Corporate Action on Sanitation



Once a company has acknowledged the business benefits of supporting sanitation conditions at the workplace and in the communities in which it operates, it might still ask, “How can we contribute to addressing the sanitation crisis?” There is no one answer to this important question. Indeed, companies can take a wide variety of actions, ranging in terms of where the actions are implemented, what aspect of sanitation they address, and whether they are expectations, duties, or voluntary actions.


Types of Engagement

Corporations’ actions on sanitation vary with regard to the relationship between the population served and the company itself (and therefore the degree to which companies are expected and obligated to act). Types of engagement include the following.

Core business operations and value chain
Though providing access to sanitation is standard practice and often a legal requirement for many organizations in many contexts, there is a clear need for improved workplace sanitation in many parts of the world. Assuring that companies provide sanitation access to all employees in core operations and along the supply chain is considered the minimum expectation for businesses that respect the human right to sanitation, and it should be their first priority.

Adequate sanitation in the workplace entails guaranteeing that employees have access to adequate facilities as well as assuring they are afforded suitable breaks to make use of those facilities. It also means ensuring that fecal matter generated in the workplace is adequately disposed of and does not damage the environment.This aligns strongly with the WASH at the Workplace initiative, in which companies commit themselves to “implement access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene at the workplace at an appropriate level of standard for all employees in all premises under their control.” Separate facilities for men and women should be accessible to all personnel.

Moreover, businesses also have a responsibility for the crucial suppliers and service providers in their value chain. Especially when these are located in developing countries or poorer areas, businesses should incentivize their suppliers to improve the sanitation in their workplaces. Companies can encourage such outcomes in a variety of ways, ranging from providing resources and toolkits that raise awareness and promote monitoring to instituting procurement standards that require their suppliers to adhere to sanitation standards.

Social investment and philanthropy
Many companies are already going beyond these minimum expectations and trying to contribute to the fulfillment of the right to sanitation outside their direct operations and value chain. Such action has traditionally taken the form of social investment or philanthropy, that is, interventions to implement and maintain sanitation systems in communities and to promote related country-level and international efforts. When considering such actions, companies bear in mind that sanitation is a fundamental human right and thus action in this area has legal implications and societal expectations. First, the ultimate duty to fulfill human rights falls on the state. Companies should avoid making isolated interventions, but rather coordinate with local or national governments and primarily join efforts or contribute to what the authorities are already doing. Corporate efforts should build on and enhance previously established public interest goals and approaches, wherever possible. Second, addressing human rights involves principles such as participation, transparency, and equity. Corporate interventions should therefore be consistent with those core principles; communities must be able to provide input and participate in the development and implementation of such projects that directly affect them.

Partnerships and collective action
Companies and other development actors have recently started to realize the tremendous potential to make a significant contribution to improving sanitation around the world if they join forces. Collective action and partnerships with industry peers, NGOs, the United Nations, and others result in synergies and an increased know-how and capacity for creating a substantive change in tackling the global sanitation crisis, be it in the form of joint programs or advocacy. Business can be a key piece to such partnerships (UN Global Compact 2010). For example, they can provide much-needed financing and technical expertise.

Respecting the human right to sanitation

In 2010, the UN General Assembly and Human Rights Council formally acknowledged safe water and sanitation as basic human rights. In 2011, the UN Human Rights Council also endorsed the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which articulate the corporate responsibility to “respect” human rights. Businesses are expected to respect the right to sanitation by taking proactive measures; they must make sure they do not infringe on the rights of employees and community members; and they should address adverse impacts as they arise (Ha et al. 2012). In 2015, the CEO Water Mandate released operational guidance on how companies can implement their responsibility to respect the right to water and sanitation.

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