When Simon Griffiths and his friends launched a toilet paper company last year, they weren’t trying to reinvent the roll. The serial entrepreneur—who had lamented a consistent lack of funding for development organizations while working in sub-Saharan Africa—had been looking for the right business idea that could raise money to improve access to sanitation around the globe.
One day in 2010, his eyes fell on a supply of toilet paper rolls. It sparked an epiphany: He could sell toilet paper and donate 50 percent of the profits to pay for toilets in the developing world. At that moment, the Who Gives a Crap toilet tissue company was born.
“We want to provide 1 million people access to sanitation over the next few years,” he says, “and improve the quality of life through lower illness rates and greater school attendance.”
About 2.5 billion people, or 35 percent of the world’s population, lack access to sanitation services, a problem that leads to open defecation and the spread of viral, bacterial, and parasitic organisms into food and water supplies. As a result, diarrheal disease is the second-leading cause of death among children under the age of five worldwide, and it kills 760,000 in this age group every year, according to the World Health Organization. For those children who don’t die, diarrheal disease contributes to malnutrition.
Since Who Gives a Crap released its product a year ago, the company has given money to nonprofit organization WaterAid to install toilets at a school of 400 students in Papua New Guinea’s Eastern Highlands Province. Because there’s no plumbing at the school, compost toilets (built from local materials) will be used.
WaterAid works with organizations around the world to provide community education about hand washing and other sanitation practices. Locals are trained and paid to maintain the toilets, which are built to last on average between seven and eight years depending on frequency of use.
In Papua New Guinea more than half of the country’s 7 million residents do not have access to clean drinking water or a basic toilet. This has been linked to a decreased access to education: A 2008 WaterAid study showed that girls would stay home from school during their menstrual periods. “There’s nowhere private for them to go, so a week out of every month they don’t attend—and only get 75 percent of their education,” Griffiths said.
Though Griffiths won’t divulge the amount of money Who Gives a Crap has donated for the school project, he estimates that it costs up to $99 to provide a toilet for a family, depending on the geographic region of the world. The company is reinvesting a portion of its profits into the business so it can continue to grow. But as cash flow increases, Griffiths says Who Gives a Crap will start increasing the frequency of its WaterAid donations to two to four times per year.
But it’s not all about the toilets. The company spent a lot of time developing a toilet paper product that is environmentally friendly (biodegradable, chlorine-free, locally sourced, and made from 100 percent postconsumer waste) and manufactured under good working conditions.
Griffiths chose to make the toilet paper in a Chinese facility that employs local workers. This way, the employees would be able to go home at night to their families instead of to a dorm room, a common practice for other consumer goods manufacturing in China. Workers also wear face masks to prevent inhalation of pulp fibers, Griffith says. When Who Gives a Crap has more capital, Griffiths would like to invest in powering the facility with solar panels.
During his five visits to the factory, Griffiths got to know the workers well. After finishing the first few production runs, several employees approached him and expressed an interest in Who Gives a Crap’s mission (which is printed on the wrapper). “They said to me that it was very noble, and that no one in China thinks like this,” he said.
Workers pressed Griffiths for more details about his vision and later ended up reinvesting money in the company. “It’s quite an amazing and unique relationship,” he said.
For the near future, the company will be focused on expanding distribution in the Australian market. It recently finalized a distribution deal for smaller supermarkets throughout the state of Victoria and is looking to replicate it in other states. The toilet paper is also available online (including a regular delivery option for those who have better things to do than monitor their toilet paper supply) but only ships to locations in Australia.
And it hopes to get back to the American market as well. At the end of last year, the company pulled out of the U.S. because Griffiths said it was difficult for a small company to maintain a presence in two geographic areas at one time.
“In Australia, sales were growing fantastically, and it made sense for us to focus on this region, perfect some of the pain points, and then come back to the U.S. in the future,” he said.
“We’re looking to understand why the concept resonated best here,” he added. “It’s hard to say—maybe it’s the Australian sense of humor.”