The need for global sanitation may not be a sexy cause, but that doesn’t diminish its urgency: 40% of the world’s population lacks adequate bathroom facilities, and diarrhea-related diseases contaminate waterways, pack hospital beds, and kill thousands of children every day. Meanwhile, as first-world consumers, we happily guzzle charity-related bottled water, wear charity-related T-shirts and shoes, carry charity-related bags, and so on, so there’s gotta be something we could purchase to provide proceeds for proper poopers, right?
Enter Australian entrepreneur Simon Griffiths. This fall, alongside partners Jehan Ratnatunga and Danny Alexander, he’ll deliver the first shipments of Who Gives A Crap, toilet paper that donates half its profits to help build toilets in the developing world. Made from recycled materials and free from any inks, dyes, scents, or glues, it’s also quite environmentally responsible, which Griffiths says is all part of creating a “feel good bathroom experience.” “Toilet paper is the one product that you use and dispose of more quickly than any other product in your life,” he explains. “Our tagline is ‘Good for your bum, great for the world.’”
How does a mild-mannered young Aussie with a degree in engineering and economics end up as a TP magnate? Well, Griffiths first encountered the global sanitation crisis while on holiday from university, and a post-grad stint working in South African development aid left him both fulfilled and frustrated by the limits of his personal impact. “I had been in and out of the developing world for about a decade, and I’d seen the huge amounts of poverty that people talk about,” he says. “But I hadn’t visually observed any changes in the level of poverty in that time. It was just the same as it had been when I started. So I said, Why aren’t we solving these problems faster?”
He isolated one issue in particular: The vast majority of charitable organizations rely on funding from individuals, but the average Australian (or American) only has so much to give. “I realized we couldn’t simply ask people to give 15 times more, or have 15 times as many people on the street stopping people and asking them to support a cause,” Griffiths says. “We had to completely change the way that we funded social impact.” Instead of depending on people to alter their behavior, he decided to tie fundraising to existing habits, inspired by the model of cause-related mass market products like Ethos Water. And one day, inevitably, he walked into the bathroom. “I saw a six-pack of toilet paper sitting there, and I said, ‘That’s it!’” he remembers. “’It’s toilet paper! We work in sanitation! We call the product Who Gives A Crap!’”
From that lightning-bolt moment--we didn’t ask for further specifics about the bathroom visit--Griffiths and Ratnatunga joined the 2010 class of the Unreasonable Institute (where they met Alexander), and started building a business model. They partnered with international sanitation NGO WaterAid, learned more than they ever dreamed about the Australian toilet paper market, and raised over $66,000 via an Indiegogo campaign that featured a livestream of Griffiths sitting on a toilet until they reached their goal.
Stunts aside, being blatant about their cause certainly gives Who Gives A Crap an advertising edge, allowing them to abandon the euphemistic puppies and pillows and bears most TP manufacturers are stuck with and deliver customers the straight poop, if you will. “We could turn it into something that’s fun and interesting and people enjoy and they’re happy to share and be a part of,” Griffiths says, and points out that although toilet paper is part of a rather intimate personal experience, it’s not so intimate that people don’t want to talk about their preferences. “Like, 95% of the dinner parties that we go to, it inevitably becomes one of the main topics of conversation,” he laughs. “It doesn’t get talked about regularly, and as a result, people are very curious and have a lot of questions. The way people use the product varies hugely, and their perception of the product and its benefits and what they like is wildly different.” (For the record, Griffiths rolls it over.)
He’s reluctant to discuss specifics, but Griffiths says initial orders have hit their targets, and they’re already investigating possibilities for expansion, including entering the brick and mortar marketplace. Meanwhile, the folks at WaterAid are hard at work educating communities about the need for proper sanitation, then teaching them how to build toilets out of locally available materials like cement or bamboo. And although he swears by its softness and strength, Griffiths says when people ask why they should switch to Who Gives A Crap, he doesn’t really need to sell them on its physical merits. “I go, ‘What product are you buying at the moment?’” he says, “and they go, ‘Charmin,’ and I say, ‘Where do the profits go?’ and they go, ‘Ohhhh.’ And that’s it.”