer use of water by assessing over 2,000 representative products in seven water-scarce countries, accounting for around half the world’s population, setting a 2010 baseline.

In 2012, we completed an assessment of the amount of irrigation water used to produce our key raw materials in all the water-scarce countries we source from worldwide. At 15% of our value chain, our agricultural water footprint is much lower than we had previously thought. The two most water-intensive crops we purchase are tomatoes and sugar cane.

In the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan we have set ourselves an ambitious goal to halve the water associated with the consumer use of our products by 2020 - that means the domestic water used with our products in seven water-scarce countries which make up half the world’s population. We are also developing comprehensive plans with relevant agricultural suppliers and have set a target that, by 2020, water abstraction by our global factory network will be at or below 2008 levels.

Our strategy

We are now three years in to the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan and we have reshaped our strategy based on a deeper understanding of water issues.

Domestic water use makes up the majority of our wider footprint. We had previously characterised water as an ‘environmental’ challenge but the availability of domestic water is as much a social issue as an environmental one.

Many women in developing countries with a scarce water supply act as ‘water managers’ in the home. This constrains their time, can affect their health, their safety and the educational opportunities of their daughters. Even water for basic hygiene - washing hands, cleaning dishes - can be limited. Furthermore, there is deepening pressure on urban water supply. The effects on lower-income populations can be overlooked by governments, NGOs and businesses.

As part of our 2013 strategic review, we have therefore decided to focus on creating innovations and campaigns which will meet the water needs of lower-income, urban consumers in developing countries. We believe this group is amongst the most under-served and they best aligned to our business growth drivers.

We will seek to tackle water scarcity in the following three ways:

  • Driving substantial change through domestic water solutions from our brands which meet the needs of lower-income city dwellers in developing countries;

  • Stepping up our activity on agricultural water efficiency with suppliers for our two most water-intensive crops, tomatoes and sugar cane; and

  • Driving down water use in our factory network, prioritising sites in water-scarce locations.

Our progress

We are already taking significant action on water across the business:

  • Driving upstream water productivity for one of our most water-intensive crops, tomatoes;

  • Delivering programmes to increase water efficiency in our manufacturing sites, leading to reductions of 29% per tonne of production vs. 2008;

  • Applying high standards for water quality and discharge across all our manufacturing sites;

  • Rolling out our water-saving product innovations such as Comfort One Rinse, now used in 1.7 billion washes in 31 million households, worldwide; and

  • Exploring new approaches to water provision. In early 2014 our Sunlight hand dishwash brand launched its first pilot Sunlight Water Centres in two rural Nigerian villages, selling water suitable for dishwashing and cleaning.

While our factory eco-efficiency programme continues to reduce water, the domestic water impacts of our products, including consumer use, have increased by 15% since 2010, driven by the high growth of our laundry bars in India, which, while very affordable, are also associated with a more water-intensive habit.

Future challenges

It is estimated that the world will face a 40% global shortfall between water demand and supply by 2030. The challenge is complex, multi-faceted and local in nature.

We see a business opportunity in developing innovative product solutions which use water much more efficiently in the home. We can also support our agricultural suppliers on better irrigation techniques and equipment which should improve yields. But to have a wider effect on the total system we need to work in partnership with governments, NGOs, other businesses and consumers to address and manage water use at scale.

Investment in infrastructure will be an essential part of any lasting solutions. Efficiency will be important too. Water pricing, water metering, efficient household appliances and water-saving products will all be necessary levers to create systemic change.

Water in consumer use

We have committed to halving the water associated with the consumer use of our products by 2020 in seven water-scarce countries, representing over half the world’s population.

The water used by our consumers in washing and cleaning is approximately seven times greater than the water embedded in the agricultural raw materials we buy. In emerging countries, the proportion of their household water needed for washing clothes alone can be considerable, taking up to one-third of their water supply. To meet their needs, we are making some progress in designing and rolling out products that require less water. See Water use by consumers.

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. The water associated with cooking with our food products is minimal in comparison.

Water in agriculture

We have made a commitment to source 100% of our agricultural raw materials sustainably by 2020, according to the Unilever Sustainable Agriculture Code. One of the 11 indicators in the Code relates to water. The requirements of the Code are shared with all our suppliers of agricultural raw materials who must comply with our ‘Scheme Rules’. We are working with them to minimise water, and pollution, from growing our key crops.

To increase our expertise in measuring water impacts, we co-founded the Water Footprint Network (WFN) in December 2008 with organisations from the private sector, the International Finance Corporation, WBCSD, WWF and UNESCO. The Network aims to develop a measurement framework that assesses the total water used across the lifecycle of a product and the impact of that water use.

In 2012, we used the crop and livestock databases of the Water Footprint Network to assess the irrigation water used to produce our key agricultural materials. We have learnt that our priority water-intensive crops are tomatoes and sugar cane, and that overall our footprint is lower than we had previously estimated. We have been working with our tomato suppliers for many years and we will continue to introduce drip irrigation to our suppliers for this and other crops. See Our water footprint for more.

In 2013 the Hindustan Unilever Foundation and Solidaridad launched one of India’s largest water efficiency programmes, aiming to save up to 1 trillion litres of water in three years.

Water in manufacturing

We have set a target that by 2020 water abstraction by our global factory network will be at or below 2008 levels. We have made good progress through continuous improvement and since 2008 we have saved the equivalent of around 1.5 litres of water for every person on the planet. We also have a target that all newly-built factories will aim to abstract less than half the water of those in our 2008 baseline.

When it comes to water quality, we apply high standards for water discharge across all our manufacturing sites. We do this by monitoring the chemical oxygen demand (COD) which is an industry standard for measuring the amount of organic pollutants in water and is a useful way to measure water quality.

See Reducing water use in manufacturing.

External recognition

Unilever has participated in the Carbon Disclosure Project’s (CDP) Water Request for Information since collection started four years ago. This initiative aims to improve and standardise corporate water measurement and reporting and raise awareness of water-related issues. In 2013 more than 593 of the world’s largest companies engaged with CDP to enable effective measurement and management of water-related issues including reduction of risks and detrimental impacts. The resulting report ‘Moving beyond business as usual’ was backed by 530 institutional investors representing approximately US $57 trillion in assets.

Unlike the CDP Investor (carbon) request, companies are not ranked or scored on either the quality of their disclosures or on their performance in water management. Individual company responses are available to read on the CDP website.