Our end-to-end business is dependent on continued access to water. Whether that’s our farmers and raw material suppliers; our manufacturing sites or consumers who need water to enjoy our products to do their laundry or make a cup of tea.

Earlier this month UN-Water, which co-ordinates the United Nation’s response on water and sanitation, announced that the world was “alarmingly off-track” in meeting the Sustainable Development Goal 6 (SDG 6) that looks to ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all by 2030.

Far too many people still do not have their basic water needs met. Worldwide, one in three people do not have access to safe drinking water. Two out of five do not have basic handwashing facilities and more than 673 million people still practice open defecation. Today, water insecurity affects 40% of the global population and is projected to rise into the future.

Covid-19 has taught us that access to water is fundamental for people to maintain healthy lives. It has also taught us that fighting a major crisis – such as a global pandemic – requires collective action with other businesses, civil society and governments to create change at scale.

What water stewardship means to us

Stewardship is about taking responsibility for something you don’t own. For Unilever, water stewardship is about taking action to counteract the impact from our products and operations, and about working with others to strengthen the whole system. It’s about the ways we can use water that enables everyone not just to survive, but to thrive.

Three water goals by 2030

Over the past ten 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 a 47% reduction, on an intensity and an absolute basis, exceeding our 2020 target by 7%. But we recognise there is more to do.

That’s why in June this year, Unilever set out a new range of measures and commitments to fight climate change and protect and regenerate nature to preserve the planet’s resources for future generations.

As part of our commitments around water, we announced that by 2030 we would:

  • make our product formulations biodegradable
  • implement water stewardship programmes around 100 Unilever manufacturing sites in water-stressed locations
  • join the 2030 Water Resources Group (WRG) to contribute to transformative change and build water management resilience in key water-stressed countries.

To help us realise these goals, we will work with two new partners. The 2030 Water Resources Group (2030 WRG) will see us engage in collective action to achieve water security for all by 2030. The Alliance for Water Stewardship (AWS) will guide our water-stressed manufacturing sites to address water risks beyond factory walls by collaborating with other stakeholders in the shared water catchment area.

Changing the way the world uses water – one country at a time

Hosted by The World Bank, the 2030 WRG’s ambition is to use the power of public–private partnerships – what we call multi-stakeholder platforms – to create water resilience for economies and societies that face serious water challenges.

“We all know water is critical for lives and livelihoods; yet we are wasting it, polluting it, and taking it for granted. We need collective action to solve a water crisis that is wreaking havoc in villages, towns and cities across our planet,” says Unilever CEO Alan Jope. “Unilever is stepping up its action on water and we look forward to working with the 2030 Water Resources Group for bigger, broader impact.”

The 2030 WRG programmes are data-driven and see roadmaps put in place at the request of senior levels of government to help establish long-term water security at a country or state level. It’s a big ambition, but water security is a big problem that needs big changes.

“We have an opportunity to be part of the current regenerative business movement that has a focus on systems thinking to protect, restore and replenish both human capital and natural resources,” says World Bank VP for Sustainable Development, and 2030 WRG Governing Council Co-Chair Juergen Voegele.

“With growing water scarcity challenges, exacerbated by climate change, it is more critical than ever for stakeholders to join forces to advance water security outcomes,” he says. “We are delighted to welcome Unilever as a global 2030 WRG partner, with its core commitment to the principles of water sustainability, equitable access and livelihood security.”

And the work has already begun. In Bangladesh, Unilever has collaborated with the 2030 WRG, alongside the Red Crescent Society, to prevent the spread of Covid-19 at Deputy Commissioner offices in 64 districts, and conduct a nationwide public education campaign on handwashing and hygiene with the aim of reaching 20 million people.

Changing the way Unilever and other businesses use water

Our second partnership sees us joining the Alliance for Water Stewardship, an organisation whose globally recognised framework for water stewardship, the AWS Standard, helps major water users understand their own water dependencies and impacts.

As a funding member, we are trialling the AWS Standard in select water-stressed sites, and will be looking to codify and build it into our existing processes and procedures.

We are also building on existing experience in addressing water-related issues through our Hindustan Unilever Foundation and the Prabhat programme which has been implemented in eight manufacturing sites to address gaps in water supply and demand in India.

In the six years it’s been active, the programme has helped 2.95 million people through projects such as building irrigation systems, organising rainwater collection, and helping local farmers select water-efficient crops. All of which has resulted in 12 billion litres of additional water supply, 22 billion litres of water savings, and more than 18,000 tonnes of additional agricultural yield.

Adrian Sym, CEO at the Alliance for Water Stewardship, says: “We greatly welcome Unilever as a funding member of AWS. Having witnessed projects implemented by the Hindustan Unilever Foundation, I have a deep respect for how their work builds trusting relationships with communities. We are excited about the expertise, knowledge and experience that Unilever can bring to help our members improve water stewardship practice.”

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