Three ways to improve WASH knowledge sharing between buyers and suppliers 

5 min read
Factory workers at Sunbow factory, who are going to get their COVID-19 vaccines, wash their hands with Labobo, Kandal Stueng District in Kandal province, Cambodia, June, 2021.
Image: WaterAid/ Ly heng

COVID-19 has made many companies realise the importance of water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) for the safety of their workers and the future of their business. To integrate these services successfully, buyers and suppliers must pool their knowledge and share models of good WASH practice with each other.

Infectious diseases and the climate crisis are the two biggest threats facing societies and businesses today. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the connections between water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), human health and business resilience. It has also made hygiene for workers, including for those in supply chains, a boardroom priority. Businesses whose workers already had a strong awareness of WASH and good hygiene practices were quicker to respond to the challenges of the pandemic and ensure a safe return to work.

Smaller businesses, which employ the vast majority of the 1.5 billion people working in supply chains, face the same risks to their resilience, especially when they operate in areas where access to WASH is difficult. For many of these companies, some of which have only recently realised the importance of WASH for the safety of their workers and the future of their business, practical insights and examples of good WASH interventions are essential. To achieve this, there must be greater collaboration between buyers and suppliers, and companies must share best practices and lessons learned.

At World Water Week, representatives from Fakir Fashion, a Dhaka-based circular knit factory, Unilever, and American water technology provider Xylem discussed how they are encouraging businesses to share knowledge and best practices around WASH across their supply chains.

1. Fakir Fashion: sharing grassroots knowledge from suppliers throughout the value chain

The WASH systems and handwashing behaviours implemented in Fakir Fashion’s factories before the pandemic not only ensured that thousands of garment workers had a safe place to work, but also gave some reassurance to their brands.

“Fakir Fashion came forward to assure our partners of the steps we had taken,” said Maher Abdullah Al, Fakir Fashion’s CEO and Head of Business. “We collaborated [with other suppliers] and we shared the lessons from our WASH interventions with other factories.

Fakir Fashion also highlighted that each supplier may face different types of challenges. For example, even if handwashing stations were available in their factory, some workers did not wash their hands regularly, so they had to focus on changing behaviours. Fakir Fashion has since done roadshows and TV shows on its approach to the pandemic and how its brand benefited from WASH practices, with the hope of inspiring other Bangladeshi business owners.

2. Unilever: sharing expertise from buyers through collective action platforms

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Unilever and the UK government established the Hygiene Behaviour Change Coalition, a public–private coalition that reached more than 1 billion people with hygiene products, handwashing facilities and education around the importance of WASH. The lessons learned from the coalition will be key to handling any future outbreaks, and can, in turn, be shared with other global companies and suppliers in the value chain.

One way such lessons can be shared is through WASH4Work, a consortium of businesses, NGOs and experts that encourages businesses to address WASH challenges in supply chains and in the communities where workers live by, for example, using self-assessment tools. WASH4Work, of which WaterAid and Unilever are members, provides a common platform for companies, big and small, to share practical WASH expertise. Suppliers and smaller businesses are encouraged to join these initiatives which can give them the tools to provide access to WASH throughout their organisations.

3. Xylem: sharing practical knowledge for increased engagement from suppliers

Xylem has encouraged more than 300 of its suppliers to sign the WBCSD WASH Pledge, which commits companies to providing access to WASH for all their employees within three years. To support smaller businesses to realise this pledge, Xylem hosts webinars where WASH experts provide guidance and insights in how to provide WASH services in supply chains. “Once suppliers realise they are not alone, it becomes easier to support WASH initiatives,” said Donna Laviolette, Xylem’s Senior Manager for Global Sustainability. Support is also available, through NGOs like WaterAid, for suppliers that might struggle to implement WASH in the community.

Xylem also frequently shares its experiences of engaging with its suppliers by running one-to-one workshops with other companies, and outlining how brands can engage with suppliers through WASH.

WASH: a boardroom priority

COVID-19 has made it clear that action on WASH in supply chains is a business investment. As Helena Dollimore, Unilever's Senior Manager for Global Sustainability, said: “All businesses need to ensure they are providing good access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene for their employees. If ever there were a moment to prioritise this, it’s during a global pandemic. And this is most effective when employers also consider the WASH facilities available in the communities that workers return to when they leave the workplace.

Around the world, companies responded quickly to address the unprecedented challenges posed by the pandemic. WASH was critical to protecting employees and, in turn, keeping businesses afloat. It is important that the lessons learned during this time are shared with businesses of all sizes, and that companies keep raising awareness and sharing knowledge on WASH among peers, partners, suppliers and buyers in a pre-competitive space. All stakeholders must come together to drive action on access to WASH, including the private sector, governments and investors. These are crucial steps, not only for achieving business resilience, but also for achieving the global goal on water and sanitation for all.

Laurent Arnone is Private Sector Advisor for WaterAid

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Top image: Factory workers from Sunbow factory wash their hands at Labobo handwashing stations in Kandal Stueng District, Kandal province, Cambodia, June 2021.