Corporations as custodians of the public good? (Rudebeck, 2019)

V Mark Gideon

HD Rudebeck, T. 2019. Corporations as custodians of the public good? Exploring the intersection of corporate water stewardship and global water governance. Springer. ISBN 978-3-030-13225-5 (eBook), ISBN 978-3-030-13227-9 (soft cover), 210 p., €93 (ebook), €83 (soft cover).


V Mark Gideon

Byrraju Foundation,

To cite this Review: Gideon, V.M. 2020. Review of "Corporations as custodians of the public good? Exploring the intersection of corporate water stewardship and global water governance". Springer, 2019, by T. Rudebeck, Water Alternatives,


The book emphasizes the greater role that corporates and big businesses play within a multi-stakeholder water governance structure, notably through a strategy the author refers to as Corporate Water Stewardship (CWS). In the introductory first chapter, the author argues that corporates typically engage in CWS to mitigate water scarcity risks – which they understand as financial risks. Further, the author argues that CWS is a form of 'market environmentalism' that establish corporates as 'stewards' of water resources as it is premised on more efficient water resources management.  

Notwithstanding the author’s argument, the author of this review does not think the book provides a compelling argument as to how the motives of financial profit and social/ environmental welfare can be reconciled as argued by CWS proponents among which the author of the book seems to belong.

The book is divided into three sections: Part 1- 'Incorporation', includes chapter 2 and 3 and argues for the need to include corporates in the management of water resources; Part 2- 'Involvement' includes chapter 4 and 5 explaining actual practices of corporates involvement in the water sector. Part 3- 'Influence' includes chapter 6, 7 and 8 demonstrating how corporates set narratives and 'storylines' that frame the discourse of water governance. Chapter 8 serves as a concluding chapter.

Chapter 2 traces the emergence of CWS to growing disenchantment with state management of water resources and the growing role of businesses’ in society through Corporate Social Responsibility policies among others. The author argues that criticisms over businesses motivations to engage in CWS and environmental conservation practices that present these as "green or blue washing" are ideologically motivated and not empirically grounded. The author does not really engage with these criticisms and embraces a more optimistic view of the opportunities private sector engagement in the water sector provides. She also stress that INGOs such as the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), WaterAid, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and Water Witness International (WWI) have sought alliances with corporates in a way to push their own agenda (chapter 3), which is meant to indicate the limits of critiques of corporate involvement in the sector. However, the author does not answer how divergent perspectives between NGOs and businesses can be reconciled.

Chapter 4 and 5 together argue that risks transform corporate practices towards better management of water resources.  Chapter 4 looks at the CWS practices of food & beverages, textiles and mining industries and chapter 5 focuses on corporates in the WASH sector. In the first group of sectors, companies may engage in technical efficiency improvements or establish initiatives such as the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) of H&M. Such initiatives engage local communities where corporates base their operations and are primarily aimed to achieve a 'social license' to operate, defined as "the broad acceptance granted by society to business to conduct its activities" (Prno and Slocombe, 2012 as cited in Rudebeck 2019: 60). By providing "better conditions" for local communities, companies seek to avoid the "perceived negative impact" of their operation (Rudebeck 2016, ibid). Whether initiatives such as the BCI do improve the situation of local producers remain however debated. The BCI initiative, for instance, does not provide farmers with a premium prior to the sowing season while the main risk is one that relates to crop loss nor does it provide training related to unsafe pesticides practices to smallholders[1].Though corporate involvement in WASH programs can lead to improving wellbeing of communities through the use of practices and products manufactured by companies, like in other sectors, corporates’ involvement in WASH programs largely aims at profit making – most beneficiaries of these programs being seen as a an untapped market. Chapters 4 and 5 collectively argue that self-interest and profits are what motivates corporates to achieve the ‘social license’ without which they will not be able to operate fearing risking their reputation, something the author does not find to be problematic. Furthermore, though this is one of the main claims of the book, the author fails to show how risks actually transform corporate management of water resources.

Part 3- 'Influence' demonstrates how corporates enhance their social standing through various measures such as partnerships and setting storylines.  The author argues that corporates see NGOs as having the trust of local communities and partnering with them is a way to enhance their legitimacy, even if partially (Chapter 6). The author further highlights that issues of representation, accountability, and equal participation of CWs practices are not really in place but does not address the issue – or that of potential capture – further. In Chapter 7, the author highlights that corporates further their legitimacy through setting narratives or 'storylines' that perpetuate the market environmentalism framework and are pervasive in 'Global Water Governance' debates dominated by a narrow focus on water scarcity.

In conclusion, the book does not build a strong case supporting the idea that corporates can be custodians of water resources. Big businesses influence global norms of water management primarily due to asymmetrical power structures. For example, governments are keener to listen to businesses than NGOs because of companies’ superior financial resources. NGOs realize this and have little choice but to partner with companies to push their own agendas. Moreover, the fact that NGOs have little agency to oppose business practices shows that CWS is inherently corporate centric. Corporates and businesses engage in CWS for their own motives – not for the greater social and environmental good. It is possible that corporates develop technological efficiency to better use water resources, which may be beneficial to other actors, but this is a by-product rather than an objective in itself. Further, the fact that there is no real platform to address policy and license capture by corporates other than voluntary initiatives, which businesses may or may not implement, indicates that CWS remains a largely undemocratic practice. Unfortunately, the author’s own stand around various controversies such as corporate practices, asymmetrical power structure, social license to operate, green and blue washing remains unstated and the author does not provide any critical perspective on these controversies though they are at the core of Corporate Water Stewardship.


Prno, J., & Slocombe, D. S. (2012). Exploring the origins of 'social license to operate' in the mining sector: Perspectives from governance and sustainability theories. Resources Policy 37(3): 346–357


[1] See among others:


Additional Info

  • Authors: T. Rudebeck
  • Year of publication: 2019
  • Publisher: Springer
  • Reviewer: V. M. Gideon
  • Subject: Water governance, Sustainability, Water economics, Privatisation
  • Type: Review
  • Language: English