The blue pathway to supplier resilience: how healthy rivers and access to clean water are central to COVID-19 recovery for the apparel sector

7 min read
Image: WaterAid/HSBC/ DIRK/ Parvez Ahmad

Healthy waterways and sustainable access to water, sanitation and hygiene are at the heart of apparel businesses' and supply chains' resilience to current and future crises, including COVID-19 and climate change. WWF's Alexis Morgan and WaterAid's Ruth Romer highlight the dangers of not protecting rivers and WASH access for workers, and practical actions companies can take to boost resilience and join the movement for sustainable fashion.

The fashion industry – encompassing the apparel and textile sectors – is one of the largest in terms of annual revenue and brings with it employment and benefits to millions. At the same time, the materials and production processes it employs generate numerous negative global impacts on people and planet. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed not only the environmental and social shortcomings of the sector, which must be urgently addressed, but also highlighted the importance of supplier resilience.

Access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) is the foundation of health and wellbeing, a reality made painstakingly clear by a global health crisis in which handwashing with soap and water is a first line of defence. The immediate disruption experienced in apparel manufacturing at the onset of COVID-19 to protect workforce health demonstrates the fundamental role WASH plays in the sustainability of people-centric supply chains. Significant risks to (predominantly female) workers’ health, safety and working conditions have since catapulted WASH to a board-level priority, but, with insufficient access to water and good practice around handwashing, safeguarding workers remains a challenge.

The WWF-initiated Open Letter to the sector is a timely, powerful and collective call to action on sustainability in the apparel and textiles sector which WaterAid proudly joins. As evidenced by the pandemic, the sector’s resilience largely hinges on the health of its workers, rendering tangible commitments to WASH action critical to operations and future growth.

Lack of WASH access in the field, factory and local community significantly undermines employee health, increasing rates of absenteeism and decreasing productivity. The apparel sector’s operational continuity requires water availability for both product development and workforce wellbeing, making WASH a key water risk facing companies. Unfortunately, all too often WASH is insufficiently prioritised by companies, leaving them exposed to this ongoing supply chain water risk.

Workers at a ready-made garment factory wash their hands to prevent COVID-19 having learned about importance of handwashing through hygiene behaviour training. Narayanganj, Bangladesh.
Workers at a ready-made garment factory wash their hands to prevent COVID-19 having learned about the importance of handwashing through hygiene behaviour training. Narayanganj, Bangladesh.
Image: WaterAid/HSBC/ DIRK/ Parvez Ahmad

A threat to long-term resilience

Looking beyond COVID-19, building resilience against the next crisis requires urgent action to preserve and protect water ecosystems and ensure universal WASH access.

Disease outbreaks (especially waterborne ones) are most commonly linked to a combination of ecosystem degradation and WASH challenges. Climate change is wreaking havoc on water, and therefore on WASH access: rising sea levels contaminate freshwater with salt; drought and flood events are increasingly common; and surface water evaporates in warmer temperatures. Simultaneously, global water demand is projected to increase by up to 30% by 2050. The evaluation of different water risk scenarios, along with integrated management of this precious resource, must be at the forefront of corporate sustainability strategies as competition intensifies.

A holistic approach to water stewardship that mutually prioritises ecosystems, community health and operational needs will ultimately underpin and deliver commercial success. Healthy rivers and reliable access to clean water are the joint lifeline of people, planet and business.

Innovative water solutions and sustainable WASH practice in action

In Bangladesh, WaterAid, with the support of HSBC, is working with ready-made garment factories to implement innovative solutions to the mounting competition for access to clean water from community and industry, while simultaneously addressing growing concerns about rates of groundwater abstraction in a water-stressed environment. 

To curtail dependence on groundwater in one knit composite facility, WaterAid supported the installation of a rainwater harvesting system, which has directly reduced groundwater consumption by 20% to date. The water harvested is of sufficiently good quality to be used in the washing and dyeing processes, and can also be used as grey water in toilets. Before, 160 litres of water were required per 1kg of denim during the dyeing process – now, that figure has dropped to 120 litres. The reservoir system supports manufacturing needs for approximately four months, safeguards the business in a changing climate and has decreased both environmental impact and operational cost.

Improved WASH facilities and regular hygiene promotion to workers and surrounding communities has also enhanced productivity, reduced absenteeism, and motivated and unified employees, according to Maher Abdullah Al, the factory’s CEO and Head of Business. Strong WASH practices enabled the factory to respond quickly and appropriately to the COVID-19 crisis with the guidance and support of WaterAid Bangladesh. COVID-19 response measures such as additional handwashing facilities and hygiene cues in the factory contributed to a safe return to work for employees and operational continuity for the factory and brands it supplies.

