By David Snow  |  WaterLex  |

Representatives from WaterLex and other interested parties gathered Wednesday, 29 April 2015, to discuss sustainable development involving luxury industries at an event hosted by Business School Lausanne (Switzerland).

In a “collaboratory,” about 70 participants met in a melding of minds meant to reach toward a future where problems such as water overuse and pollution no longer exist. The discussion, which welcomed input by all attendees around a core circle of experts, aimed to develop ideas offered by one and all.

WaterLex Executive Director Jean-Benoit Charrin.

WaterLex Executive Director Jean-Benoit Charrin.

The event was tied to the WaterLex Business and Human Rights Programme, which provides tools for businesses facing mounting pressure to address the human right to water and sanitation (HRWS) in their practices. Progress in many industries, such as luxury goods, as well as hotels and tourism, has been slow. Click here to read the WaterLex paper prepared for the event.

After an initial “download” of core subject matter via three-minute presentations by the experts, there was a round of questions from the audience, a grounding exercise wherein imaginations of the future were theorized, and a collection of “prototypes” for possible future solutions. After that, an active discussion and a separation into groups based around the prototypes resulted in a variety of suggestions.

At the start, following introductions by Business School Lausanne (BSL) Dean Dr. Katrin Muff  and event co-organiser Mary Mayenfisch-Tobin of BSL, experts weighed in using a plastic water bottle as a form of “talking stick,” which was passed from speaker to speaker throughout the event. (Click here for experts’ biographies.)

“Everyone speaks about the 21st century as the century of water wars,” said WaterLex Executive Director Jean-Benoit Charrin. “(UN Secretary General) Kofi Annan said, ‘we will not enjoy security without development, we will not enjoy development without security, and we will not enjoy either without respect for human rights.’”

Charrin helped to set the tone for discussion by citing the hotel industry, such as that in Morocco, as a major user of water and a major source of development in many countries, which makes it a potentially powerful resource for positive change. He also mentioned illegal gold mining, a supplier in the making of numerous luxury goods, as an example of an issue that all stakeholders in the supply chain must address if related issues are to be solved.


WaterLex Operations Director Dr. Tobias Schmitz, center. Professor James Holleran, right.

The luxury industry should participate in the rights to safe water and decent employment through green-jobs strategies, said Carlos Carrion-Crespo, senior specialist – public services at the International Labour Organization (ILO), in his introductory remarks. He urged promoting study of water as a source of employment, and updating water policy as a way to improve access to water and sanitation for displaced or otherwise marginalised populations, whose situations are often worsened by tourism-related development.

The third expert to speak, professor of sustainable tourism James Holleran, declared himself a cynic regarding prospects for sustainable development in the tourism industry.

“The only thing I believe that the travel and tourism industry, including at the global level, is really committed to, is growth,” he said. “Wherever you want to go, to space … to the bottom of the ocean … if you can afford it, they’ll take you. And that’s going to continue to develop along with the development of middle classes around the world.”

He pointed out the problem of tourism “leakage,” where money leaks out of the local economy and ends up in the hands of tourism-industry providers instead of benefitting the local population.

“Local inhabitants are getting the short end of the stick,” he said. “Until we have legislative frameworks and better planning guidelines, we’re not going to see much change.”

Holleran also urged better “lifecycle” analysis of true costs, such as that of water, which is used in many ways but undervalued. If not properly taken into perspective by businesses, such costs won’t influence businesses to change, he said.

BSL Dean Dr. Katrin Muff, left, and Dr. Mark Smith of IUCN, right.

BSL Dean Dr. Katrin Muff, left, and Dr. Mark Smith of IUCN, right.

“I have the misfortune of following up that expose by saying that I’m an optimist — I do fundamentally think that water problems are solvable,” said the third expert, Dr. Mark Smith, director of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Global Water Programme. “I say that because we have examples from around the world where we fixed things.”

Fundamentally, Smith said, a water-service delivery chain starts in nature, in wetlands, and it is helpful to think of nature as a form of infrastructure while engaging in discussion across a spectrum of “languages” spoken by relevant experts, such as business leaders, conservationists, lawyers and engineers.

“In the past several years, business has become a much more dominant player in the water dialogue,” he said, citing the value of the luxury goods industry at $200 billion (U.S.) per year. “It’s not that the value of the luxury industry should be lower, but how do we leverage some of that wealth toward sustainability and the human right to water.”

The fourth expert, BSL professor of sustainable luxury management and Futuratinow CEO Christopher Cordey, emphasized the value of measurement as a form of influence. He cited the need for a “water footprint” for businesses to consider alongside the well-known carbon footprint. Holding up a leather handbag, he noted that its production cost 17,000 liters of water, roughly the same as the amount of water used to produce a kilo of chocolate.

“At the end of the day, what gets measured gets done,” Cordey said. “And at the end of the day, does a beautiful luxury handbag need to be in leather?”

Following a question-and-answer period featuring many comments from the audience, Dean Muff led the group into further collaboration, where all attendees were invited to envision a future free of water crises, and then to describe a key aspect of what they imagined.

Some of the “prototypes” of possible future solutions written down for further discussion as part of the exercise are as follows:

  • Imparting a sense of ownership in water resources
  • “Blue passport” (e.g., identity tied to identity of home watershed)
  • Viewing water as a meeting place
  • Enabling women’s roles in change and as beneficiaries of change
  • Personal contributions to conservation
  • Raising awareness of water problems
  • Creating experiential learning experiences
  • Listening to the voices of local communities
  • Creating behavioural change through collective action (e.g., through employers)
  • Establishing financial incentives and regulatory measures


For more information:

WaterLex International Secretariat
Tel: +41 22 907 36 46
Email: info (at)

About WaterLex:

WaterLex is an international public interest development organization based in Geneva, Switzerland. It is a UN-Water Partner with UN ECOSOC special consultative status. Its mission is to develop sustainable solutions based on human rights to improve water governance worldwide, particularly in regard to consistent water law and policy frameworks. It works with an alliance of interested parties to improve water-governance frameworks, bringing them in line with country obligations under international human rights law. The interested parties are individuals and groups working in government (diplomatic missions), academia (professors of law, researchers), bilateral cooperation (water management advisors), the judiciary (high/supreme courts judges), the UN system (UN-Water family members), and civil society (NGOs that work on water issues). WaterLex works in partnership with 85 universities to continuously enrich the content of the WaterLex Legal Database. The organisation is funded by grants and project financing from public agencies, foundations, private gifts, and in-kind contributions. Established in 2010, when the human right to water was recognised by the UN, the organisation has a secretariat in Geneva with 15 staff members, a supervisory board of directors, and a large pool of members and expert advisors. It is an official member of the Global Water Partnership, UNDP Cap-Net, UNDP Global Water Solidarity, UNEP Global Wastewater, and the Swiss Water Partnership.