Reality Check: Water Stewardship is a marathon, not a sprint

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In January, H&M and WWF marked the first year of our innovative water stewardship partnership. People were excited and wanted to make the most of the occasion. Then a sobering reality sunk in: There wasn’t any headline news to report. Yikes. Was the strategy flawed? Were people failing to deliver on their objectives? When two high-profile organizations tout a strategic alliance, both parties and the public expect it to deliver results. So, what do we have to show for the past year?

H&M is also supporting a WWF conservation project in China’s Yangtze River basin ©Michael Gunther / WWF-CanonH&M is supporting a WWF conservation project in China’s Yangtze River basin                        ©Michael Gunther / WWF-Canon

Actually, quite a bit. But the truth remains, it’s not the kind of stuff you shout about in the media. Announcements about dramatic cuts in water use are headline-friendly, but H&M and its suppliers are already fairly efficient. What’s more, using less isn’t always the answer; location is the real key to water impact. So, while the company will always be looking for ways to improve, these “inside the factory fence” upgrades aren’t going to deliver change at the scale required to manage water risk. That’s why the H&M/WWF partnership focuses on stewardship, where the motivation isn’t quick wins, but rather laying the groundwork for lasting change.

Much of this first year has been spent understanding the contexts where the partnership touches ground. What works in Bangladesh may not work in China, so the activities and relationships have to be tailor-made. Stewardship also requires a healthy dose of humility; neither WWF nor H&M claims to have the “right answer” to water management in these very complicated environments. One of the most important things we can do is map who is doing what, what’s working and where we can add value.

“In China, many of the key water stewardship stakeholders realize that we can’t move forward continuing ‘business as usual’. However, real change and impact will only come with strong collective action and a shared agenda that reflects a holistic and inclusive water stewardship strategy. Water touches so many industries, people and interests that crafting this shared agenda will inherently take time,” says Ravi Cannetta, H&M’s Relations Manager in Shanghai. “But H&M is prepared to go slowly to ensure that we enjoy the long-term impact and change that is really necessary.”

A man watering his crops with water sourced from the Rwenzori Mountains, Uganda      ©WWF-Canon / Simon RawlesA man watering his crops with water sourced from the Rwenzori Mountains, Uganda                   ©WWF-Canon / Simon Rawles

These concepts of collective action and a shared agenda are integral to water stewardship. However, they also mean it’s difficult if not impossible to assign attribution for change. Companies or groups that are accustomed to being able to claim credit for specific results have to recalibrate their measures of success when it comes to water stewardship. Likewise, the media could advance the cause by reporting more than mere numbers, highlighting leadership, innovation and transparency.

That said, we are quietly confident that the work H&M and WWF are doing today will make it easier for companies in the future to enter the stewardship space and make real contributions to better water management. Through platforms like the Alliance for Water Stewardship and CEO Water mandate, experience can be shared and the time-consuming, sensitive work to understand the context won’t need to be repeated by each entity that wants to get involved.

More than a year in, H&M and WWF remain committed to the partnership and the hard work of water stewardship. The easy road doesn’t get us where we want to go; but we are happy to break the trail and invite others to join us on this journey.

By Laila Petrie, Manager, WWF International Corporate Relations


This article originally appeared on 2Degrees

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