Sustainability through collaboration

Nearly three quarters of our planet’s surface is water, yet only 2.5 per cent is freshwater and less than 1 per cent is readily available for human consumption. Under severe strain from an expanding population, urbanisation and climate change, water scarcity threatens food production, energy supply and the livelihoods of people around the world. In a world home to 7.6 billion, the socio-economic impact is staggering.

This looming crisis requires a global strategy with local solutions, according to international environmental NGO Earthwatch. Businesses have a vital role to play, working with communities, NGOs and governments, in protecting and transforming our ecosystems.

Earthwatch has witnessed firsthand the huge impact a company’s sustainability approach can have on their own development and the wider community. The NGO has a track record of transforming how companies think, through innovative field-based employee engagement programmes, rooted in science. By creating projects addressing key environmental business issues, Earthwatch has enabled companies around the world to make a difference.

Dr Steven Loiselle, senior research manager at Earthwatch, describes the research projects as a unique opportunity to engage entire companies with science, and broaden the understanding and knowledge of key global issues. At the heart of the projects is the Citizen Science model, the collection of data by non-scientists, encouraging employees, business leaders and wider stakeholders to connect with environmental priorities and use a scientific approach to problem-solving.

He says: “Earthwatch’s projects are able to change attitudes and drive new behaviours across all levels of the business. Transformational, hands-on research not only educates and informs employees, but allows them to personally contribute to pioneering scientific research and in doing so align with the sustainability goals of the business.

“They can generate the information needed for groundbreaking research that not only supports management action, but has the power to influence policy.”

A shining example of a successful collaborative corporate partnership is the HSBC Water Programme. Launched in 2012 as a five-year global initiative with Earthwatch, WaterAid and WWF, the international project was designed to manage and protect water sources better, while informing and educating local communities, enabling them to prosper and drive economic development.

By the end of 2016, Earthwatch’s FreshWater Watch Programme saw more than 8,000 HSBC employees engage with the Citizen Science initiative, helping to study 2,500 ecosystems, ultimately influencing policy and contributing to environmental management planning. Following its success, HSBC has extended the programme for a further three years, looking more widely at the interconnectivity between urbanisation, climate change and sustainability.

Maria Pontes, HSBC programme manager, Earthwatch, says: “Over the past five years, the HSBC Water Programme has provided critical data to fill knowledge gaps in freshwater science, and inspired employees to act and change their environmental behaviours. Nearly all of those who took part in the Citizen Science initiative had a better understanding of their personal environmental impacts and over three quarters said they were more likely to continue their career with HSBC as a result of their involvement.

“HSBC recognises that in addition to developing their employees’ personal and professional understanding of sustainability, the world-class research has been able to transform communities across 36 cities, which has wider economic benefits for business on a global scale.”

Indeed, focus on impactful corporate sustainability has become a priority in recent years, as businesses acknowledge that environmental and economic footprints are becoming more aligned. Increasingly, companies have a responsibility to meet the growing expectations of their stakeholders, while continuing to deliver a return to investors and creating a brand with which consumers feel an affinity.

For Ms Pontes, innovation is key; it will be forward-thinking companies that understand the far-reaching impact of sustainability partnerships, unlocking the huge potential for understanding and protecting our environment. With innovation comes better returns on investment, more accurate results and a positive legacy of supporting the natural world, she concludes.

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