Ruth Romer of WaterAid introduces practical guidance for companies to invest in water, sanitation and hygiene, and says a new project with HSBC in garment factories in Bangladesh and India will help test the business case for WASH

Clothing production is changing. From factory safety, worker conditions and animal rights to supply chains all elements of production are under scrutiny, and consumers care.

Beyond the apparel sector, global supply chains have a disproportionally large part to play in some of today’s most pressing social and environmental challenges, including access to clean water, decent sanitation and hygiene for people living in poverty globally. With 80% of global trade flowing through multinational corporations, according to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), and the International Labour Organization (ILO) reporting that one in five jobs is linked to global supply chains, this presents an opportunity for scale and reach in driving positive change.

Waiting around is not an option. Currently 844 million people globally are living without access to clean water, while a staggering 2.3 billion are without access to a decent toilet. Meanwhile, at the UN High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF) in July, the international community was clear that, at current rates of progress, the global sustainable development goal relating to access to clean water and decent sanitation (SDG 6) by 2030 is woefully behind.

In Asia, where the garment industry dominates, there are significant risks to workers with regards to human rights

Harnessing global supply chains to improve access to clean water, decent sanitation and hygiene could help change this, and the business community must be at the heart of the solution.

The significant potential of driving more impactful change on environmental and social issues through global supply chains is highlighted in the 2017 joint report by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, WaterAid and the CEO Water Mandate.

The report estimates that one in five people are employed in globalized supply chains, and that 80-90% of these people work within micro- small- and medium-sized enterprises in developing countries.

 (Credit: WaterAid)

The global apparel industry presents a large and intertwined supply chain: it is valued at $3trn and accounts for 2% of the world’s GDP, according to Fashion United. Three quarters of garment workers are female and in Asia, where the ready-made garment industry dominates, there are significant risks to workers with regards to human rights, as well as safety and working conditions across the value chain..

This sector presents an opportunity for improvements in working conditions, especially with regards to WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) provisioning in the workplace.

A 2018 report from Business and Sustainable Development Commission highlights the business case and potential economic value to be gained from applying the sustainable development goals and going beyond “business as usual” approaches. HSBC, as well as other leading companies, are starting to recognize the win-wins for people, planet and profit from investing in sustainability and aligning with the SDGs.

The guide will help companies provide evidence of the benefits and financial value, or ROI, of their WASH interventions

HSBC is going beyond “business as usual” and is working with WaterAid on a new project focused on sustainable apparel supply chains in India and Bangladesh. The initiative will improve water, sanitation and hygiene facilities in ready-made garment factories in Bangladesh, as well as for artisanal garment workers and leather tanneries in India. The facilities will also be extended into workers’ communities.

Alongside this work, data will be collected to test the business case for WASH, and determining what the return on investment is. Once this data has been collected and the ROI defined, this will help strengthen the business case for investing in WASH and drive action on a wider scale.

The work to test the business case is underpinned by new practical guidance that was launched at this year’s World Water Week, in Stockholm. The guide – Strengthening the business case for water, sanitation and hygiene – how to measure value for your business, was championed by WaterAid’s partners Diageo, Gap Inc and Unilever, and endorsed by WASH4Work.

Similar supply chain commitments to Gap's could help achieve SDG6. (Credit: TungCheung/Shutterstock)

The guide will help companies provide evidence of the benefits and financial value, or ROI, of their WASH interventions, and makes the case for greater investment in WASH within the company and beyond. This guide provides an opportunity for progressive companies to lead and showcase the incentives for business investment on WASH whilst catalyzing action.

In order for meaningful change in the apparel industry and its sprawling supply chains, the business community needs to scale up its WASH investments: no one organization can do this singlehandedly. Some businesses, like the largest global trade bank, HSBC, are leading the charge, but in order to build momentum, evidence is needed to generate action on a broader scale. With WaterAid’s new guide, and commitment by companies like HSBC, Diageo, Gap Inc, and Unilever to put it into practice, global supply chains could become the avenue that makes SDG 6 a goal within our sights by 2030.

Ruth Romer is private sector advisor for WaterAid UK.

Main picture credit: Febyuka Azalia


SDG6  WaterAid  Sustainable fashion  WASH  Unilever  GAP 

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