Water use

Our water impact per consumer use has remained broadly unchanged since 2010*

Our commitment

Halve the water associated with the consumer use of our products by 2020.*

Our performance

Our water impact per consumer use has remained broadly unchanged since 2010.*

What matters most

For the Water commitment we have three targets that are most material to us: Reduce water use in the laundry process, Easy rinse products and products that use less water and Reduce water use in skin cleansing and hair washing. (M) indicates our most material targets.

  • achieved: 0
  • on-plan: 5
  • off-plan: 1
  • %of target achieved: 0

Our perspective

Water shortages are already affecting many parts of the world. By 2025, 1.8 billion people will be living in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity and two-thirds in water-stressed conditions.

While around 70% of available fresh water is used for agriculture, when it comes to personal and domestic use, the UN estimates that each person needs about 50-100 litres per day for drinking, cooking and washing. Yet in the poorest countries people live on as little as 10 litres a day. The collection of water, typically undertaken by women, is also an issue. According to the UN, sub-saharan Africa alone loses 40 billion hours per year collecting water.

Our approach is to work across our value chain from raw material sourcing to the design of our products. Since 2009 we have worked with the Water Footprint Network to measure our agricultural water impact. 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.

Addressing our water use

We have made particular progress in reducing water abstracted by our manufacturing sites. Since 2008 we have saved the equivalent of around 1.5 litres of water for every person on the planet.

The water used by our consumers in washing and cleaning is more than seven times greater than the water embedded in the agricultural raw materials we buy. In emerging countries, washing clothes can take up one-third of a household’s water supply.

We are making some progress in designing and rolling out products which require less water. Our Comfort One Rinse fabric conditioner is now available in more waterscarce countries. Lifebuoy has launched a foam handwash which cuts water use and we have rolled out dry shampoo to ten countries.

We have a long way to go to meet our goal. As we go forward, we will be better prepared for sourcing essential raw materials from farmers with limited water supplies and we will open up new markets by providing products which meet the needs of people with restricted access to water. But in the end transformational change will only come about when water is priced and there is a financial incentive to encourage new behaviours.

Reduce water use in the laundry process (M)

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

  • Making easier rinsing products more widely available.
  • Providing 50 million households in water-scarce countries with laundry products that deliver excellent results but use less water by 2020.
  • In 2012 we launched Comfort One Rinse, our fabric conditioner, in India and Cambodia and expanded the Comfort One Rinse range in Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines.
  • In 2012 One Rinse products were used in 1.4 billion washes in 28.7 million households worldwide, a 66% increase on 2010.

More on reducing water use in the laundry process

Our perspective

We assessed both these targets as off track in our last Report. Compared to 2011, we have more projects agreed in our innovation pipeline that give us confidence we will make greater progress in the coming years. We have also significantly expanded One Rinse products and sales are growing, so we have assessed our progress as back on track to reach our 2020 target.

In water-scarce countries, around 38% of domestic water is used to clean clothes. In many of these areas, people wash garments by hand. Our One Rinse fabric conditioner reduces the amount of water needed to remove detergent residues to one bucket rather than three. This can save up to half the water per wash, around 30 litres, if used correctly.

In 2012 we continued to introduce this product to new countries and it is now available in India and Cambodia. It has a leading position in some markets, accounting for 38% of the fabric conditioner market in Vietnam and has risen to a quarter of the market in Indonesia.

† Independently assured by PwC

Reduce water use in skin cleansing and hair washing (M)

  • By 2015 we intend to reach 200 million consumers with products and tools that will help them to use less water while washing and showering. Our goal is to reach 400 million by 2020.
  • In 2012 we have improved our understanding of this area but progress remains slow.

More on reducing water use in skin cleansing and hair washing

Our perspective

Around 39% of our domestic water footprint occurs when people use our soaps, shower gels and shampoos and they can be slow or reluctant to change their habits. We have undertaken several studies in different countries to improve our understanding of people’s showering behaviour and how it can be influenced.

