Creating Solutions for Women + Water
Creating Solutions for Women + Water Treating water as a human right
Few resources are as essential to people’s health and well-being as water. The need for clean, safe water is not just an environmental issue, but a human rights issue and we want to help ensure that everyone touched by our business can have this need met. Not only do we rely on water to create our products, but the people who make our clothes must be able to care for themselves and their families – if they can’t thrive in the communities where they live, neither can we. In addition, the processes behind making a piece of clothing – from dyeing fabric to laundering a pair of jeans – can affect not just the environment but people, and we feel a responsibility to work to reduce the negative environmental impacts.
We strive to ensure that the process of making our clothes is safe for people and communities, and we’re working directly with women to help them gain access to clean, safe water.
For these reasons, water is one of our two primary environmental focus areas. And since we look at this issue through the lens of how it affects people, we have designed our strategy under the umbrella Women + Water. We know that 80 percent of the people who make our clothes are women – and just as important, women carry much of the burden of the world’s water challenges. In many regions, their daily activities revolve around water, as they bear responsibility for collecting it for the household and completing chores such as washing, cooking and cleaning. Each day, women and girls collectively spend more than 150 million hours collecting water – time that could be spent earning additional income, caring for their families, or getting an education.4
We are focused on helping to ensure that women in communities where our products are made have access to safe water, and we are also addressing the water impacts created from the making of our clothes. Our priorities center on those areas where we have the greatest influence and ability to create improvements. Namely, they include partnering with fabric mills to improve their practices, building water filtration plants to provide people with access to clean water, educating the women who make our clothes on safe water handling practices, and investing in Better Cotton.
4Conservation International research for Gap Inc.
“Something as simple as access to water affects women differently than men. Improved access to water can literally transform the lives of women and girls in developing countries. It can give them back the time and opportunities they sacrifice daily to trek long distances to collect water. It can improve the health of a woman and her family.”
Mapping water risks and opportunities
One of the most important steps in building our strategy was conducting an assessment of both the risks and opportunities related to water that stem from the making of our clothes. In 2013, we partnered with Conservation International to assess freshwater risk for five of our key sourcing countries – Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, India and Indonesia. In 2014, we did further research into risks in China, India and Vietnam. Our goal was to identify the issues that have the greatest impact not just on our business, but on the people who make our clothes and their communities.
The study covered everything from water availability and quality to the risk of flooding and droughts. It also looked at cultural and social dimensions of water, such as improving gender equity, health, sanitation and safety. As we mapped these risks and opportunities, we found that fabric mills – which use a great deal of water to dye fabric – may have issues with both water quality and quantity. Even more important, these issues affect workers and their communities. India, in particular, faces a high level of water stress for some of our preferred mills and the people who work there.
In response, we are focusing on fabric mills located in such higher risk areas, starting with India. And we are linking our water efforts to our P.A.C.E. program, which helps women gain the skills to advance both at work and at home. We have added water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) curriculum to P.A.C.E. to increase women’s awareness around safe water handling practices. Through our P.A.C.E. partner, Swasti Health Resource Centre, we are also helping to build water filtration plants in rural communities in India, which to date have provided clean, safe water to more than 28,000 people.
Creating a mill sustainability program
As beautiful as a piece of fabric may appear as part of a shirt or other piece of clothing, its production comes with a considerable environmental footprint. In fact, some of the most significant impacts of making our clothes come from fabric mills, which use a great deal of water, chemicals and energy during the dyeing and finishing process. Mills demonstrate how environmental practices carry a direct link to people’s health and well-being. Wastewater must be treated before being returned to the surrounding environment to protect ecosystems and nearby communities.
We have been laying a foundation for our current work since 2004, when we launched a program to ensure that denim laundries do not harm local water supplies. In 2009 we went further, joining the Natural Resources Defense Council's (NRDC’s) Responsible Sourcing Initiative, Clean by Design, which brought together a range of brands to better address the water impacts of fabric mills.
Our Mill Sustainability Program, launched in 2013, is focused on establishing clear environmental standards for fabric mills and integrating them into our sourcing decisions. Our program also aims to make broader improvements in the industry by identifying and sharing good practices for improving the use of water, chemicals and energy, as well as incentivizing improved environmental performance. Ultimately, our goal is not just to improve environmental practices at fabric mills – but to ensure that these changes bring real benefits to people’s lives. Learn more in the section on Reducing Our Impacts at Fabric Mills.
