Treating water as a human right
Few resources are as essential to people’s health and well-being as water. Our water stewardship strategy is built on the principle that clean, safe water is both an environmental goal and a basic human right. We have a responsibility and an opportunity to address water issues because it is a critical natural resource for our business—used to cultivate raw materials like cotton, consumed in the mills and laundries that manufacture our products, and used by consumers when they wash their clothes. And it’s critical to the health and well-being of those who make our products—most of whom are women, who are disproportionately affected by lack of access to water and sanitation.
In recent years, decreasing availability of safe, clean water has become a significant global challenge. The World Economic Forum has ranked the water crisis as one of the top five global risks for several consecutive years.
It affects many people: One-third of the world’s population lives in countries with poor water quality or where there is not enough water. That ratio is expected to reach two-thirds by 2025. By 2030, it is estimated that demand for clean water will exceed supply by 40 percent. Climate change is exacerbating the water crisis, contributing to more frequent and severe droughts, storms and floods, which affect livelihoods and increase the risk of waterborne diseases.
Water Resilience Coalition
As a founding member of the Water Resilience Coalition, a collaboration of eight companies led by the UN Global Compact’s CEO Mandate, we have pledged to support its ambitious 2050 goals:
Net-positive water impact in water-stressed regions
Water resilient value chains
Global water leadership to raise the ambition of water resilience
One of the places we are putting these commitments into practice is in India’s Cauvery River Basin, a critical watershed in one of our key sourcing regions. In 2018, we launched the “Businesses for Water Security in the Noyyal Bhavani River Basin” to help address the root causes of water risks that threaten businesses, communities and ecosystems in this basin. Through these projects, we are working with regional and local stakeholders to address water risks and ensure water security by prioritizing solutions that consider both the river basin and apparel facility conditions.
In early 2020, we exceeded the ambitious goal we set in 2018 to conserve 10 billion liters of water by the end of 2020; together with our suppliers, we used sustainable manufacturing practices to save 11.3 billion liters of water (from a 2014 baseline). More recently, we have set ambitious new goals to create a water-resilient value chain and net positive water impact.
To help build the resilience of our company, our supply chain and the people who make our clothes, we are working strategically to use water more efficiently in product design and manufacturing; eliminate water contamination from chemicals; improve awareness and access to water and sanitation, particularly among women; and invest in opportunities to build community water resilience and catalyze water innovation.
Alongside our strategic implementation partners, we lead a suite of programs to provide education, access to services and financing to women and communities to address water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) needs. Through water-risk assessments, we have identified India as a critical location for WASH services, which is why we focus many of our programs in cotton-growing and textile-manufacturing communities in India’s Godavari, Narmada and Ganges-Brahmaputra river basins. Within Gap Inc. partner facilities, our Code of Vendor Conduct requires that key WASH needs of garment workers are met. In addition, our P.A.C.E. program aimed at workers within our supply chain as well as global communities, provides additional capability to bring WASH education to women globally.
Our Water Stewardship strategy is focused on three key areas:
Partnerships for Advocacy and Industry Change
We collaborate in several initiatives to address water scarcity and improve access to water and sanitation:
Water Resilience Coalition (WRC): Aims to positively impact water in 100 basins worldwide and to enable sustainable access to drinking water and sanitation to 100 million people by 2030. WASH4Work: This program, led by the UN Global Compact, works to mobilize greater business action to contribute toward Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6—access to clean water—in the workplace, in communities and across supply chains.
World Water Day: In March 2021, Mark Breitbard, President and CEO of Gap Brand, spoke at a UN Global Compact CEO Water Mandate event to highlight the value of water for business.
Gap Inc. also hosted a World Water Day Walk for Water, through which nearly 8,000 employees participated, and Gap Foundation made a $12,000 grant to WaterAid.
Ceres Connect the Drops: Leverages corporate voices to advocate for policies that safeguard access to water in California, a water-stressed state and home to Gap Inc. headquarters.
Advocating for Smart Water Access and Affordability Policy in California
As a water-stressed state, California—home to Gap Inc. headquarters—has a law declaring that every resident has a right to clean, safe and affordable drinking water. But during the COVID-19 pandemic and related economic crisis, an estimated 1.6 million households faced water shutoffs due to difficulty paying their bills. In total, the state accumulated $1 billion of water debt, which was shouldered disproportionately by low-income families and communities of color.
We believe equitable access to affordable water builds resilience, and we support the development of policies that safeguard access to water. In partnership with Ceres Connect the Drops alongside seven other companies, Gap Inc. supported two state bills through a letter to the California Senate: To strengthen water shutoff protection and debt repayment procedures, and to create a Water Affordability Assistance fund to help low-income ratepayers and those experiencing economic hardship.
Women + Water
Of crucial importance is how water affects the people who make our clothes—roughly 80% of whom are women. These women need water to care for themselves, their families and their communities.Unfortunately, access to clean, safe water is a major challenge in many of our key sourcing countries, according to basin-level water risk mapping through WRI’s Aqueduct tool, and issues such as population growth and climate change exacerbate the crisis. In water-stressed areas, poor and marginalized communities are affected the most. This is especially true in India, an important location for both growing cotton and making textiles. In that country, groundwater pollution from agricultural and industrial activities and poor sanitation represent a root cause of water-quality issues that increase health and mortality risks.
