Water Footprints

Water Footprints:

Lessons from Kenya’s floriculture sector

Article by Wayne Visser

An International Sustainable Business column for The Guardian

There are flowers to fit every occasion. But if you are celebrating World Water Week (26-31 August), you might want to think twice. A single rose – grown in Kenya, as many of the world’s cut flowers are – takes around 10 litres of water to produce, with the so-called water footprint, or virtual water export, of Kenya’s floriculture industry having more than doubled over the past 15 years, mostly to supply the Netherlands (69%), the UK (18%) and Germany (7%).

This notion of virtual water – the water embedded in the things that we trade – is gaining visibility as awareness of our global water crisis increases. I remember first getting to grips with the idea a few years ago when I interviewed Fred Pearce, author of When the Rivers Run Dry, for the University of Cambridge Top 50 Sustainability Books project. According to his calculations, to get us through the day, it takes about a hundred times our own weight in water.

Of course, water footprints are not the only impacts we find in our global supply chains. There are issues of labour rights, climate change, transparent governance, biodiversity loss and economic development, to mention but a few. The challenge is to manage and minimise the negative impacts. This is where I believe the example of Kenya’s cut-flower industry can help us to tease out some hard-won lessons, starting with the story behind the Horticultural Ethical Business Initiative (HEBI).

The seeds of the HEBI process were sown in November 1999 when local civil society organisations mounted a successful campaign against workers’ rights violations in Cirio Delmonte, one of Kenya’s largest pineapple growers. The success of this campaign raised concerns in the flower industry, prompting stakeholders to develop the Kenya Standard on Social Accountability and a Voluntary Private Initiative to oversee its implementation.

However, the real impetus for HEBI came from the pressure exerted by transnational alliances of NGOs and consumer groups. The Kenya Women Workers Organisation (KEWWO) was funded by the UK-based Women Working Worldwide (WWW) to gather evidence of the Ethical Trade Initiative Base Code violations. Their report catalogued various unacceptable conditions, from pesticide poisoning to sexual harassment and rape, and spurred a campaign dubbed Produce Safely or Quit. At the same time, the Kenya Human Rights Commission issued a three month ultimatum to flower producers to improve working conditions, failing which they would go international in their campaign.

When the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) was alerted to these serious labour rights violations in 2002, several of their corporate and NGO members visited Kenyan flower producers. In fear of losing their most significant market, Kenyan stakeholders came together for the first time to lay the groundwork for the formation of HEBI. What I find particular interesting is that the Horticultural Ethical Business Initiative (HEBI) did not arise from a vacuum of voluntary codes. On the contrary, there were already seven different international ethical codes being applied. However, they seemed to lack effectiveness and credibility …

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Related websites

[button size=”small” color=”blue” style=”tick” new_window=”false” link=”http://www.waynevisser.com/books/the-quest-for-sustainable-business”]Link[/button] The Quest for Sustainable Business (book)

[button size=”small” color=”blue” style=”tick” new_window=”false” link=”http://www.csrinternational.org”]Link[/button] CSR International (website)

Cite this article

Visser, W. (2012) Water Footprints: Lessons from Kenya’s Floriculture Sector, The Guardian, 20 August 2012.

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