The Politics of Poverty

Ideas and analysis from Oxfam America's policy experts

From statements to supply chains: deepening company commitments to the right to water

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Food and beverage companies source materials in communities around the world, where access to clean and safe water is critical for sustaining life and livelihoods. Photo: Isabelle Lesser / Oxfam America

Oxfam’s Behind the Brands campaign asks food and beverage companies to take the next steps in advancing the right to water.

This blog was co-authored by Chris Jochnick, Oxfam America’s former Private Sector Department Director, and Suzanne Zweben, a Senior  Advisor for the Private Sector Department at Oxfam America.

The historic drought in California’s Central Valley brings home the risks we face around water and increasing impacts to our food supply.  These challenges will affect us all through our access to water, government regulation of water rights, and our food choices, given the fact that California feeds much of the US.

A recent 60 minutes segment showed that breadbaskets like central California, are often also home to the aquifers under the greatest stress. The show was a helpful translation of the data collection and recent reports from NASA’s GRACE satellite mission, clearly underscoring the severity of the problem and the need to act for the general public.

Food and beverage companies in particular have much responsibility and much at stake.  The companies in this sector generally realize that access to water will be one of the greatest challenges of our time, and one that will affect them because it is core to their business. Growing water scarcity will impact their ability to make products, and will touch the lives of their employees, consumers and the communities in which they operate and source key inputs for their products.  Many food and beverage companies have joined the CEO Water Mandate to explore their responsibilities.

Recently, we’ve seen some companies make promising movements toward addressing fundamental issues around water, and to make themselves more accountable publicly.  Hopefully – this signifies a trend.

While voluntary efforts like the CEO Water Mandate are important, companies also need to hold themselves accountable to communities, shareholders, business partners and consumers.  As a first step, a public commitment to respect the right to water is essential.  Making that commitment communicates a company’s seriousness and provides them a framework around which to engage with stakeholders. Under the recently established UN Guiding Principles, all companies have a responsibility to respect human rights, beginning with this sort of public statement.

PepsiCo was the first food and beverage company to take this responsibility to heart, making its right to water commitment public in 2009.  Over the last year, we have seen others make similar commitments.  General Mills included a commitment to respect the human right to water in its water policy released last November.  And Unilever and Nestlé strengthened earlier policies by making their commitment to respect this right explicit.

We have supported the work of the CEO Water Mandate to develop strong guidance for how companies can put their respect for the human right to water into practice.  We’ve been pleased with the beta version of the guidance released in January, especially its strong recommendations for stakeholder engagement and grievance mechanisms – two elements essential to implementation.   The guidance also clarified how a company’s responsibility to respect the right extends beyond its operations to its supply chain, which represents the overwhelming majority of food and beverage companies’ water use.

Oxfam has pushed the ten largest food and beverage companies to recognize their responsibilities with respect to water, through public commitments, on-going engagement with affected communities, establishment of grievance mechanisms, disclosure of operations in water-stressed regions, supplier guidelines with specific requirements on water management (including water quality or pollution), and targets for water use across their supply chain.

We’re pleased by the progress being made, and will continue to push the rest of the ten to follow the important steps taken by PepsiCo, General Mills, Unilever and Nestle, and for all companies to deliver on their commitments.  Swift action from companies on the right to water would have big impacts for communities around the world.

And time is of the essence.

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  1. ninalouisenoble@yahoo.com'Nina

    This article does not make it clear exactly how large companies are doing anything that will ultimately benefit the people. From what I’ve read they take from the water supply for their own gain, bottle the water in plastic containers which are bad for the environment and then sell at a premium for prices the poor cannot afford to pay. How does this help impoverished communities?

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  2. totherpete@att.net'Nancy Gibson

    Change.org or SumOfUs , I can’t remember which one has a petition going against The Nestle company because they want to buy water from a small town in Oregon. And people are not happy with the deal, because of the drought on the West coast.

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  3. Rebecca Rewald

    Thanks Nancy and Nina for your comments and the good questions here. We see commitments to respect the human right to water as only a first step. Putting this policy into practice is essential. And as the guidance linked here notes engaging affected communities on an ongoing basis in watersheds where companies are working – including before a project starts – is at the heart of implementation. In our view affected communities exercising their rights over natural resources is the key – which would presumable not only increase their access to water but voice in how these shared resources are used over the long-term. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of governments to ensure the right to water is realized but companies can be part of the problem or part of the solution. We see companies that respect the right to water as aiming to be part of the solution – which means they have stakeholder engagement mechanisms, they take action around potentially adverse impacts identified by communities and other stakeholders and where rights have been violated there is redress through grievance mechanisms. Several companies have projects to increase communities access to water which is considered support for the human right to water but our focus here is on respect for the human right to water and empowering affected communities to influence how shared resources are used.

    -Suzanne and Chris

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