Each day, women and girls spend more than 150 million hours collecting water – time that could be spent earning additional income, caring for their families, or getting an education.
Eliminating hazardous chemicals
In addition to working directly with mills, we are also addressing the use of chemicals in the production of our clothes. This use is significant – by leading estimates, on a global basis the apparel industry accounts for 25 percent of manufactured chemical usage.5 These chemicals are used in wet processing of fabric and clothing such as dyeing and washing, thereby posing a risk of water contamination that could affect people living in nearby communities.
Our focus is to keep hazardous chemicals out of the processing of our clothes as much as possible. We believe we can best protect people and communities not by contending with the use of hazardous chemicals, but by avoiding their use altogether. We have set an ambitious goal to work towards zero discharge of hazardous chemicals (ZDHC) in our supply chain by 2020, through our partnership in the ZDHC 2020 program, an industry collaboration. In 2014, the group achieved a major milestone with the creation of an industry-wide standard for restricted substances, which bans the use of harmful chemicals, particularly in fabric production. We have communicated this restricted substances list to the vendors, factories and mills that make our clothing and are in the process of outlining its enforcement.
Strengthening our water quality program
Our company started off selling jeans, and they remain one of our most important products, so we feel a strong responsibility to ensure that making them does not bring environmental harm to people or communities. We recently took important steps to strengthen our Water Quality Program (WQP), which monitors the wastewater created by denim laundries. From the start, we required all laundries producing for Gap Inc. brands to adhere to a set of industry-leading guidelines on water quality. In 2010, these guidelines became a requirement for doing business with our brands, and in 2013, we took steps to go even further.
Specifically, we adopted more robust enforcement mechanisms for underperforming facilities, including having a third party verify their compliance. In 2014, our team provided training on these changes to all the laundries processing our denim in Bangladesh, where a large percentage of laundries are based. By March 2015, we had made significant progress, with all the laundries that process our clothes in compliance with our updated requirements. We will continue to work on this issue as we move forward – for example, by piloting a denim laundry energy and water conservation program.
As beautiful as a piece of fabric may appear as part of a shirt or other piece of clothing, its production comes with a considerable environmental footprint.
Educating women about healthy water practices
All of our work is guided by the awareness that ultimately, it is people who are affected by the burden of the world’s water issues. While we believe that our work must start with addressing the impacts of making our clothes, we also see a great opportunity to work directly with women and communities who are facing these issues.
We believe that our new P.A.C.E. curriculum focused on safe water handling practices offers critical support to women who are helping their families and communities cope with water challenges. We recently announced a major expansion of P.A.C.E., committing to educate one million women throughout the world by the end of 2020. This expansion means that we can reach many more women with effective strategies for managing some of the critical issues that they face around water every day.
In addition, the water filtration plants we are supporting through our partnership with Swasti are providing clean water to thousands of people. Six plants currently in operation already serve more than 28,000 people across 52 villages in India. The people who use these plants report that they feel better physically – with fewer ailments like headaches, joint pain and diarrhea – and they also save time because the plants are a short distance from their homes.
As a global company, we recognize that making our clothes links us to people throughout the world and that it is up to us to touch their lives in a positive way. When a piece of fabric is dyed or a pair of jeans is laundered, we are committed to working to ensure that the environment – and people – are protected. We still have more work ahead – for example, while we ultimately aim to focus more on product sustainability and design, this is an area that we are in the early stages of exploring. At the same time, we see a clear path to creating greater improvements. To us, the heart of our strategy lies in seeing the connections between environmental issues and human rights issues – and consistently asking how the environmental improvements we make will bring real benefits to people’s lives.
We are committed to improving cotton farming practices globally – ultimately, making women’s lives better and reducing water usage – through our membership to the Better Cotton Initiative.
Sourcing sustainable cotton
We are committed to improving cotton farming practices globally – ultimately, making women’s lives better and reducing water usage – through our membership to the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI). Cotton is critical to the products we offer – it’s the fiber we use to make the jeans and tees our customers love. Cotton also supports the livelihoods of 250 million people around the world, the largest proportion of whom are women, and strains natural resources, particularly water. Better Cotton aims to make cotton production better for the people who produce it and the environment in which it’s grown. In the first half of 2016 alone, we sourced 441,000 pounds of Better Cotton – enough to make 250,000 pairs of jeans - and plan to continue to increase sourcing of Better Cotton in the future.