New research reveals the business benefits from factory to field of investing in water and toilets

4 min read
Joyce Mwita (40) is a farmer in Machochwe village, Serengeti, Tanzania May 2022
Image: WaterAid/Sam Vox

First-of-its kind research by WaterAid spans workplaces and communities in the apparel, leather, tea and agriculture sectors across four countries.

Clean water, decent toilets and handwashing facilities are vital for business success, and often drive a steep return on investment, WaterAid’s latest research, ‘Boosting business: why investing in water, sanitation and hygiene pays off’, shows.

Water and sanitation, at home, in the community and at work are foundations for health and wellbeing. By investing in them, companies can foster a host of socio-economic benefits for employees and their families - boosting productivity, reducing sickness and absenteeism and cutting medical and sick pay costs, according to the new research. Businesses can also strengthen their brand value, build resilience in their workforce and reduce supply chain and climate risks.

The first-of-its-kind pilot projects were carried out between 2018 and 2022 in collaboration with Diageo, Gap Inc., HSBC, Twinings and ekaterra (which was part of Unilever when this project started). These took place in ten workplaces and communities across four countries and sectors – ready-made garment factories in Bangladesh, leather tanneries in India, tea estates in Kenya and India and with smallholder farmers in Tanzania. 

Each project documented the effect investment in water, sanitation and hygiene had on productivity, absenteeism, attrition, punctuality and the number of medical incidents at each workplace, with the reports including projections for the next ten years.

Key report findings include:

  • Absenteeism decreased across the projects and the general health of employees, and their families improved. Absenteeism dropped 29% at the leather tanneries in India and 21% on the tea estate study in Kenya thanks to the intervention.
  • Workplace medical incidents dropped – the clinics on the tea estates in India saw a 5% drop and the tea estate in Kenya saw a 22% decrease.
  • Productivity increased – the tea estates in India saw a 27% boost in productivity after the intervention.
  • Punctuality increased 5% at the ready-made garment factories in Bangladesh and 6% at the leather tanneries in India.

The research showed that overall, for every $1 spent, the combined apparel sector factories (ready-made garment and leather) delivered a $1.32 return on investment, while the tea sector projects combined saw a $2.05 return.

WaterAid’s research showed that the best results were where investments in the workplace and supply chains were supported by interventions in the wider community where employees’ live.

  • On the Darjeeling tea estates in India where access to clean water was prioritised, 74% of households had a water source close by (less than 50m away) at the end of the project compared to 55% at the start.
  • In Bangladesh, community investment ensured 26% of households had safely managed toilets compared with 0% at the start of the project.
  • In Kenya, there was a 37% increase in the proportion of tea pickers washing their hands, and they washed them more often – nearly doubling from 2.8 times a day to 5.3 times a day at the end of the project.

Michael Alexander, Head of Environment at Diageo said:

“We passionately believe that access to clean water and sanitation is a fundamental human right. It is critical to helping millions of people, particularly women, move out of poverty, transforming their lives and communities to become more resilient to climate change.”

“This important research provides compelling evidence for investing in WASH. Not only is it the right thing to do for people and communities, but it also clearly supports the productivity and sustainable growth of businesses and local economies.”

Céline Gilart, Head of Social Impact and Sustainability at Twinings said:

“Access to water and sanitation is a basic human right that is also critical to the realization of all human rights. However, this is still a challenge in many regions. Indeed, in Darjeeling, access to water remains problematic, due to the mountainous terrain, a lack of appropriate infrastructure and the rising population on tea gardens.”

“At Twinings, we have been working on accelerating access to water and sanitation in our supply chain since 2010, so that people living in the tea gardens we source from have decent living standards and can contribute positively to their communities. We hope that this business case, by demonstrating benefits from a business and human perspective, as well as practical steps, will inspire and encourage others within the tea sector to do the same.”

WaterAid said the potential impact of the findings of the reports is unprecedented, as they build a compelling case for large companies to invest at scale throughout their supply chains, driving the health of millions of employees and boosting business at the same time.  

Tom Muller, Acting Chief Executive of WaterAid said:

“Investing in such a basic thing as water and toilets can no longer be overlooked by business leaders. The findings from this pioneering project make the case that it’s a necessity for businesses to put the heath of millions of workers at the core of their business strategies.”

“We believe this is the first time that the impacts from WASH investment on both employees and businesses has been documented and analysed, and where the return on investment has been so well-evidenced.”

“With climate change making global weather patterns increasingly erratic, investing in WASH is a fundamental way to help ensure those on the frontlines are safeguarded and businesses can have a sustainable future.”

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