Hand-washing with soap is one of the most effective ways to prevent a number of diarrheal and respiratory diseases, including Covid-19.
But extreme poverty, especially in deprived slum areas, means that many people lack access to this vital life-saver that many of us take for granted, meaning that seven million children die each year from diseases that could have been prevented by proper hand-washing. Many more people who fall ill are unable to work, with a consequent impact on the livelihoods of the community at large.
At the same time, a typical 400-room hotel generates 3.5 metric tonnes of solid soap waste every year, which typically goes to landfill or is incinerated.
For Stefan Phang, global director for ESG and creating shared value at global cleaning and hygiene product manufacturer Diversey, this presented an opportunity.
A long-time supporter of efforts to tackle child exploitation, which is often the result of extreme financial hardship, he had spotted the disparity between the wealth of luxury hotels in the developing world and the slums that many of them are surrounded by.
Seeking cost-effective ways for the hotels, which are a major part of Diversey’s client-base, to contribute to the livelihoods of their communities, Phang began exploring the waste streams they create and realised that their large quantities of waste soap had the potential to transform lives.
Working together with internal colleagues, hotel chains, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and local communities, Phang created Diversey’s Soap for Hope initiative in 2013, with the aim of providing opportunities for disadvantaged people to make a living by recyling soap.
Diversey’s sustainability strategy
Based in the US but with operations all over the world and annual revenues exceeding $2.6bn, Diversey is one of top providers of products ranging from hand soap to laundry detergent and floor cleaning chemicals to the hospitality, catering, healthcare and facilities management sectors.
Launched in 2021, Diversey’s sustainability strategy commits it to driving progress in three main areas:
- Protect: Efforts to promote environmental stewardship, including circularity of packaging, net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 and net-positive impact for energy, waste and water.
- Care: Improving Diversey’s social impact, with commitments to achieve 100% employee safety, enhance ethnic and gender diversity and improve the lives of one million people in Diversey’s communities.
- Sustain: Ensuring effective governance, including engagement with stakeholders, transparency of results and compliance with policies.
While Soap for Hope began as a personal project, it is now a key component of Diversey’s sustainability strategy, supporting its commitments to improve lives and enhance product circularity.
Diversey’s Soap For Hope initiative
Through Soap For Hope, Diversey arranges for waste soap from its hotel customers to be delivered to disadvantaged communities in slums and remote areas, where it is recycled by community members into new bars of soap.
Some of this is sold by the community itself but most is repurchased by the hotels or other benefactors, after which it is distributed to the community for free to improve sanitation.
The initiative is mostly managed by Phang himself, with the support of colleagues within Diversey, and partnerships with local NGOs and the hotels themselves.
Launching Soap For Hope
Recognising the potential value that hotels’ discarded soap could bring to local communities, Phang approached the management of hotels he was already dealing with in his role at Diversey and persuaded them to donate any waste soap that would otherwise have gone to landfill.
Through trial and error, he then developed a process for recycling the soap before taking this into local communities to train them in carrying it out themselves.
Initially the idea was for communities to sell on the soap at markets, but it eventually became clear that this would only generate a relatively small amount of income. So instead, Phang persuaded the hotels and other donors (such as charities, other corporations or UN agencies) to pay for the soap and, rather than taking possession of the soap themselves, donate it to those in need.
Though he initially embarked on the project alone, as its popularity grew among the hotels that were involved he was able to persuade Diversey to allocate resources towards it and it has continued to expand with the support of the company’s commercial teams.
How Soap For Hope operates
With several different sets of stakeholders involved, all of them have had to be engaged with in different ways to persuade them to participate and ensure the programme runs smoothly.
ENGAGING HOTEL PARTNERS
Persuading hotels to part with their used soap is generally straightforward. As well as the donation not costing them anything, it also removes their obligation to pay for its disposal, reducing their overall waste bill.
Getting their agreement to pay for the recycled soap can be more a challenge. Diversey pitches participation in the programme as a PR opportunity that will allow them to generate positive media coverage and also encourages them to engage staff in the distribution of soap, boosting employee engagement and giving hotels the opportunity to feature their participation on social media.
