Who Gives a Crap Gives a Crap About Sanitation in the Developing World

A bottom-up solution to sanitation?
Toilet paper that saves the world—from the bottom up. (Photo: Who Gives a Crap)
Jul 12, 2011· 2 MIN READ
Salvatore Cardoni holds a political science degree from the George Washington University. He's written about all things environment since 2007.

Who gives a crap about sanitation in the developing world?

Who Gives a Crap, that’s who.

Now, now—don’t go clicking away. This isn't some potty-mouthed attempt at Abbott and Costello humor.

Cofounded by Simon Griffiths, Who Gives a Crap is a bath tissue company that sells recycled toilet paper in the developed world, and then uses 50 percent of its profits to build toilets in the developing world.

“More than two and a half billion people, which is basically 40 percent of the world, don’t have access to adequate sanitation, or a toilet,” says Griffiths. “Open defecation is a way of life for a lot of people, which means that urine and feces run into water that’s used to cook, clean, and wash with.”

According to the World Health Organization and United Nations water office, the problem is only getting worse.

Aid commitment for sanitation and water fell to five percent of total development aid in 2008—down from eight percent in 1997.

“There are incredible impact statistics out there, something like one dollar invested in sanitation results in an eight dollar increase in economic productivity,” says Griffiths.

WGAC's cofounders Jehan Ratnatunga and Simon Griffiths. (Photo: Who Gives a Crap)

The company is currently in pre-revenue stage. The plan is to have product on Australian shelves in the next six months and in the United States market in 2012.

Sustainable toilet paper is a growth market in the U.S., where it currently occupies only a one percent share, compared to 10 percent in other developed economies.

It’s also 99 percent virgin pulp—meaning it’s almost wholly sourced from living trees. “From a sustainability point of view, the U.S. market is pretty terrible,” says Griffiths.

And then there’s the perception that recycled toilet paper is coarse and feels like sandpaper.

“There are a few little tricks you can do to increase the softness of the paper,” says Griffiths. “We are looking at innovating the product probably for the first time in 50 years.”

Griffiths doesn't yet know if the tissue paper WGAC sells in the U.S. will be produced stateside or shipped from overseas.

Once the revenue starts pouring in, the real work begins.

Griffiths says WGAC will partner with WaterAid to build toilets through a range of countries in Southeast Asia.

“With one percent of the U.S. market, we would generate profits of 3.8 million dollars, providing toilets to 350,000 people on an annual basis,” says Griffiths.

The business model comes prepackaged with another financial incentive: Some villagers will be paid to maintain the very toilets that are keeping them alive.

When that day arrives, Griffiths’ vision, born in 1999 in a moment of divine inspiration, will have finally been realized.

“I literally walked into the laundry, saw a 12-pack of toilet paper sitting there, and said: ‘That’s it. We do toilet paper. And we call it Who Gives a Crap,'" says Griffiths.

He and cofounder Jehan Ratnatunga met at The University of Melbourne in 2005. In 2007 they teamed up to launch Ripple.org, a website that fundraises for development aid organizations using web advertising.

As their careers progressed separately—Ratnatunga’s in business consulting and Griffiths’ through stints at ExxonMobil and Morgan Stanley—they kept coming back to WGAC.

Years of research and a lot of head scratching about the right way to enter the marketplace—“toilet paper is not easy to work with,” says Griffiths, with a laugh—led them to the Unreasonable Institute in Boulder, Colorado, in 2010.

For ten weeks, Griffiths and representatives from 25 other social-enterprise ventures got a crash course in business from 50 of the world’s top entrepreneurs.

“We went there with the idea of being a non-profit toilet paper company and left realizing that we needed to be something where we are donating 50 percent of our profits so that we can reward our investors and as a result be able to issue capital,” says Griffiths.

The new approach has paid off.

Last month, at the Sustainable Brands Conference in Monterey, California, WGAC won the People’s Choice Award in the Innovation Open competition.

"Choice" being the key word.

“We’ve been really motivated by changing the way philanthropy works—by combining it with consumption,” says Griffiths. “We talk about consumer-driven philanthropy, the idea being that people consume, like they already are, but not spend more. We’re all about motivating people not by guilt.”