The latest news from the world of sustainability, the latest views from the brains behind Best Foot Forward
Blog by Paul McNeillis, Director, 26 July 2012
No other substance connects us with our environment like water, which is why measuring our impact on water offers a unique opportunity to connect environmental and social sustainability metrics. To date these two pillars of the triple bottom line haven’t always been treated as part of a joined up approach to sustainability.
Environmental professionals often have their own departments or share space with health and safety personnel. In recent years climate change has created a narrow focus on carbon emissions, leading to a remote accounting based culture. Carbon savings often translate neatly into cost savings and investment decisions into MACC curves, reinforcing the easy dominance of the carbon agenda.
Meanwhile, ethical sourcing teams are often in much closer contact with their suppliers, visiting and auditing factories, seeing what’s going on with their own eyes. They use legal frameworks like John Ruggie’s guidelines for the role of business in human rights, but outside of compliance with codes of conduct or interpretation of the law these teams struggle for objective measures of their progress. That’s why, two years ago, I called for the development of meaningful metrics for the social pillar of the triple bottom line. Revisiting this issue in 2012 I am convinced that the new trend of evaluating water sustainability holds the key to a more integrated approach for all metrics.
Going back in history, there are precedents for measuring social impacts in innovative and accessible ways. Charles Booth produced pioneering maps of the whole of London’s streets using social cartography. He took on the herculean task of mapping each and every street of London and charting the fortunes of the inhabitants by classifying them into colour coded social categories. Although these categories were crude by today’s standards they nevertheless provided some insight in a way that numbers alone could not. What would we see if we mapped economic activity, social status and water sustainability alongside each other in global supply chains? Another great precedent exists of course in the original work by John Snow who mapped public drinking water pumps in London to the occurrence of cholera outbreaks as long ago as 1854, providing evidence for the cause and effect well known today and proving that human health can also be mapped to provide a fuller picture of overall sustainability. The recent revival of popular interest in Booth’s work shows the perennial appeal of the map and value of a graphical approach in bringing metrics to life (a traditional continued at BFF through our renowned infographics).
Today, sustainability professionals are getting to grips with how water impacts connect and affect both communities and the environment. For example, a recent study of cut flower growth around Lake Naivasha in Kenya went beyond mere numbers and enabled the communities to transform their role from victims into stakeholders in a sustainable solution. While a huge amount of economic and social benefit is derived from the cut flower exports, there were unsustainable impacts on the lake’s catchment area – reductions in water level and deterioration in water quality - and potential knock-on effects on biodiversity. The study suggested that better management of water quality by farmers in the upper catchment area of the lake could contribute to quality water availability to the flower growers and lower impacts nearer to the lake. Other suggestions included the idea of commanding a social premium for sustainable cut flowers by factoring in a fair price for the use of water resources and the associated social good.
Approaches like this are supported by the Water Footprint Network method for assessing water sustainability. This goes one step further than carbon accounting, adding an extra step for the sustainability assessment. Although this step is typically focussed on environmental criteria that compare sustainable levels in the catchment area with the consumption, it can also include social criteria such as: equitable access to water; impact on local communities; water related impacts on human health; costs and opportunity costs of water.
By selecting these social criteria alongside economic and environmental ones the evaluation of water sustainability presents a real opportunity to reconnect all the elements of the triple bottom line as it was intended. Let’s not repeat the myopia of the carbon emissions era – when we measure water let’s do it in an integrated, engaged and truly sustainable way.
This blog has also been published by 2 degrees.
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