The Politics of Poverty

Ideas and analysis from Oxfam America's policy experts

Behind the Brands: The Human Right to Water AND Supply Chain Responsibility

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You can’t have one without the other.

Suzanne Zweben is a Senior Advisor in the Private Sector Department of Oxfam America. 

Lake Izabal in Guatemala is an area of great biodiversity and natural resource wealth. Photo: Edgar Orellana / Oxfam America

Companies included in the Behind the Brands scorecard have for the most part made progress on managing water resources.  Largely they recognize that access to water will be one of the greatest challenges of our time.  It’s projected that by 2025, just 12 years away, that 1.8 billion people will be living in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity.  Two-thirds of the world’s population is expected to have limited access to clean water.

This is one sustainability issue food and beverage companies grasp as core to their business; it will impact their ability to make products and touch the lives of their employees, consumers and the communities where they operate and from which they source.  Approximately 70 percent of the world’s freshwater is used for irrigation compared to 22 percent for other industrial use and only 8 percent for domestic use.  In developing countries, 70 percent of industrial wastes are dumped untreated into waters where they pollute the usable water supply, with the food sector estimated as responsible for 54 percent of organic water pollutants.

Oxfam’s Scorecard assessed three main aspects related to water:

(1) Human Right to Water: Has the company recognized the human right to water as defined by the UN?  Has the company committed to consult communities on plans to develop water resources, i.e. before a project has started?  Have grievance mechanisms been established in cases where water rights have been violated?  (A recent report by The Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation, On the Right Track, addresses good practices in implementing the human right to water.  See Chapter 3 especially.)

(2) Transparency: Does the company disclose information on water withdrawals, discharges (i.e. the quality of water released into lakes and rivers), water-stressed regions where the company has operations, regions where the company operates that are at risk for water stress, and raw materials that come from regions subject to water-related risk?  (Seven of the ten companies companies assessed through the Behind the Brands scorecard disclose information through the Water Program of the Carbon Disclosure Project.)

(3) Supply Chain Management:  Does the company require its suppliers to report on their water use, risks and management?  Are requirements on water rights and use specified in a company’s supplier code?  Has the company set a specific target to reduce its water use along its whole value chain?

Food and beverage companies have played a central role in the CEO Water Mandate, which was launched by the UN Secretary-General to assist companies in the development, implementation, and disclosure of water sustainability policies and practices.  Yet no one company has taken significant steps on both the human right to water and supply chain management.  PepsiCo and The Coca-Cola Company have developed policies that take into account the effect of their activities on local communities’ access to water.  Nestle and Unilever have supplier codes or guidelines with specific requirements on water management.

Yet there is still a long way to go.  Because some progress has been made, many companies consider themselves leaders in the realm of sustainable water management, even if they are only addressing one or two of the three aspects of this challenge. But I’m waiting to see who the real leader is going to be—this company will leverage their influence across their supply chain to take on all three of the key fundamental issues of the human right to water, transparency, AND supply chain management.

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This post by Suzanne Zweben is part of a Behind the Brands blog series on Politics of Poverty that examines the seven issues relating to poverty and big food companies’ supply chains. Read more on landwomenfarmerstransparency, workers, and climate change!

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