Recognising how precious this resource is, and the impact we have through our scale as a business, over the past 10 years we have made conscious decisions, as part of our Unilever Sustainable Living Plan (USLP), to reduce our manufacturing water footprint. And to date, we’ve achieved 47% reduction, on an intensity and an absolute basis, exceeding our 2020 target by 7%.

But we won’t stop there. Looking ahead, we have bolder ambitions to continue to drive water efficiency across our manufacturing operations around the world, doing more with less and increasing the amount of water reuse and recycling.

Business continuity and unexpected water-derived risk

Our end-to-end water footprint differs to many other organisations - 15% of our total water footprint is in our raw material sourcing, ~ 1% in our manufacturing sites and 85% in the consumer use phase.

Despite the small relative contribution, over the last decade our manufacturing operations have led an aggressive water efficiency programme, this has driven cost savings, increased operational capacity and minimised our impact on shared water resources – it has certainly challenged the perception that ‘water efficiency does not payback’.

Priority to water-stressed sites

We have applied contextual water targets, with sites located in water stressed areas challenged with increasingly stringent targets. Today, our sites in water stressed locations are 13% more efficient than the average.

Within our manufacturing operations, our water philosophy is linked to four ‘R’s - to refuse, reduce, reuse and recycle. Early on in our sustainability journey we recognised that we needed to change perceptions and behaviours around water. We aligned Unilever’s 5 Levers of Change, a change programme developed to inspire consumers to adopt new sustainable products and behaviours, but equally relevant to our manufacturing programmes. This is how we applied it:

  1. Make it understood: For us, this meant making data visible, tracking performance and supporting sites with training and resources where needed. Over the last 6 years we have also been rolling out a metering, monitoring & targeting programme, connecting all sites’ meters to a central digital platform. The data and insights are at much greater granularity and have helped to understand water flows, costs and impacts.
  2. Make it easy: We developed a portal for sharing best practices from site to site, we standardised tools and conducted internal & external benchmarking. High water using sites were given support for water audits, and more recently we have set up an internal SWAT teams of utility engineering specialists which provide support to the manufacturing network. Centrally, we conduct various pilots into innovative cutting-edge technologies such as electric heat pump evaporators, distillation technologies for water recovery and where successful support roll-out. Central funding which sits outside the site budget helps with implementing projects, especially where sites had competing demands. The whole programme was structured within our internal World Class Manufacturing Environmental Pillar with standardised tools and procedures to support with roll out.
  3. Make it desirable: This was definitely about winning both hearts & minds, we translated sustainability programmes into true financial savings at factory level, for example including energy and chemical savings that come from water efficiency and also focussed on big difference that hundreds of small actions were having on the environment & people’s lives.
  4. Make it rewarding: Individuals and teams are recognised and rewarded by leadership through various internal & external communication channels and further celebrated through external reporting indices such as CDP and DJSI.
  5. Make it a habit: Best practices become norms and programmes become internal standards e.g. Zero Non-Haz waste to landfill and our 100% renewable electricity are now basic operating requirements and our World Class Manufacturing tools are used across the whole network.

Financing water projects

A key initiative we introduced early on in the water programme was around the value of water. Globally, water is too cheap. Its cost does not reflect its availability and certainly does not represent the value, which creates additional challenges with business cases. By understanding the embedded costs of our water: the pumping costs, heating costs, treatment costs we are able to calculate that the true cost of water is on average ~10x more than the purchase price – saving water, can in most cases also save energy, chemicals and/or waste.

In 2015 we introduced an internal carbon penalty which was charged to our divisions to create a central Clean Tech Fund. On an annual basis manufacturing teams apply for investment for projects which support their water, carbon or waste roadmap. For water projects we have an extended payback for those in water stressed locations. This ensures that we are taking action where it matters the most.

Up next for water in Unilever

The next phase of our sustainability plan is our Compass – our new, fully integrated corporate strategy which brings the sustainability initiatives into the way we do business. It very much builds on the past ten years of the USLP: the successes, the failures and the lessons learnt. It lays the pathway for us to realise our vision of being the leader in sustainable business globally – as well as to finally putting to bed the debate of whether sustainability is good for business.

This month, Unilever set out a new range of measures and commitments designed to improve the health of the planet by taking even more decisive action to fight climate change, and protect and regenerate nature in order to preserve resources for future generations. As part of our commitments around water, we will:

  • make our product formulations biodegradable by 2030;
  • implement water stewardship programmes around our 100 manufacturing sites in water stressed locations by 2030;
  • join the 2030 Water Resources Group to contribute to transformative change and building resilience in water management in key water-stressed market.

Underlying the water stewardship programme in our manufacturing operations, the water efficiency programme becomes a habit and ‘business as usual’ way of working, with internal metrics continuing to drive our ongoing water efficiency programme supporting sites in reducing risk in our operations and to ‘do more with less’.