In many parts of the world, women are largely responsible for household duties such as cooking and cleaning; they shoulder a disproportionate burden when it comes to water stress. According to UNICEF, women and girls globally spend more than 200 million hours collecting water each day—time that could be spent earning additional income, caring for their families or getting an education. Women and children also face serious health risks due to inadequate access to safe water and sanitation, which is sometimes worsened by a limited understanding of healthy hygiene practices.
P.A.C.E. and the USAID Women + Water Global Development Alliance
Since 2014, we have integrated water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) curriculum into our P.A.C.E. program, which supports the women who make our clothes in gaining the skills and confidence to advance in work and life. In 2017, we launched the Women + Water Global Development Alliance, a five-year, $32 million public-private partnership with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to improve access to clean water and sanitation services for the women touched by the apparel industry. In communities where Women + Water Alliance is working, we estimate that households spend on average 1.5 hours per day fetching water, and are missing out on approximately 9 percent of monthly income potential due to a lack of access to water and sanitation (W+W I4DI baseline assessment).
Through this initiative, for which we are the co-funder and primary program manager, we aim to empower 2 million people—including 1 million women—to improve their access to water and sanitation by 2023. We have expanded our P.A.C.E. program in India to teach safe water-handling practices, and we are supporting access to clean water and sanitation and working to manage local water resources sustainably alongside our implementing partners, CARE, Water.org, Institute for Sustainable Communities (ISC) and WaterAid.Our partnership with USAID is designed to support women and communities as they learn about WASH practices, while also developing leadership skills. This supports women as they take initiative to incorporate improved water infrastructure in their communities. Our partnerships take this program beyond education to provide the essential hard goods, such as toilets and filters, needed in the home and to provide neighborhoods with clean water access.
This pioneering public-private partnership aligns closely to our business and sustainability goals related to sustainable water stewardship and empowering women through our P.A.C.E. program. Through rigorous monitoring and evaluation, we are deepening our understanding of the WASH needs of women and girls in the communities where we operate and improve our ability to deliver programs that support their wellbeing. We are also learning and sharing best practices for WASH and water stewardship to catalyze progress across the apparel industry and beyond.
The COVID-19 pandemic underscored the importance of WASH as a critical defense against the spread of diseases and viruses. During a six-month pause in USAID Gap Inc. Women + Water Alliance programming due to lockdowns, the program leaders and participants conducted educational campaigns about the importance of handwashing to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, sewed more than 15,000 handmade masks and distributed food to those in need. When programs resumed, we reduced the numbers of participants for in-person activities to accommodate social distancing, and ensured COVID-19 health and safety protocols were implemented.
Despite the challenges related to COVID-19, Women + Water Alliance partners made notable progress in 2020:
CARE: CARE reached a milestone of enrolling more than 100,000 women in Gap Inc.’s Personal Advancement & Career Enhancement (P.A.C.E.) program, which includes water education. This is halfway toward our goal to enroll 200,000 women in Gap Inc. P.A.C.E. through the Women + Water Alliance.
Water.org: Water.org’s WaterCredit model helps unlock financing to expand water and sanitation services and products. In 2020, Water.org helped catalyze $3.3 million in financing through 18,385 loans, benefiting more than 88,000 individuals to address their water and sanitation needs. Cumulatively, Water.org has reached nearly 159,000 people and, with CARE, more than 4,600 P.A.C.E. participants were trained on WASH finance and loan solutions.
WaterAid: Through the Indian Government’s Jal Jeevan Mission, which aims to provide water connections for all rural households by 2024, WaterAid facilitated water plans in more than 900 villages in 2020. WaterAid also supported the formation of 55 village water and sanitation committees and taught nearly 1,380 women and young people how to use water-quality field-testing kits.
Institute for Sustainable Communities (ISC): In 2020, ISC completed two projects with over 3,000 cotton farmers that delivered a 50 percent decline in GHG emissions, an average 23 percent increase in crop yields, a 20 percent reduction in water footprint, and a decrease in the cost of cotton cultivation by $71 per acre through sustainable cotton production practices. ISC trained 26 groups of female entrepreneurs on how to make bio-fertilizer and bio-pesticide.
International Center for Research on Women (ICRW): ICRW completed a baseline survey of the P.A.C.E. program to create a benchmark of women’s knowledge, attitudes and practices that will inform an evaluation of P.A.C.E. outcomes for water behaviors and practices.
Institute for Development Impact (I4DI): I4DI conducted a management evaluation of the Women + Water Alliance program.
* Includes: Supporting communities to develop village action plans for water security, to assist government in its planning, financing and maintenance of piped water services; and catalyzing micro-loans for water piped connections, water handpumps, water storage, rainwater collection structures, water filters and toilets
The views expressed on this website reflect the opinions of Gap Inc., and are entirely our own. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) or the United States Government. USAID is not responsible for the accuracy of any information supplied herein.
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