The Unilever Sustainable Living Plan for

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Water use

Water use

Growing water scarcity is a huge risk to our future growth – as well as a business opportunity to better meet people’s needs.

2.8 billion people around the world experience poor access to water. This number is estimated to increase significantly by 2030, with the Water Resources Group estimating that 25% of the total water demand in 2030 will not be met. Consumer demand for water has doubled since 1950 and it is predicted to double again by 2030. The consequences for food security, health and living conditions are substantial.

The water pillar of our Unilever Sustainable Living Plan contributes to a number of the UN Global Goals for Sustainable Development: Goal 6 – Clean water and sanitation; Goal 8 – Decent work and economic growth; Goal 9 – Industry, innovation and infrastructure; Goal 12 – Responsible consumption and production; Goal 13 – Climate action; and Goal 17 – Partnerships for the goals.

We are focusing our expertise and resources on developing products, devices and services that meet the domestic water needs of our consumers in water-scarce countries. We are working with suppliers to reduce the water used to grow our crops in these countries. And we are reducing water use in our own factories across the world.

Our strategy

We are addressing the challenge of water scarcity holistically to enable our business to thrive in a water-constrained world.

Water use and water centre

We will accelerate product innovation to meet the needs of consumers in water-scarce regions, while continuing to reduce water use in agriculture and our own manufacturing operations.

The business case

We see consequences for our business if we don’t adapt to this new reality. The product categories in which we operate consume more than 90% of the water used at home – from washing dishes to cleaning hair, skin and clothes. As a result, consumers experiencing water scarcity in developing countries are making trade-offs about which tasks will get their small ration of water. This limits the growth of our products.

Our approach

UN Global Goal 6, clean water and sanitation, sets out an ambition to “ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all” by 2030. Yet today, billions of people experience poor access to water due to insufficient quantity and quality.

Lack of water in the home is a social issue first and foremost. It affects women in developing countries the most. They are typically the ‘water managers’ of the home - collecting, storing and rationing water throughout the day. This is a time-consuming chore which constrains their opportunities for employment, and affects their safety and health – as well as the welfare of their families.

Household water scarcity is becoming a major issue in fast-growing cities in developing countries where infrastructure has not kept pace with the growth in population and income. The effects on lower and middle income urban populations can often be overlooked by governments, NGOs and businesses.

In 2010, we set ourselves the ambitious goal of halving the water associated with the consumer use of our products by 2020 because the water consumers need when they shower, bathe and clean with our products makes up the majority of our water footprint. However, we have only reduced the water consumers’ use by 7% since 2010.

Over the last six years we have learned more about people’s needs in water-scarce situations - so we have sharpened our internal strategy to align with this. We are accelerating our efforts to develop water smart products which meet consumers’ needs, such as products which enable people to wash and do laundry well in spite of water quantity and quality issues and our Pureit drinking water purifiers. We also continue to pilot breakthrough ideas in our Fundamental Solutions programme to help solve water quality and accessibility problems, for example through the launch of our Suvidha Hygiene Centre and Sunlight Water Centres.

Our focus

We focus our efforts on areas where our portfolio and scale allow us to have the biggest impact and which offer the biggest opportunities for our business.

Brands & innovation

  • Develop innovative products which help consumers adapt to a water-scarce world.
  • Build our Pureit and Qinyuan drinking water purification business.

Supply chain

  • Support agricultural suppliers on better irrigation techniques and equipment, which will improve crop yields.
  • Proactively map and manage water and climate risk in the supply chain.

Factories

  • Continue to improve water efficiency and recycling in our factories.

Advocacy

  • Work in partnership with government, like-minded businesses and civil society to tackle wider systems challenges around access to water, sanitation and hygiene.
Our commitment

Halve the water associated with the consumer use of our products by 20201.

1 Our environmental targets are expressed against a baseline of 2010 and on a 'per consumer use' basis. This means a single use, portion or serving of a product. We are reporting against our five water-using sub-categories (Laundry, Hair Care, Oral Care, Skin Cleansing and Household Care) in seven water-scarce countries: China, India, Indonesia, Mexico, South Africa, Turkey and the US.

Progress to date

In 2016, our water impact per consumer use reduced by around 7% compared to 2010. However, we have made significant reductions in the water used in manufacturing, where our factories have abstracted 19 million fewer cubic metres of water in 2016 than in 2008. This equates to a reduction of 38% per tonne of production.

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Future challenges

Investment in infrastructure, government regulation and action by the private sector are all essential to any lasting solutions. Water pricing, water metering, efficient household appliances and water-saving products will all be necessary levers to create the systemic change urgently needed for sustainable water use.

However, in some countries it will take time for governments to raise the quality and quantity of water supply. So, there is an immediate need for new products that use water much more effectively in the home and which work well in low quality water. Our challenge will be to accelerate our innovation pipeline to meet consumers’ needs.

Through our advocacy work we will promote policies and market-based solutions that enable more people to have access to water, sanitation and hygiene.

