In fact, those little bars are so prevalent that we generally can’t escape them – even when we’re away from home. We’re greeted with multiple little packages of hygiene goodness every time we step into a hotel room or go to a restaurant. For about 20 percent of the world’s population, the question of what happens to all those bars of soap we leave behind after our stay aren’t a mandatory consideration; how they get recycled, and who ensures they don’t get funneled into massive landfills are issues that are often left to management.
And it’s likely that most travelers also don’t spend their well-earned days of rest pondering the connections between poverty, childhood diseases, the cost of soap and inaccessible hygiene.
But Stefan Phang does. Diversey’s Regional Director for Sustainability & Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), for the Asia-Pacific, Middle East, Africa and Turkey Region (AMAT) realized years ago that there was way to combine those little bars with philanthropy and produce better living conditions for millions of people across the globe.
And just as important, he realized, there were ways to use those donations to teach communities about the link between good hygiene, health and a valuable community income. There were also ways that the hygiene and cleaning supply company he worked for could partner with those communities by creating shared value (CSV) that in turn, would enhance the sustainability of both the communities and Diversey.
In 2013 Phang launched what would eventually become Diversey’s Soap for Hope CSV program. Using his own networking skills and the support of Diversey, he convinced hotels to donate the discarded soap they collected from guest rooms. At the same time, he began reaching out to the small, low-income communities adjacent to the hotels to see if they would be willing to take on the unique job of recycling and remaking soap that could be distributed to low-income households.
According to Daniel Daggett, PhD, Diversey’s executive director for sustainability and CSR, that out-of-the-box thinking helped launch a program that is now having international impact.
“Soap for Hope is one of our signature CSV programs,” explained Daggett, who said the innovative program has given Diversey the ability to partner with a wide spectrum of customers that use its services in the hospitality industry.
Daggett said the CSV program has many benefits, both for Diversey and its customers. For the hotels, it offers a sustainable way to ensure that the used soap doesn’t end up in the landfill. And it allows them to participate in a local initiative that improves their communities.
For Diversey, it provides an emblematic way of demonstrating the company’s values.
“[It] is really important for Diversey,” said Daggett, “not only because it helps identify our culture, what we stand for, but because we also see the real value of it in establishing relationships with our customers.
“It really ticks all of the boxes of sustainability and has a great environmental story. It has a great social story and it makes good business sense for us.”
Daggett said Diversey provides all of the equipment, materials and the processes for the community to recycle the soap.
“The idea is to be able to set this very, very small manufacturing station ... anywhere,” said Daggett. “The concept is you can go into a rural village where they may have problems with access to clean water and not a lot of resources, and show up and say, ‘Look, here’s a business. It can provide a small amount of income and source of hygiene for your village.’ That’s exactly what the target is of Soap for Hope.”
Plus, it affords a door to teaching kids about the benefits of handwashing at an early age.
“Very frequently the Soap for Hope program will work in concert with a school,” said Daggett. “We teach [the children] how to wash their hands using the right amount of time. It sounds trivial, but there are actually [Center for Disease Control] requirements and regulations, even guidelines for how hands should be washed. Obviously we want kids to learn how to do it effectively. So there is often an educational element to it and kids get excited about something that may seem commonplace.”
And that may be Soap for Hope’s greatest accomplishment: community engagement. With the help of nonprofits, Soap for Hope is able to incentivize communities and at the same time, teach the youngest generations the processes and importance of incorporating hygiene into everyday habits.
Doctors have found that reducing child mortality numbers in developing countries doesn’t just depend on finding ways to improve access to food, but increasing hygiene and sanitation in disadvantaged communities as well. According to UNICEF, as many as 2,000 children under the age of five die every day from diarrhea-related diseases. Some 80 percent of those deaths are linked to unclean water sources and poor sanitation and hygiene. Lack of ability to improve their living circumstances because of unemployment and barriers to education create an endemic cycle of poverty for many of the world’s poorest communities
Soap for Hope is already addressing some of those statistics, said Daggett, who pointed out that the small income often affords access to things we take for granted. By linking luxury hotels that have an unneeded resource with its nearby low-income neighbors, Soap for Hope not only helps ensure that the discarded materials don’t feed the continuation of a landfill, but gives kids a vision of a better life as they grow up. That “very small income” that the community earns through recycling bars of soap Daggett said, can often times be the deciding factor to whether or not a child goes to school, learns to read and has the potential to create a sustainable, income-earning career.
So far, the Soap for Hope program operates in 39 countries; more than 150 cities participate, and some 539 hotels support the recycling program. Daggett admits that not every country or community is likely to be a perfect fit for the program. Stringent manufacturing laws in the U.S. for example would make it difficult to set up a hand-operated soap manufacturing unit in a rural community without involved licensing processes and fees. But a growing number of communities in developing nations where endemic poverty from unemployment can have catastrophic impact are now benefiting from the program. Hotels and adjacent communities in Latin America and Asia now participate, with India being the latest country to come aboard.
Readers can learn more about Diversey’s Soap for Hope and its plans for its CSV programs this June at the Sustainable Brands conference in Vancouver, BC.
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Images courtesy of Diversey, Inc.
Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.