Impact on Water

Water usage and the UN

The webpage introducing the United Nations (UN) International Decade for Action on Water for Sustainable Development, 2018-2028, describes access to water and sanitation as being a precondition to life and a declared human right(1).

Water is at the core of sustainable development and is critical for socio-economic development, energy and food production, healthy ecosystems and for human survival(2). Water is also at the heart of adaptation to climate change, serving as a crucial link between society and the environment(2).

As the global population grows, the need to balance all the competing commercial demands on water resources increases. Communities must have sufficient for their needs(2). Water cannot be seen in isolation. Together with sanitation it is vital for reducing disease and improving the health, education, and economic productivity of populations(2).

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6 is to “Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all”. This target covers all aspects of the water cycle and sanitation systems, its achievement is designed to contribute to progress across a range of other SDGs, such as health, education, economics, and the environment(2).

At home we are all urged to save water, by taking shorter showers, turning off the tap when we clean our teeth, and only running washing machines and dishwashers when we have a full load, amongst other things.  How much consideration however do we give to how water is used elsewhere?

Water and the cosmetics industry

The cosmetics and personal care industry is not a particularly water-intensive industry. Water is used in many of our formulations and in the manufacturing and sanitisation processes within our factories and those of our raw material and packaging suppliers. Some of our products are designed to be used with water by the consumer(3)(4).

Agriculture accounts for 70% of freshwater use worldwide, making it the biggest consumer of freshwater(5). Food production has doubled in the last 30 years and the FAO (UN Food and  Agriculture Organisation) estimates that about 60% more food will be required by 2050 to meet the demands of the global population(5).

For plant-based cosmetic ingredients, the amount of freshwater used to grow the plants must also be taken into consideration. For example, it takes between 1 and 3 tonnes of water to grow 1kg of cereal(5).

Reducing water usage

The Chair of the UK Environment Agency, on publication of the Agency’s “State of the Environment: Water Resources Report” noted “Industry must innovate and change behaviours in order to reduce demand and cut down on wastage”(6).

To achieve Inclusive and Sustainable Industrial Development (ISID), water use efficiency should drastically increase(7). This means both water consumption and water pollution per unit of output must be reduced(7). Water Stewardship means the responsible planning and management of resources. It is defined as using water in a way that is socially equitable, environmentally sustainable, and economically beneficial(7).

Because water conservation is so essential to the world’s development, many companies, including a number in the personal care industry, are starting to look closely at their water resources across all aspects of the product lifecycle(4).

Water Footprint

There are a number of ways our industry can look to reduce the water that we use, but before we can look to reduce the water associated with our products, we need to understand their “Water Footprint”.

The Water Footprint is defined as the amount of water used to produce each of the goods and services we use. It can be measured for a single process, for a product or for an entire multi-national company(8).

The 'Water Footprint Assessment Manual – Setting the Global Standard', was published in 2011 by Earthscan and can be downloaded for free from this link(8).

The Water Footprint Network (WFN) is a platform for collaboration between companies, organisations, and individuals. In 2002, whilst working for the UNESCO Institute for Water Education, Arjen Hoekstra created the water footprint as a metric to measure the amount of water consumed and polluted to produce goods and services along the full supply chain. In 2008, along with representatives from industry, civil society, multilateral organisations and academia, Hoekstra founded the Water Footprint Network. One of the first aims of the WFN was to demonstrate how Water Footprint Assessment (WFA) can help overcome the challenges of unsustainable water use(8).

WFA is a four-phase process to quantify and map the different type of water footprints that have been identified, assess the sustainability, efficiency, and equitability of water use, and identify which strategic actions should be prioritised to make a footprint sustainable(8).

Also available to help us review the water we use is the Alliance for Water Stewardship (AWS) Standard(9). AWS is a global membership collaboration of businesses, NGOs, and the public sector. Members contribute to the sustainability of local water-resources through their adoption and promotional of a universal framework for sustainable use of water – the International Water Stewardship Standard(9).

The AWS Standard offers a credible, globally applicable framework for major water users to understand their own water use and impacts. Users follow the steps and guidance in the standard to achieve good water stewardship practices that improve site water performance and contribute to wider sustainability goals(9). The standard is built around five steps each of which has a series of criteria and indicators(9).


Challenges and practical tips for companies

Examples of voluntary initiatives, case studies, innovations and technologies