January 25

Kyle Poplin

WASH Can’t Be Achieved Without Business

Executives agree to provide clean water, good hygiene at workplace


The World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) is a CEO-led, Geneva-based organization founded in 1995 on the principle that business has a key role to play in sustainable development. In September 2013, WBCSD created the WASH Pledge, in which business leaders agree to provide clean water, safe toilets and good hygiene practices in all their workplaces under direct company control. The group also recently created a video (below) featuring prominent WASH Pledge champions. Here, as part of NextBillion’s ongoing series of Q&A blogs about sanitation and the businesses driving it, Sara Traubel, an associate in WBCSD’s water program, talks about the pledge, the video and the critical role business plays in ensuring universal access to WASH.


Kyle Poplin: What is the WASH Pledge, who conceived it, and when and why was it born?

Sara TraubelSara Traubel (left): The WASH Pledge for access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) at the workplace is the only business-led initiative that secures and promotes access to WASH for all employees at the workplace. Access to WASH is a fundamental human right. One third of the world’s population does not have access to a safe toilet and almost 10 percent do not have access to clean drinking water. In the fall of 2013, WBCSD and a number of its member companies conceived the pledge with the goal of providing businesses with the right tools to ensure that they are in line with international best practice on WASH at the workplace, irrespective of their country of operation. The pledge also aims to encourage and strengthen the business contribution for universal access to WASH. This is anchored in our belief that good water stewardship starts with having your own house in order on WASH.

KP: What’s your “elevator pitch” to those you hope will sign up?


  1. WASH for employees is material to companies, and ensuring safe access pays off.
  • Access to WASH is associated with a healthier and more productive workforce through reduced worker absenteeism due to water-related diseases.
  • In addition, there are wider dividends in terms of expanded markets: It is estimated that for every U.S. $1 invested in water and sanitation, U.S. $4.30 is generated in economic returns through increased productivity.
  • Signing the WASH Pledge allows companies to strengthen their social license to operate.


  1. Demonstrate leadership
  • This a great opportunity for signatories to demonstrate the leadership of business on a critical matter and set a higher standard for the health and safety of employees.
  • Signing the pledge is a direct way of tackling WASH at the workplace by walking the talk and ensuring alignment with international best practice.


  1. Generate impact

KP: How big a difference might WASH at the workplace make in worldwide safe water, sanitation and hygiene? In other words, what’s your highest hope?

ST: For 58 percent of the world’s population, one third of adult life is spent at work. If everyone had access to clean water and a safe toilet at work, businesses would have made a major direct contribution to providing access to those who currently lack it. Universal access to WASH simply cannot be achieved without business. Aside from providing access to water and sanitation, employers can play a key role in behaviour change through the promotion of proper handwashing techniques, for example, which creates a spillover effect into communities where employees live.

KP: What was the first company to sign up? At what point in the rollout did you decide that, hey, this pledge is a really good idea?

ST: The first companies to sign up were Nestlé, Greif, Borealis, EDF, Deloitte LLP, Roche, Unilever and HCC. A lot of thinking went into the idea at design level. We knew that if we wanted this initiative to succeed on a large scale, it had to be relevant to business and straightforward to implement. This is why we created the WASH Pledge self-assessment tool which outlines 32 provisions representing international best practice on WASH at the workplace. Ultimately, we aim for these provisions to be integrated into existing company processes (such as health and safety reporting systems). In this way, we can ensure that the right internal checks are in place to verify that the company is in line with the provisions and that any gaps identified are addressed in a coherent manner. In addition, we give companies the flexibility they need to adapt the provisions contained in this self-assessment tool to their individual contexts. Finally, signing the WASH Pledge means that signatories are working towards achieving WASH and that within three years, they will have addressed all gaps and are in line with the WASH Pledge provisions. These elements have created a good reception of the initiative by the business community.

KP: How many companies have signed up and how many do you hope will sign up? Are there other specific companies you’re hoping will sign the pledge?

ST: Currently, the WASH Pledge has 39 multinational/large company signatories (the latest being CH2M, PepsiCo and SCA), amounting to more than 2.2 million employees covered by provisions for safe access to WASH at the workplace. The initiative will complete its first three years in September 2016, which means that a number of companies will have completed the three-year implementation cycle. In 2016, we want to get to 50 multinational company signatories. Beyond that, we want any and every company to sign up to strengthen this business movement further and make access to WASH at the workplace non-negotiable. This year, we hope to get more signatures from sectors with “nontraditional” workplaces (i.e. not offices and factories). We have already started working with some agriculture and forestry companies on developing guidance which responds to the specific challenges that they might face in the implementation of the WASH Pledge.


KP: Do participating businesses typically incur expenses in living up to the pledge?

ST: There is no cost to signing the WASH Pledge. In implementing the pledge, companies can incur some costs depending on the types of gaps they identify when they perform the self-assessment. Some companies, for example, will build additional toilet facilities as they did not meet the number of toilets per employee recommended in the WASH Pledge provisions. Often the gaps identified revolve more around the fine-tuning of existing processes and procedures, which don’t necessarily involve additional costs.


KP: Are there any penalties for companies that sign up, but don’t follow through?

ST: There are no official reporting requirements to the WBCSD and we do not audit company signatories. As such, there is no penalty. We are, however, in regular contact with the WASH Pledge signatories and stay up to date on what they are doing. Our philosophy is to facilitate the sharing of best practice. We have experienced that the more companies share the great work they do, the more others want to follow suit. In addition, consumers and the civil society are increasingly holding companies accountable for the commitments they make.

KP: How effective has the video (below) been in getting the word out about the pledge? Besides the video, what other methods have you used to reach out?

ST: Naturally, a video with five executives speaking about the WASH Pledge carries great weight, and it has encouraged many companies to consider a signature. Beyond spreading the word internally among the WBCSD member companies, we use external events as an opportunity to pitch the pledge. One method that has proven to be particularly efficient is peer-to-peer encouragement. It is very influential when companies from the same sector or geography motivate each other to sign up. Many of the WASH Pledge signatories have been very active as ambassadors for the WASH Pledge.


KP: How will you know if the pledge has ultimately been successful?

ST: Beyond being taken up at a global level, the real measure of success for the WASH Pledge is for it to be implemented in the supply chains of the signatory companies, particularly in countries where large gaps remain with respect to access to WASH. Getting there will not be easy and this is why we are starting to work with the WASH Pledge signatories to leverage the influence that they have over their supply chains. Ultimately, we will be successful when more and more businesses become aware of the challenge, of their role in overcoming it as well as the opportunities that safe access to WASH represents. Implementing access to safe WASH at the workplace should become a sine qua non principle in any operation.



Note: Since the launch of this video, SCA (Svenska Cellulosa Aktiebolaget) has also signed the WASH Pledge.


Kyle Poplin is the editor of NextBillion Health Care.


Health Care
corporate social responsibility, public health