The value of holistic water stewardship is clear: forward-thinking companies who consider their water sustainability for operations as well as the needs of planet and people are well-placed to respond to crises and secure long-term resilience.

 Workers at a ready-made garment factory wash hands to prevent COVID-19 having learned about importance of handwashing through hygiene behaviour training. Narayanganj, Bangladesh. 2020
Workers at a ready-made garment factory wash hands to prevent COVID-19 having learned about importance of handwashing through hygiene behaviour training. Narayanganj, Bangladesh. 2020
Image: WaterAid/Drik/Parvez Ahmad

Valuing our rivers and sustainable access to water

River systems provide water for us to drink, and for business operations and needs, but their management is critical for ecosystem function and buffering against the front line of climate change: droughts and floods. In particular, free-flowing rivers allow for deltas and mangroves that protect coastlines. They sustain fisheries and forests (which provide protein and critical resources for many worker communities in the apparel sector), provide water and support floodplain agriculture to grow food, supporting millions of people. There is therefore a critical need to value our rivers and their deltas as they are at the heart of providing economic resilience for many sectors, including the apparel sector.

Since 1970, freshwater species have declined by an estimated 84%, signalling that we have eroded these systems and placed ourselves at risk. Like many cities, apparel hubs are focused on and around rivers and their deltas (e.g. Dhaka in the Ganges-Brahmaputra delta, Suzhou in the Yangtze delta, Ho Chi Minh in the Mekong delta) which means the sector both impacts, and is dependent on, the biodiversity and ecosystem function of rivers. For the past several decades, WWF has worked extensively in many of these valuable delta areas, and this has led to many successful engagements linking apparel suppliers to upstream ecosystems.

Ensuring WASH is not only a matter of taps and toilets in facilities, but also a matter of ensuring water can flow from headwater ecosystems and bring with it critical sediment that keeps community drinking water from salination. WWF continues to advance efforts across Asia through our Resilient Asian Deltas initiative, and work to ensure communities and species can thrive through the restoration of wetlands within our Asian Flyways initiative. By mobilising finance at various levels (e.g. via Bankable Nature Solutions), we can enhance basin resilience, create stronger businesses and help communities. In short: if we are to enhance resilience of the apparel supply chain and provide WASH to workers and beyond, riverine ecosystems form a core part of a resilience strategy for the sector.

A site along the Ramganga River in Moradabad, India, which is a part of WWF's Rivers for Life, Life for Rivers Programme, which is supported by the HSBC Water Programme, December 2018.
A site along the Ramganga River in Moradabad, India, which is a part of WWF's Rivers for Life, Life for Rivers Programme, which is supported by the HSBC Water Programme, December 2018.
Image: WaterAid/ Sharbendu De

Short-term actions and long-term solutions

A recent report – Is sustainability in Fashion? – highlights the need to turbocharge sustainability efforts across the sector to ensure it emerges stronger after COVID-19. To unlock future resilience, immediate actions should be coupled with forward-thinking commitments to long-term solutions.

Two central recommendations emerge for the sector:

  1. Manage environmental and social issues in an integrated way – Ensure healthy, functioning ecosystems that not only enhance resilience and address climate impacts, but also underpin clean, safe water, for operational and workforce needs. To this extent companies will need to embrace both green and grey solutions as we look to the future.
  2. Overhaul the apparel sector business models to align with emerging consumer demands – Progress is needed in the areas of reuse, recycling, circular economy and water quality to propel the apparel sector into line with others. Linear improvements may work with the existing models, but, to make exponential improvements, new models may be the better pathway. With the next generation of consumers increasingly signalling that sustainability is critical, there has never been a better time to explore new models to enhance sustainability.

Practical action needed to realise recommendations:

  1. Ruthlessly interrogate your current sustainability strategy.
  2. Connect with experts (WaterAid and WWF), follow guidance (CEO Water Mandate Water and WaterAid’s COVID-19 Business Framework; WWF’s Cleaner production guide for the textile sector (PDF); Freshwater conservation and Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene: integrated guidelines (PDF)), join collective coalitions (WASH4Work, Business4Nature), sign the open letter and pledge tangible action.
  3. Commit investment into:
  • Technologies in fields and factories that improve water challenges (quality, quantity, WASH and ecosystems).
  • Water, sanitation and hygiene awareness and infrastructure for workers and surrounding communities.
  • Holistic river basin water management activities that embrace nature-based solutions and help to strengthen water governance.

Achieving resilience requires an ecosystem mindset – people, planet, profit – and, similarly, no-one can do it alone. Collective action, between sectors and industries, is the key to unlocking universal potential.

Alexis Morgan is Global Lead Water Stewardship at WWF. Follow him on Twitter at @alexisjmorgan. Ruth Romer is Senior Private Sector Advisor at WaterAid. Follow her on Twitter at @ruthromer4.