How Gap’s work on water resilience is liberating women in India

  • The US clothing company helped set up the Women + Water Alliance with USAID and other charities to improve access to water and women’s status in rural India.
  • Recognising its dependency on both water and women to grow cotton and manufacture fabric, Gap quickly realised the two were interconnected and helping one would benefit the other.
  • 70% of Gap’s value chain in India is reliant on women, who often have to walk for hours to collect water. By training these women to be water champions in their communities, the Alliance has helped one million people have better access to water.
  • Gap’s female employees and suppliers now have more time for work and education to help break out of the poverty cycle.

When businesses begin to look at their dependencies in relation to the Global Goals, they might feel understandably overwhelmed by the number of social and environmental relationships that emerge that need managing. So we at the Centre encourage companies to prioritise a few ‘core’ dependencies to begin their journey of aligning themselves with the Global Goals. Fortunately, the interconnected nature of the Goals means efforts in one or two areas often have beneficial impacts across several others.

A good example is Gap’s Women + Water Alliance initiative with USAID and several charity partners, which launched in 2017. Recognising that many of its factories and supply chains in developing countries like India were dominated by women (it estimates 70%), the US clothing giant wanted to support programmes that helped improve their education and wellbeing. At the same time, it also identified its total dependency on water for growing cotton and manufacturing fabric and so wanted to improve water resilience in the regions they operate.

But what quickly became apparent to Gap was the nexus between the two issues. Not only was managing and protecting local access to water essential to Gap’s factories in India. It also had a huge impact on its female workforce, who live in rural areas with little or no sanitation and are part of the 200 million hours women and girls spend globally walking long distances to collect water every day. Because these issues intersect (like so many of the Global Goals), tackling one invariably involves tackling the other to the benefit of both.

So with the Women + Water Alliance, Gap partnered with CARE to deliver personal skills and career training for women working in cotton farming and the textile industry. This helped them to take charge of water management in their communities, working with WaterAid and to secure the finance and expertise to install clean, reliable sources of water and sanitation and reclaim their time lost to water-collecting for education and employment instead.

Gap hopes that by “catalysing” women as water champions in this way, it can improve access to water for two million people in two states in India by 2023. One beneficiary, Pooja Doriya, from the cotton-growing village of Jamgod in Madhya Pradesh, describes how it has transformed her daily life: “From the time we have saved everyday by not walking for water, the women of the village and I can now spend that time with our families and take time out for ourselves too. With the time that we have left, we work in our farms, which has resulted in a growth in our incomes.”

Through this integrated approach to tackling sustainability and the specific Global Goals of ‘clean water and sanitation’ and ‘gender equality’, Mrs Doriya hints at a remarkable positive multiplier effect on the Global Goals across the board (no poverty, good health and wellbeing, sustainable cities and communities etc), indirectly raising the floor for all sustainability issues. So as a responsible business, identifying and concentrating on these key intersections – such as paying a living wage which also helps reduce gender, ethnic and disability-related issues, or reducing your carbon footprint which also benefits life on land and under water – will provide much more return on your efforts since single actions will have multiple sustainability payoffs.

The Women + Water Alliance also points to the power and necessity of partnerships and collaborative working – itself a Global Goal (number 17). Such systemic issues as water management and gender equality are beyond the purview and expertise of one company and require the help of specialist organisations and governments. But the impetus and resources a responsible business can bring to them can be remarkable, with its impacts rippling far through supply chains, influencing governments and transforming societies the world over.

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