For example, our shower study of 100 households in Australia gathered data on shower habits and the relationship between consumer behaviour and product use. We installed sensors to measure the duration, water use and frequency of showers. We found the average shower lasts about 9 minutes, longer than the average UK shower of 8 minutes.

We have introduced two innovations that provide consumer benefits and encourage less water use: dry shampoo, which refreshes the hair without water, and Lifebuoy foam handwash which can cut water use by 18%.

Radox saves consumers money

Woman washing in a showerWe are experimenting with ways to help consumers reduce water use. Our Radox brand of shower gels in South Africa gave consumers a free aerator when they purchased two products. These can be fitted to shower heads to reduce water and they can save people up to €450 a year.

Reducing 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 2012 we refined our understanding of our irrigation water footprint and identified priority crops and locations for further work.

More on reducing water use in agriculture

Our perspective

In 2012, using data from the Water Footprint Network, we completed a ground-breaking four-year detailed assessment of the amount of irrigation water used to produce our key agricultural raw materials in all the water-scarce countries we source from. This included a detailed assessment of our key agricultural materials (around two-thirds of our volumes) and consideration of a further 30 materials.

Our assessment is much more precise than our previous analysis which we used to draw up our 2008 water footprint diagram. This is largely due to better water footprint estimates and more specific information on the areas in which our key crops are grown.

Our footprint is lower than we had previously estimated. We thought that the total water used to produce our agricultural ingredients was about 50% of our value chain footprint. We now know that it is about 15%, and that about 85% relates to water used by our consumers.

The assessment identified tomatoes and sugar cane as priority crops from a water perspective. We have already worked for many years on promoting drip irrigation with our tomato suppliers. We will now step up our activity and continue to work with suppliers to collect data for self-verified crops grown according to the Unilever Sustainable Agriculture Code.

Reducing water use in our manufacturing process

  • 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. 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.
  • 13 million fewer m3of water abstracted in 2012 than in 2008 (a reduction of 25% per tonne of production).

    Compared to 1995, this represents a 73% reduction in absolute terms.

  • Seven new factories were specified in 2012 for opening in 2013. Their ecoefficient design aims to abstract 50% less water per tonne of production than the 2008 baseline.

More on reducing water use in our manufacturing process

Our perspective

We have made good progress in reducing water abstracted by our manufacturing sites: since 2008 we have saved the equivalent of around 1.5 litres of water for every person on the planet. Water use per tonne of production decreased by 7% in 2012 compared to 2011.

In 2012 we invested in four effluent recycling projects at sites in South Asia to reduce abstraction by over 60,000 m3 per year.

Our Indian manufacturing sites provide many good examples of how rainwater is used for factory utilities such as cooling towers, boilers, manufacturing processes (following treatment) and toilet flushing.

However, the relatively low cost of water makes justifying the costs of some water reduction projects difficult. We will therefore focus on reducing water use in sites we have identified as priority water-scarce locations.

Eco-efficiency avoids €17 million in costs

Investment in cost-effective technologies in our factories – along with the treatment of process effluents to enable water reuse and increased monitoring – has avoided over €17 million in cumulative cost since 2008.

† Independently assured by PwC

"We have a long way to go to meet our goal. We must work in partnership with others to drive systemic change."

Future challenges

The largest part of our footprint is associated with showering, bathing and washing clothes, just as our greenhouse gas footprint is associated with heating that water for showers and washing machines.

In those parts of the developing world where water is scarce, women often have to walk long distances to collect water, or they have to become ‘water managers’ in the home – storing and rationing scarce water carefully. If we can develop more innovations like Comfort One Rinse, which reduce the water needed for doing the laundry, these will save people time as well as being more convenient.

Long-term lack of investment in water infrastructure will exacerbate the problem of water scarcity in many countries.

We need to work in partnership with governments, NGOs and consumers to address and manage water use effectively. Water pricing and water metering, alongside consumer education, will ultimately be necessary to drive systemic change.