Setting water targets is a growing trend in corporate sustainability. Major companies such as Cargill, Mars, Tyson Foods and others have goals to reduce water use and improve water quality within their own facilities and throughout their supply chains. But these operational and “upstream” water targets only address water risks and impacts in the production stage of the value chain.

Soap, shampoo, toothpaste, laundry detergent, dishwashing liquid and other consumer goods products require a lot of water while being manufactured, but often need even more when consumers use them. For example, 96% of Procter & Gamble (P&G)’s* water withdrawals throughout its value chain occur downstream, during consumer use of its products.

Water withdrawals along P&G's value chain: 3% raw materials production, 1% direct operations, 96% consumer-use.
The majority (96%) of water withdrawals along P&G’s value chain occur during consumer use.

But despite growing consumer water demand, only a handful of companies have begun to address downstream water use.

Downstream Water Targets Are Essential to Address Water Challenges 

Today, 13% of the world’s freshwater withdrawals are for domestic use. Domestic water demand has grown 600% over the past 50 years, a rate far faster than agricultural and industrial demand. To meet global water needs, the world will need 56% more water than the current available supply — or a 56% reduction in demand — by 2030.

Increasing water stress is a huge threat to people’s lives, jobs, and energy and food security. It’s also a problem for businesses’ bottom lines. For example, in 2016, Unilever reported to CDP that Brazil’s 2015 drought caused consumers in São Paulo to reduce the frequency of showering and washing clothes. This change in behavior reportedly decreased sales of personal and home care products. A 2017 World Bank report estimated that water outages can lead to between an 8.7% and 34.8% reduction in sales, depending on the type of firm.

Addressing consumer water use enables companies to improve water security for communities in key markets and mitigate physical and reputational risks to their business, such as by providing a competitive advantage or promoting brand value to environmentally- and socially-conscious consumers.

Forthcoming Guidance for Setting Downstream Water Targets

The Science Based Targets Network (SBTN) recently released guidance to help companies set science-based targets for nature, including freshwater, across their value chains. However, downstream methods were excluded from the first release of this guidance. SBTN plans to share science-based targets for downstream consumption at a later date, but there is currently a lack of guidance for companies to address their downstream water impacts.

How Companies Can Address Consumer Water Use

While few companies have set downstream water targets and guidance doesn’t yet exist for doing so, corporations can still take action and learn from leaders in this space.

P&G worked with WRI to set a quantitative water restoration target that addresses consumer water use — the first major company to publicly do so. It aims to restore 110% of the water consumed from use of its products by 2030 (based on a 2018-2019 baseline) in two priority basins — the Moctezuma basin surrounding Mexico City, and the Calleguas basin encompassing much of the U.S. city of Los Angeles. Both basins, which face extremely high water stress, cover dense urban areas with populations over 23 million and 12 million, respectively. Together, they represent more than 50% of the total water consumed during product use across the 18 water-stressed basins in which P&G operates.

To achieve its target, P&G will support on-the-ground water restoration projects that improve, better manage, or protect freshwater resources in those two basins.

How WRI and P&G Set a Downstream Water Target

To model consumer water impacts and develop quantitative downstream water targets for P&G, WRI used a combination of the company’s market and shipment data, consumer habits studies and published literature to estimate water consumption (i.e., evaporative water and water lost to indoor leakages) by P&G consumers across 14 product categories. The basins for downstream target-setting were prioritized by cross-referencing the company’s manufacturing portfolio and top consumer markets with WRI’s Aqueduct water risk indicators. WRI performed a risk assessment for P&G, mapping basins where key facilities and consumer markets are exposed to chronic high baseline water stress (the ratio of water demand to renewable available supply in a catchment). Through this process, 18 priority basins across seven countries were prioritized, and two basins (which accounted for over half of the total water consumed during product use across the 18 basins) were selected for downstream target setting.

In addition to setting downstream targets — or to help achieve them — here are three ways companies across sectors can address downstream water impacts in their value chains:

1) Water restoration projects

Companies can support on-the-ground projects that provide a volumetric water benefit to a basin. These kinds of projects improve water security in the basin at large, beyond the four walls of the company’s facilities, by replenishing freshwater resources in water-stressed areas to balance consumer water use. These projects can include a range of solutions, such as creating or protecting wetlands to increase groundwater recharge, improving irrigation systems to use less water in agriculture, and installing sensors in public water distribution systems to identify and stop leaks. Many nature-based solutions, such as wetland restoration, provide benefits beyond water replenishment, such as improving water quality or mitigating floods. A growing number of companies already implement these types of projects in basins where they have operational or supply chain facilities and can expand activities into basins where key downstream consumer markets are located.

2) Product innovation

Innovative product designs can help consumers reduce the amount of water they use for personal hygiene and cleaning, such as washing their hair, cleaning dishes, mopping floors and doing laundry. Examples of these products include dry shampoos and leave-in conditioners, waterless mops, dish sprays that pre-treat dishes to remove food before washing and more. These kinds of products are designed to use less water than the product or habit they are replacing. For example, L’Oreal estimates that its solid shampoos require 20% less water for rinsing than typical liquid shampoos, while no-rinse conditioners can supposedly save up to 100 liters of water per bottle compared to conventional 200ml conditioner bottles.

3) Consumer education campaigns

Consumer education campaigns also have the potential to improve water security. In 2020, P&G’s dishwashing brand Cascade launched its “Do It Every Night” campaign, encouraging consumers to save water by running their dishwashers rather than handwashing dishes. Dishwashers use 3-4 gallons of water per load, while handwashing can use up to 27 gallons to wash the same number of dishes. In 2016, Colgate-Palmolive launched its “Save Water” public awareness campaign, which encouraged consumers to turn the faucet off while brushing their teeth. The company claims that turning off the faucet while brushing can save up to 64 cups of water.

Education campaigns such as these also have the potential to deliver business value. Colgate reported in its 2022 disclosure to CDP that partnering with a large retailer as part of its “Save Water” campaign contributed to incremental net sales of roughly $1.15 million in participating U.S. stores in 2018. And Unilever said in its 2015 annual strategic report that OMO, its largest detergent brand, grew 15% in underlying sales during its “#1RinseIsEnough” campaign, encouraging consumers in Brazil to save water during the country’s drought.

While these examples only focus on water quantity, downstream water projects and initiatives can also be adapted to address water quality impacts.

Reducing Downstream Water Impacts in a Changing World

A rapidly changing climate means that the future will no longer resemble the past. Businesses must be adaptive and forward-thinking to help consumers, communities and companies themselves survive in an increasingly water-stressed world. With the scope and magnitude of the water challenges the world is facing today, businesses can and should take responsibility for their water impacts — not just within their four walls and upstream in their supply chains, but also downstream in the consumer-use phase. Creating a more water-secure future means accounting for the full lifecycle of water use.


*NOTE: Proctor & Gamble is a WRI donor and a member of the Aqueduct Alliance. WRI worked with P&G in creating a methodology for setting its downstream water target.