Why businesses can't wash their hands of water and hygiene

Corporate awareness is growing around the physical, regulatory, reputational and other risks associated with water.

For many businesses, there is also an increasing emphasis on access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene -- or what's known in the industry as WASH. Such goals are becoming an integral part of corporate responsibility efforts, and closely tied to business success.

The business connection is clear. Many companies have operations, employees, contractors and customers in regions lacking access to clean water, sanitation and proper hygiene. At worst, the economic, social and environmental consequences can result in illness and death. In addition, productivity is diminished and market access limited for some products and services. In turn, this impact on human resources can restrain the growth of local economies.

For these reasons, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) has begun to mobilize businesses to address WASH with what it calls "Business Action for Access to Water and Sanitation." Businesses can make a positive impact on productivity and employee morale, as well as on public health and well-being, by maintaining workplace access to safe drinking water and appropriate sanitation facilities, coupled with hygiene materials, education and awareness-building. Increased education and awareness also can drive improvements in the larger community.

Tangible business benefits include healthier, more productive employees; expanded markets for products and services; demonstrated leadership and stakeholder engagement with common goals. Conversely, ignoring WASH needs potentially can result in a loss of social license to operate, in addition to increased reputational risk and costs.

"Billions of people without safe water and appropriate sanitation is a collective failure, and business shares responsibility to identify solutions to bring to scale at the required pace," says Joppe Cramwinckel, WBCSD water program director. "As a start, businesses must ensure that all their employees around the world have access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene at work. Beyond that, they can also seize opportunities that this enormous challenge represents, and take an active part in solving it."

The committment of companies to address WASH needs within the communiities and markets in which they operate is part of the transition from "water management" to "water stewardship." WASH previously was viewed as an "external issue." However, addressing WASH and water scarcity and quality is now considered an integral part of how companies operate in many global markets.

WASH is one more aspect of a water stewardship strategy for companies to consider in a rapidly evolving global economy where social license, reputational risk and access to natural resources have become increasingly important to success.

Water image by kubais via Shutterstock.