CSR Irony – How a Positive Measure Could Lead to a Negative One

Utility companies trying to reduce water use could inadvertently hurt the UK’s poorest groups. The laudable CSR aim of encouraging households to waste less water could result in ‘water poverty’.

This is the claim by social research experts the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) in a new report Vulnerability to heatwaves and drought: adaptation to climate change.

The authors argue that climate change will bring increased risk from heatwaves and drought and threaten the security of affordable water supplies in the UK.

They use the example of the South West of England to demonstrate the potential risks for vulnerable groups. Water companies, seeking to reduce water wastage as part of well-meaning CSR efforts will need to tread carefully.

The South West is a particular issue as water bills there are 43% higher than anywhere else in England. A trial measure being introduced there aims to encourage greater efficiency by charging people for the amount of water they use. The report’s authors use this as an example of an ‘adaptation’ to climate change as reducing water use will also reduce drought risk.

The new trial measure is a different pricing structure called a rising block tariff (RBT) starting at ‘essential use’ of water and rising to ‘premium block’ for customers using more than they are believed to need.

South West Water, which has introduced the scheme, is sensitive to the CSR issues involved. Support is available for those on benefits, families with more than three children, and those with medical conditions requiring high water use.

The JRF acknowledges that CSR measures are being taken but warns that the complexity of the issues could lead to people falling through the net.

Not all vulnerable households are eligible for help. For example, single people living alone on low incomes (such as the elderly) or those in homes without a water meter. Even vulnerable families who are eligible drop out because the renewal processes for the support schemes can be complex.

The report argues that this could be replicated in other areas across the country, with people left in ‘water poverty’. This is where households spend 3% or more of their income on water bills.

The JRF estimates that an estimated 4 million households are already ‘water poor’ in the UK.

Poorer households are also more likely to be tenants, rather than own their homes, and so will be less able to alter housing to make it more efficient. This is not just important in the case of water efficiency, but also for adaptation to high temperatures as a result of climate change.

The JRF is using this report to call on government and other decision makers to aim for ‘affordable water efficiency’. It would be a true irony to solve an important CSR issue on one hand, whilst creating a new one with the other.


Photo credit: Greg Riegler Photography