Our water footprint

Our products rely on water at all stages of their lifecycle. 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, shower, cleaning and cooking.

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

Measuring our water footprint

Using 2008 as our baseline we assessed the water impact of 1,600 of our products in seven water-scare countries, representing around half the world’s population. Our current 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.

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

water foot print

We assessed domestic water used with our products in 14 countries and chose to focus on 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.

In a separate study we used the Waterstat database from the Water Footprint Network to estimate the water used to produce our agricultural raw materials. We again chose to focus on water-scarce countries. This study 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 (2011-2012)

Chart1

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. For example, around 38% comes from the laundry process – a significant proportion of this is washing laundry by hand in the developing world. A further 39%of Unilever’s domestic water footprint in water-scarce countries comes from showering, bathing or washing hair with our products.

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. So, at the touch of a button, people can find out the greenhouse gas emissions associated with one cup of tea or the water used for one wash with laundry powder 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 recognise that our metric needs further development. A key part of this is calculating the water use associated with the sourcing of our raw materials. In 2012 we calculated the irrigation water used to produce our key agricultural materials, using tools from the Water Footprint Network. This 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 and have 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 Peer review of metrics for more.