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Leading the ethical business revolution

23 November 2020 at 8:18 am
Maggie Coggan
As the co-founder and CEO of Who Gives A Crap, Simon Griffiths is a pioneer of the flourishing for-purpose business movement, using a simple business model to address a big problem. He’s this week’s Changemaker. 

Maggie Coggan | 23 November 2020 at 8:18 am


Leading the ethical business revolution
23 November 2020 at 8:18 am

As the co-founder and CEO of Who Gives A Crap, Simon Griffiths is a pioneer of the flourishing for-purpose business movement, using a simple business model to address a big problem. He’s this week’s Changemaker. 

When Simon Griffiths, Danny Alexander, and Jehan Ratnatunga found out that there were 2.4 billion people (or 40 per cent of the global population) without access to a toilet, they knew they had to do something about it. 

After launching a crowdfunding campaign that involved Griffiths sitting on a toilet in a warehouse until they had raised enough money to start production (50 hours in total), Who Gives A Crap was born. 

Their model of selling toilet paper online and donating 50 per cent of the profits to help build toilets and improve sanitation in the developing world has been simple and effective. So much so that Who Gives A Crap is now one of the biggest names in the social enterprise scene, and has loyal customers from across the globe. 

The business is also a registered B Corp, operating sustainably and ethically top to bottom. 

While many social enterprises have struggled this year, the pandemic-induced panic buying of toilet paper meant Who Gives A Crap actually had one of its most profitable years to date, donating a whopping $5.85 million to charity.    

In this week’s Changemaker Griffiths discusses the challenges of 2020, what has guided his leadership, and the hope he holds for the future of social enterprises.

What was the inspiration behind Who Gives A Crap?

The big reason was back in 2010, 2.4 billion people globally were without access to a toilet. That might sound like not a big deal, but if you could imagine what it’s like just going a single day without access to a toilet and then for the rest of your life, it’s actually pretty horrific. It’s a loss of dignity, but there’s also a lot of negative health impacts that come from that. The bad stuff ends up in water that’s used to clean and wash, and that results in diarrhoea related disease that is the number one killer in hospitals in sub-Saharan Africa, and the number two killer of kids under the age of five. 

And so the other kind of shocking fact back in 2010 was that it was also the most off track of all of the United Nations development goals, because toilets are kind of gross and they’re not nice dinner party conversation. You also can’t take pictures of kids drinking out of a well for the first time, which is great marketing. And so we saw that there was this opportunity to work with a product that we all need and use every day, and use it to help people in need, while having fun with it along the way.

And what impact have you had through the enterprise since you first launched?

We’re seven years in and we’ve donated $8.3 million to our charity partners in that time and that figure grows exponentially each year. We’re incredibly excited about what the future looks like. Our biggest partner, Water Aid, has said that our most recent donation would be able to help hundreds of thousands of people, and that was the $5.35 million donation that we made in June this year.

Where do you draw inspiration from?

So many different places. I think the biggest thing is how we think about the team and culture being a very central part of our business, and I really think that’s what helps make us successful as well. One of the biggest influences is Daniel Pinks’ philosophy around happiness, which we believe is a good proxy for culture. When people are happy they are their most helpful, most resilient and most productive. I think 20 years ago, happiness was thought to be tied purely to salary, but what Pinks’ has done is show that it’s actually tied to autonomy. It’s about setting clear goals and then getting out of the way and allowing people to achieve those goals. It’s about mastery; allowing people to work on a core skill set that they’re passionate about and helping them to master it. And it’s about purpose, which is a big part of who our company is, and is right at the core of our DNA. We have to work hard to make sure that our team is connected into that purpose, and they understand how the work they’re doing every day in the business ladders up to the greater good that we have as our goal. That thinking has been very influential in how we’ve gone about building culture in the company.

How do you manage challenges as a leader of a social enterprise?

I think we’re very lucky that our goal as a company is to make sure that everyone in the world has access to a toilet. That goal and purpose is our North Star when the sailing is good and is what keeps us moving in the right direction. It’s also our anchor that grounds us when the sailing gets rough, and the sailing got pretty rough in 2020 for everyone. For us, it was in a good way because we were overloaded with demand, but that was still very challenging. 

I think we always come back to that purpose, and every decision that we make, we’re thinking about it with the lens of what will enable us to have the most impact and get us to that 30-year goal of everyone in the world having access to a toilet. It makes it very easy to get the team rallied around a shared set of goals or a plan, because we all know that we’re pushing towards that same objective.

How has the experience of running Who Gives A Crap changed your view of the world?

It gives me a lot of hope for what the future can look like. Ten years ago, we were completely at odds with the way that the rest of the world thought about the old-school approach of capitalism. It gives me hope to see the way that we are now thinking about what resonates with consumers globally. We’re now selling more outside of Australia than what we do inside Australia. Seeing this concept of ethical business as something that does resonate globally, means that we’re at a tipping point of ethical business that is probably where sustainability was 10 years ago. If you wind back 10 years, things like carbon neutral were just starting to become buzzwords and a few companies were talking about doing it. You fast forward to where we are today and literally the biggest companies in the world, Apple and Nike for example, have plans to go to zero carbon. 

It feels like a new version of capitalism, where businesses are starting to really have to think about how they source their products, where their profits are going, who they’re doing business with, because that’s part of what’s driving the demand for products in the marketplace. We’re kind of on the leading edges of that, but knowing what has happened to sustainability in the last 10 years, I’m incredibly excited to see what the next 10 years will look like as more and bigger businesses will have to really think about this and adjust their business models.

Maggie Coggan  |  Journalist  |  @MaggieCoggan

Maggie Coggan is a journalist at Pro Bono News covering the social sector.

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