The issue – why is it relevant to the work of The Rivers Trust.

The scale of action required to recover nature and return our rivers to good health requires broadscale collaboration and collection active at the catchment scale. This is most effective when it includes local communities, NGOs, government and the private sector.

Private businesses are present in every facet of our work, from consuming water resources, sourcing from supply chains in catchments, creating waste and pollution, and innovating new river monitoring technologies. River environments are impacted by private business, from source to drain, and the private sector has enormous influence on what happens in catchments. Conversely, lack of water, pollution and flooding can also directly impact businesses and private sector engagement can, therefore, extend beyond corporate and social responsibility to addressing material risks.

The private sector supports the work of the Rivers Trust movement by contributing funding, volunteers, pro-bono support and strategic insights. A range of relationships exist with business in the movement from donors, supporters to long term and strategic partnerships. The Rivers Trust and it’s members want to work with the private sector to restore rivers, improve land-management in catchments, to reduce pollution and the destruction of river environments, to build nature-based solutions, take up carbon, reconnect communities with healthy rivers and inform the general public about the state of their rivers, plus help to mobilize citizen action.

What are the contentious aspects?

Businesses are judged on their environmental performance by customers, stakeholders and investors. In some cases they may try and create a perception of better performance and reduced impacts by ‘green-washing’* and may use relationships with E-NGOs to do that. They may also act and publicly talk about a marginal environmental issue, whilst failing to take decisive and reasonable action on a material issue.

Sometimes when a larger, well-resourced company funds an NGO, there is a danger than they exert their greater power to dominate the messaging that is shared with the public, and the needs of the NGO aren’t met, plus the company presents an inflated or over-stated impact of their funding.

Environmental and social impacts are recognised as critical by investors and the public. There are currently many different ways for companies to present and report on their environmental, social and governance (ESG) strategy and achievements. We don’t have a standard and consistent audit process to measure environmental claims. Not all companies are at the stage of reporting against measurable targets on water, climate resilience and biodiversity impacts.

What is our position?

Private businesses are important allies in delivering positive change in the transition to a regenerative, climate resilient economy. The Rivers Trust wants to work with companies and organisations who want to accelerate that change and use their influence with supply chains, customers and best-practice to help nature recover in our catchments. Climate resilience is a strategic imperative for NGOs and companies alike.

We understand and share the frustration felt by the public on many specific aspects of corporate behaviour and the desire for rapid change. We also know that transitions towards low-carbon and non-pollution practice can be complex, requiring difficult trade-offs and good science to work out the most resource-effective pathways of change.

We will constructively engage with the private sector and help to scale-up joint efforts through the national Rivers Trust movement. We play an important role in supporting catchment partnerships, which can help to bridge the gap between local communities and the private sector.

We engage with the private sector in a range of ways, from accepting financial donations towards our work, receiving pro-bono support for our activities, and building partnerships that help us and partners deliver on our strategic objectives. We acknowledge that companies are currently at very different stages on their own journey towards minimizing negative impacts on rivers and contributing towards shared benefits in the catchment. Some have formalised this journey aligned to standards such as the Alliance for Water Stewardship, or commitments but many have not. We want to work with companies at different stages of their journey and help them to move faster and more effectively towards positive impacts, resilience and regeneration.

We are aware of the risks of ‘green-washing’ and manipulation in any organisational relationship and we will ensure that all communication about our work with private companies is truthful and does not misrepresent the impact. We will always use best-available methods to determine measurable achievements of the partnership, e.g. – for carbon up-take, biodiversity net gain, pollution reduction.

What are we doing about this issue?

We are actively extending our engagement with the private sector to scale up the positive impacts we can achieve in partnership for better river health and more widespread climate resilience. We have a range of types of engagement with corporations and SMEs, including donations, fundraising and volunteering. Strategic partnerships are the highest level of engagement, with shared action and ambition and joint communications about the impact.

We conduct due-diligence on partnerships, looking at both the credibility of the organisation involved and the potential risks of the activities we are undertaking together. We will partner with businesses who have a strategic commitment to our shared objectives, and who will commit the resources to achieve delivery. We will often approach partnerships in phases, to ensure there is an alignment of our values, strategy and delivery models.

In all new partnerships, we have a clear communication protocol that ensures The Rivers Trust has verified and approved all communications on our joint work. We will ensure this communication is truthful, reflects our understanding of the facts and is not misleading or overstating impacts. We will also support our member trusts and other NGO partners to ensure our shared values of honesty, transparency and trustworthiness are always upheld.

We acknowledge that different companies are at different stages of their sustainability journey and different levels of commitments on water stewardship, catchment collaboration, climate adaptation and pollution mitigation. We will ensure that our communication honestly reflects the current stage of maturity and achievement.

We will always reserve the right to publicly speak out about negative impacts, particularly on river environments, by our business partners and funders and this is included in our contracts with private sector partners from 2022.

*Concise Oxford English Dictionary defines Greenwashing as: “Disinformation disseminated by an organization so as to present an environmentally responsible public image; a public image of environmental responsibility promulgated by or for an organization, etc., but perceived as being unfounded or intentionally misleading”.

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