With many of the hotels involved being part of international chains with philanthropic budgets, Diversey encourages them to use some of these funds to support Soap For Hope, which comes with the benefit of providing greater transparency of how the money is used compared with other charitable donations. In some cases funds for purchasing the soap also comes from outside benefactors such as charitable foundations.
Participation in the programme is only available to those hotels which are clients of Diversey. However if they decide to switch supplier, this doesn’t typically harm the local programme as most hotels involved in Soap For Hope are clustered together – meaning communities will continue to source their soap from others in the same area.
While Phang was personally responsible for this engagement in the beginning, Diversey has now included Soap For Hope in its sales process, with account managers offering it as an extra value add for the hotel chains – which allows the company to differentiate itself in a market that’s usually driven by price.
IDENTIFYING AND ENGAGING COMMUNITIES
When the initiative started, Phang began by working with hotels that were near to communities in need that he was already familiar with due to his involvement in child protection. But as the programme scaled up he has spent much time identifying new communities to work with.
When new hotel clients express an interest in participating in the programme, Phang reaches out to local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) involved in tackling poverty to ask them where help is most needed nearby and arrange to be put in contact with the communities.
Where possible he will carry out the training on how to recycle the soap himself but in some cases local account managers take responsibility for this, with Phang training them in the process remotely via video conference call.
MANAGING THE LOGISTICS
Once the hotels and communities are on board with the project, a process needs to be put in place for the soap to be transported from the hotels to the communities and then for it to be distributed again after processing.
The approach to this depends on the particular context of the hotels and their local communities:
- In some cases workers in the hotels are members of the community themselves and able to collect the soap once they leave work and bring it back to the community for processing
- In other areas hotel associations with multiple members of the scheme will provide transport for the used soap
- Finally, in some cases responsibility for this falls to the local Diversey account managers, who will generally already be paying multiple visits to the hotels to check their stock of cleaning products and refill dispensers
Once the soap is processed, this is then generally donated via local NGOs that have the knowledge to distribute these where help is most needed.
How the soap is processed
The method of reprocessing the soap includes the following steps:
- Scraping off the surface layer to remove contaminants and debris
- Shredding the soap
- Cleaning soap using Diversey sanitizer
- Adding new ingredients such as ginger or lemongrass to act as fragrances, if necessary
- Pressing it into shape using a portable handheld press, developed especially by Diversey
- Cutting it into portions
- Packaging it
The process takes as little as four minutes and, crucially, it requires no need for electricity or running water – meaning it can take place in isolated areas or slums that lack substantial infrastructure. It is simple enough that people with no prior manufacturing experience can be trained to do it in less than an hour.
Moving beyond soap
As the programme grew in scale, it became clear that recycling soap alone could only go so far in creating work for those in the communities he works with so he began to explore other waste streams that could be used to the same effect.
Many hotels discard bed linen that still has value because of small amounts of damage or stubborn stains that cannot be removed. During the Covid-19 pandemic, Diversey began collecting these too, working with local communities to turn them into face masks, in an initiative known as Linens For Life.
A similar approach is applied to hotels’ used coffee grounds which, with addition of a binder, can be pressed together to create coffee charcoal briquettes that can be used for cooking and heating peoples’ homes.
Since launching in 2013, Soap for Hope has now been rolled out with more than 1000 hotels in 189 cities in 45 countries around the world. Its major successes to date have included:
- Diverting almost 3,000 tonnes of waste soap that would have gone to landfill.
- Producing almost 25m bars of soap that have been distributed to over a million people annually.
- Providing opportunities for those suffering from severe financial hardship, who can now earn up to $50 per month, up from as little as $10 previously.
While it began as a personal project, the programme is also contributing to Diversey’s aims of improving product circularity and improving the lives of one million people in its communities. Beyond sustainability, it is also deliver commercial impact for the business, helping it to stand out in a crowded, price-driven market and attracting increasing interest from customers.
The scope of Soap For Hope and its related programmes within Diversey continues to grow with new hotels and communities being added on a regular basis. As well as the existing programmes for soap, coffee and linens, Phang is also exploring opportunities to recycle other hotel waste products including turning single-use plastic waste into road surfaces, badminton or basketball courts and used palette wrap used to package goods in transit into soles for sandals.