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Targets & performance

We have an ambitious target to halve the water associated with the consumer use of our products in water-scarce countries.1


Water use
Our commitment

Halve the water associated with the consumer use of our products by 2020.1

Our performance

In 2016, our water impact per consumer use decreased by around 7% since 2010.

Our perspective

We have made significant reductions in the water used in manufacturing. However, the biggest impact comes from water used by consumers when they shower, bathe and clean with our products. In 2016 the water associated with the consumer use of our products reduced by around 7% versus 2010.

We have continued to make progress in designing and rolling out products which require less water. Our patented Sapphire technology in our Sunlight 2-in-1 Handwashing Laundry and our RIN detergent bar both use up to half the water needed for rinsing, making the washing process easier and quicker for consumers in water-scarce regions. This innovation has contributed to Sunlight, part of our global Surf brand, increasing its market share in South Africa.

In 2016 we opened our Suvidha Hygiene Centre in India. Located in one of Mumbai’s largest slums, the Centre provides water, sanitation and hygiene pay per use services, including laundry facilities and safe drinking water, to over 1,500 people. The Centre uses circular economy principles to reduce water use. Fresh water is first used for bathing, handwashing and laundry. The waste water from these activities is then used for flushing toilets. This business model is an opportunity to unlock new markets, investments and innovation, whilst meeting consumer needs and contributing to the delivery of the Global Goals, particularly Goal 6 on clean water and sanitation provision.

We also continued to scale up our Sunlight Water Centres in Nigeria, with ten centres opened by the end of 2016.

In 2016 our Dove brand and Delta Faucet Company in the US worked to help change consumer behaviour during showering, promoting the more water efficient Delta Hydrafall™ showerhead.

Over the last six years we have learned more about people’s needs in water scarce situations – so we are sharpening our internal strategy to align with this. We will accelerate our efforts to develop water smart products which meet consumers’ needs, such as products which enable people to wash and do laundry well, in spite of water quantity and quality issues.

1 Our environmental targets are expressed against a baseline of 2010 and on a 'per consumer use' basis. This means a single use, portion or serving of a product. We are reporting against our five water-using sub-categories (Laundry, Hair Care, Oral Care, Skin Cleansing and Household Care) in seven water-scarce countries: China, India, Indonesia, Mexico, South Africa, Turkey and the US.

2 See Our Metrics for more detail


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Our targets

Please see Independent Assurance for more details of our assurance programme across the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan.

Reduce water abstracted by manufacturing sites

  • 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.

18.7 million fewer cubic metres of water abstracted in 2016 than in 2008 (a reduction of 37% per tonne of production).

Compared to 1995 this represents a 77% reduction in absolute terms.


  • All newly-built factories will aim to abstract less than half the water of those in our 2008 baseline.

New factories in Ethiopia, Turkey, the Philippines and Ukraine started production in 2016. When fully operational each aims to abstract only half the water for factory operations than those factories in a representative 2008 baseline.


Our Perspective

We have reduced the total volume of water abstracted for use in manufacturing by more than three quarters since 1995.

In 2016, we achieved a reduction of 37% per tonne of production compared to 2008. We have achieved this despite growth in our production volume since 2008. The reduction equates to around 2.5 litres of water for every person on the planet.

Our progress has been driven by continuous improvement initiatives at all sites to reduce, reuse and recycle water. We do this through a combination of low-cost and no-cost techniques and behaviours, and a water-specific capital investment programme.

In addition to our longer-term target to reduce total water abstracted, we also set stretching year-on-year targets that keep us on the trajectory required to achieve our 2020 targets.

Reduce water use in the laundry process

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


  • Providing 50 million households in water-scarce countries with laundry products that deliver excellent results but use less water by 2020.

In 2016, One Rinse products were used in 4.9 billion washes in over 59 million households worldwide.


Our Perspective

Comfort One Rinse continued its leading position in a number of markets. For example, in 2015 it accounted for 43% of the fabric conditioner market in Vietnam, and rose to over a quarter of the market in Indonesia. As a result we continue to increase the availability of One Rinse laundry products in water-scarce countries.

We also have a strong pipeline of future water-saving innovations. This gives us confidence that we will continue to make progress in the coming years.

Reduce 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.

We have continued our efforts to help farmers implement drip irrigation.


Our Perspective

We have been collecting irrigation data from our suppliers as part of the implementation of our Sustainable Agriculture Code since 2011. Our third analysis in 2015 showed a continued reduction in irrigation water use per tonne of crop grown.

Drip irrigation is a key intervention to reduce water use in agriculture. We have continued to help farmers expand drip irrigation in India, Chile, Greece, Tanzania and Kenya for a range of crops, notably tomatoes, gherkins and tea.

Tomatoes are one of our most water-intensive crops. With the sale of our US pasta sauce business in 2014, the volume of tomatoes that we source in California has fallen. Consequently, the contribution that tomatoes make to our overall water footprint has gone down.

Looking ahead, we want to broaden the way we look at water in agriculture and link it to our approach to Climate Smart Agriculture.

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