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World Toilet Day: An Opportunity to Tackle Global Sanitation & Water Challenges

Words by Leon Kaye

Today, November 19, is World Toilet Day. If you are reading this article, the chances are high that you take for granted access to toilets. But for at least 2.5 billion people across the world, a clean toilet is not their reality. And, what may seem at first to be an inconvenience is more about discomfort: there is a strong correlation between poor sanitation and poverty.

Then there is human dignity: many women across the world just want a place where they can have privacy, a clean place to decompress and take a break from their husbands, children and neighbors. And here is a fact that will not do much to whet your appetite as American Thanksgiving approaches but is a stubborn fact that must be addressed: Approximately 1.1 billion people defecate in the open.

Forget about the taboo: We are talking about lives and what NGOs and the UN now describe as a human right. We know some governments, such as a city in Zimbabwe, have struggled with finding creative ways to deal with toilets and sanitation. But what can business do to address one of the most difficult challenges the world faces at a time when water is becoming more scarce and a source of conflict?

One company that is confronting the global sanitation crisis, specifically the lack of toilets, is Unilever. One cog of the company’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) agenda, or Sustainable Living Plan, is to use its brands as a means to instill knowledge about sanitation issues and work with its partners to help scale the sales and distribution of toilets in regions where people desperately need them. To that end, Domestos, one of Unilever’s household cleaner brands, has been a sponsor of World Toilet Day since 2007. Today in Vietnam, Domestos “Toilet Academies” will launch a program to work with locals and train them on how to establish businesses that source, sell and maintain toilets.

Unilever has long found success in emerging markets because of its sales of sachets to consumers who can only afford to buy the company's products in small amounts. But Domestos takes the relationship with its customers a step further by not only tackling the daily chore of keeping a home clean, but addressing the challenges related to basic sanitation.

One application that Unilever and Domestos use to promote awareness of sanitation, and of course, toilets, is Flush Tracker. Users in the United Kingdom, South Africa and six European countries can glean an idea of their toilet flushes’ paths by entering their post code and time of flush. So, for example, if I happened to flush the loo in the King’s Cross section of London, I would gain scatological information, such as the 1.41 miles that my dinner last night traveled at a speed of 4.57 miles per hour, to what appears to be the King’s Place sewage facility. Email alerts allow you to track that flush’s progress, and also emphasizes the importance of the good sanitation from which many of us benefit, in contrast to the challenges--really a daily crisis--that unfold in much of the developed world.

Unilever’s work shows how companies within, and beyond the consumer packaged goods sector, can use their brands to educate customers, fund programs and develop new opportunities abroad--while scoring new business opportunities and building goodwill. And next time you decide to flush a tissue down the toilet just because you can, remember that unless the developed world changes its overall wasteful water habits, we will have our own water crises sooner rather than later.

Learn more about World Toilet Day 2012 here; an online petition can also be signed here.

Leon Kaye, based in Fresno, California, is a sustainability consultant and the editor of GreenGoPost.com. He also contributes to Guardian Sustainable BusinessInhabitat and Earth911. You can follow Leon and ask him questions on Twitter.

Image credit: World Toilet Day

Leon Kaye headshotLeon Kaye

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

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