A Soap Opera at Hilton Hotels

Although it is not as commonly used as food and water, soap is a good example of the inequality in resource use between the developed and the developing worlds. Think about this – while hotels in the U.S. throw away millions of used soap bars every day, impoverished people around the world die every day from acute respiratory infection and diarrheal disease because they have no soap.

You might wonder what hotels can do about it – is it similar to food when there is no point in asking guests to finish what’s on their plate just because people are hungry in Africa? Well, fortunately this is a different situation due to the work of organizations like Global Soap Project, which works with hotels to recover discarded soap, reprocesses it into new bars and send them to vulnerable populations worldwide. This small organization got a big boost earlier this week when Hilton Worldwide announced a partnership with the organization, aiming not just to recycle used soap bars at the Hilton hotels, but also to take this organization to the next level.

According to their announcement, in the first year of partnership Hilton Worldwide expects its soap donations to total more than one million new 4-ounce bars of soap that will be sent to people in need. In addition to donating soap, Hilton Worldwide is investing $1.3 million over the next three years and providing its operational expertise to help expand the Global Soap Project’s processing capabilities. By leveraging Hilton Worldwide’s global supply chain and understanding of the hospitality industry, the partners will work to explore a social enterprise model and develop a global system that can handle the high volumes of soap generated by the sector at zero cost to hotel properties.

Hilton deserves kudos for making this partnership about more than just donating used soap bars. It’s not that this is not an important part of the partnership, but just to give you a perspective – every day an estimated 2.6 million soap bars are discarded in the US. This is a huge problem that demands operational expertise and capabilities from any organization that wants to deal with it. Global Soap Project, which since its inception in 2009 has distributed more than 25 tons of soap to vulnerable communities in twenty countries, probably lacks it. Hilton Worldwide, on the other hand, has it.

What motivates Hilton to get into such a partnership? It looks like a good fit with their sustainability system – LightStay, which is growing in importance for Hilton. Christopher Nassetta, Hilton Worldwide President and CEO, said, “LightStay has provided us with a platform to measure hotel performance and economic improvement, proving to be invaluable given today’s increased operational demands and resource constraints.” Only a couple of weeks ago Hilton reported that since the introduction of LightStay, the company continued to improve sustainability and economic performance and saved more than $74 million in utility costs as a result of reducing their energy use, waste output, carbon output and water use.

I’m not sure if through this partnership Hilton will be able to save money – although they will reduce their waste, there are operational costs involved in the recovering process of the used soap bars. At best, it looks to me like they might break even. Nevertheless, there are some important benefits for Hilton from reducing their waste to greater appeal to guests that will appreciate this step. There’s also the value to be generated for Hilton’s brand, and let’s not forget that we’re talking about a good cause here – hand washing with soap is among the most effective and inexpensive ways to prevent diarrheal diseases and pneumonia, which together are responsible for more than 3.5 million child deaths each year.

Yet, this is not an example of the shared value model, but more of a strategic philanthropy. Although some might say it’s even not that as it doesn’t meet the definition of sustainable value creation (Accenture /CECP 2011), which talks about “a core business strategy focused on addressing fundamental societal issues by identifying new, scalable sources of competitive advantage that generate measurable profit and community benefit.” Still I would argue that this strategic philanthropy that corresponds well with Hilton’s efforts to make their operations more sustainable and it creates a stepping stone to further innovation in the future.

What about sustainability? This partnership certainly promotes further sustainability, helping to both make Hilton hotels less wasteful and save the lives of people who don’t have the means to buy soap. Hilton could prompt even more sustainability if the hotel chain would consider shifting to soap dispensers, eliminating soap bars altogether. Then Hilton could give the money it will save to organizations like Global Soap Project or Clean the World to purchase soap bars locally in developing countries and distribute them to those who can’t afford to buy them. In the meantime, let’s hope this partnership will help save as many lives as possible and will reduce, by a little bit, the inequality in resource use, at least when it comes to soap.

Image credit: Hilton Worldwide

Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris, a green company working to green up the book industry in the digital age. He is also an adjunct professor in the University of Delaware’s Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics.

Raz Godelnik

Raz Godelnik is an Assistant Professor and the Co-Director of the MS in Strategic Design & Management program at Parsons School of Design in New York. Currently, his research projects focus on the impact of the sharing economy on traditional business, the sharing economy and cities’ resilience, the future of design thinking, and the integration of sustainability into Millennials’ lifestyles. Raz is the co-founder of two green startups – Hemper Jeans and Eco-Libris and holds an MBA from Tel Aviv University.

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