Scaling Corporate Action on Access to Water, Sanitation and Hygiene in Supply Chains

Increasing access to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) is central to meeting global development goals. The ambitious goals and targets of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development on poverty, health, education, and economic growth are reliant on the management of water resources and access to sanitation, ensuring the needs of communities, economies, and the environment are met. At a macro level, increased access to WASH means healthier communities and increased economic growth, particularly in today’s economy where three-quarters of jobs are reliant on stable water resources (WWDR, 2016). The latest UN World Water Development Report finds that making a USD 1 investment in water and sanitation leads to USD 4 in economic returns due to better health and productivity (WWDR, 2016). Though much of the attention has traditionally been paid to governments’ responsibility to provide adequate water, sanitation and hygiene services, there is increasing awareness that businesses can play a pivotal role in ensuring better WASH outcomes.

Businesses’ impacts on WASH are two-fold: their consumption and disposal of wastewater can impact local water availability and quality, limiting communities’ access to clean and safe water, while their operations and supply chain initiatives can provide WASH services for employees and communities. Good corporate water stewardship practice tackles both these areas. Corporate water stewardship enables companies to understand and mitigate the impacts they have on water resources, particularly in water-stressed areas, provide workers with adequate access to WASH, and make the case for effective company investments and engagement in policy for better WASH outcomes for workers and communities where they operate. Expectations for company action related to WASH are directly related to their responsibilities to respect the human rights to water and sanitation, and for some companies, their interest in supporting those rights.1 Guidance on company impacts related to water use was laid out in Guidance for Companies on Respecting the Human Rights to Water and Sanitation. For the purposes of this paper, attention is paid to the role that companies play in influencing WASH delivery for workers throughout their supply chains. It should be recognized that looking at WASH through this lens combines not only water stewardship, but also labor practices. As such, standing international commitments for workers, such as the ILO conventions, guidelines, and recommendations, as well as relevant national laws and regulations will also be applicable to companies.

At Stockholm World Water Week 2015, the CEO Water Mandate, WaterAid, and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) co-convened a session looking at how to further business action on WASH. There was general recognition that once businesses have policies and practices in place to ensure workers in their own operations have access to WASH (for example, by signing and implementing the WBCSD’s WASH at the Workplace Pledge),3 they could make a more concrete and tangible contribution to the WASH agenda by improving WASH services for workers in their supply chains. Participants highlighted a number of challenges to addressing WASH in their supply chains and identified a need for additional research that would help companies take action. In response, the three convening organizations undertook this project on Corporate Action on WASH in Supply Chains to:

  • Understand current obstacles to improving WASH in companies’ supply chains, particularly in key sectors such as forestry and agriculture,
  • Explore and develop guidance, tools, and other resources to help companies use their influence to improve WASH in their supply chains,
  • Explore the potential for developing and/or utilizing existing collaboration platforms addressing WASH issues.

This paper is the outcome of the first phase of the project, which explores the challenges and current approaches companies are taking to improve WASH for workers throughout their supply chains. As used in this paper, supply chains refer the sequence of processes involved in the production and distribution of a product and can include direct contractors, to trade processors, to materials producers, to farmers. These can span large manufacturers with their own supply chain to direct raw material processors which can be large or small scale. It lays out some initial findings based on

  • desk research of companies’ published policies,
  • as a series of ten interviews with companies representing food and beverage, consumer goods, and apparel, as well as other organizations working with companies to implement WASH programs.
  • feedback from participants at the 2016 World Water Week session ‘Scaling-up WASH action in companies' supply chains: promoting sustainable growth.