Jack Sim is the head of the WTO. Not that WTO; the World Toilet Organization, a global group that seeks to address an issue that might not even be an after thought for many, yet remains a pressing public health concern across the world: the lack of good clean toilets.
Much of the work of the WTO focuses on “ecological sanitation for the bottom 40 percent of the world’s population.” And addressing this topic in many parts of the world involves finding creative ways to work around entrenched social mores about what is considered a rude topic. However, finally tackling what should be an obvious public health issue can yield large dividends, according to Sim.
Although Sim, who worked for decades as a businessman in Singapore before turning his attention to the oft-neglected sanitation issue, spends much of his time thinking about toilets, he still has some concerns that overlap with the WTO, namely the economic development of the world’s poor. Sim’s organization has been working on a business model that he hopes will grow and serve as a vehicle of economic empowerment while also improving public hygiene.
Sim, who was in Portland to check out what the city is doing on the issue, has been recognized by TIME Magazine as a “Hero of the Environment” and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has also taken an interest in his organization. He talked to Street Roots about how toilets became his life’s mission, how to start conversations about what many consider an embarrassing subject, and how he hopes his business-oriented approach will change how people think about one of the most universal of human activities.
Jake Thomas: You seem like an unlikely advocate for this issue, a Singaporean businessman. How did this issue come to your attention and why did you want to address it?
Jack Sim: I was doing business from the age of 24 to 40, and each year I created an extra business, so by 40 I had 40 businesses. But then came midlife, and I started to review: What is life for if I’m just going to collect and make money? Is there a higher meaning? I started to think that I should solve some social issue out there, and just at that time the prime minister was complaining about the public toilets in Singapore. So I started the Restroom Association to educate the shopping malls, the schools, companies and factories that they actually should have better toilets because it’s very profitable. If you don’t have good toilets, people will leave the shopping malls, and so they leave with their credit cards and cash and you lose a lot of business.
In schools, they told the principal that their children’s marks won’t be very good when they can’t concentrate on what the teachers are saying if they’re holding their bladders, and school vandalism and graffiti increase with dirty toilets, and that motivated a lot of school principals. And then we trained the kids to clean up their toilets and decorate them with flowers and animals and dinosaurs and celebrated the achievement so that they took ownership of the toilet.
We go to companies and tell them that when staffers are sick, you lost money; you lost productivity, and a company can have very low morale when toilets are dirty, and you might have high staff turnover, and they understood. So by explaining this, we incentivized a lot of people to change their attitudes to toilets, and then we brought in the Japanese toilet trainers to train the toilet cleaners. A lot of people think that the toilet cleaner’s job is the lowest and is unskilled, but it’s actually a technician’s job and you need to take pride in the job.
We recently started the SaniShop for the poor because there are 2.6 billion people, or about 40 percent of the human population, who do not have access to proper sanitation. We created a micro franchise to teach the poor to start producing factories for latrines. Each of these factories cost $1,000 to set up, and then they produce toilets. They sell it at $35 per family latrine, and we also employ saleswomen in villages who will sell the toilets for producers. They make $2 on commission for every toilet sold and the SaniShop producer will make $5 per product, so the cost is $28 or $25. Everyone makes profit; jobs are created; sustainable delivery of public health is done; and dignity and self-respect convenience is achieved. When you give someone a toilet, there’s only one toilet. Whereas an economic empowerment model lasts very, very long. So, if people want to support this they can donate to the World Toilet Organization, and a very small amount of money can go a long way.
J.T.: How does your approach differ from country to countr0y trying to raise the issue of good public toilets? You mentioned that it’s bad for business to have bad toilets in Singapore. How would your approach differ elsewhere?
J.S.: I think in developed countries it’s easier to understand. We talk to tourism boards who understand that you can get a lot of income if your tourism toilets are good. And tourism toilets include a lot of toilets and it could include tourism sites, it could be the shopping toilets, the hotel. It could be all kinds of places. And if you have good toilets, then you have more tourists. So people just didn’t know all these things that are actually quite obvious because they felt that toilets were unspeakable. They thought this was a taboo subject and very rude to engage in this subject, and what you don’t discuss you can’t improve. So what the World Toilet Organization did was effectively make people confront the subject by making it first humorous, calling ourselves the WTO, and then giving them the permission to talk about it. Once they felt it was OK, they don’t stop talking about it. The conversation continues.
J.T.: It was a deliberate decision to call yourselves the “WTO”?
J.S.: Absolutely. And the logo was also heart-shaped seat cover saying, love your toilet.
J.T.: How does your approach differ in the developing world?
J.S.: The approach is the same in the developing world because we saw that people go to the shopping malls to buy things to impress other people. So in the poverty sector it’s the same. We saw that they are buying cellphones but not toilets. So if we price the toilet the same prices as the cellphone, we could sell a lot of toilets, provided that toilets are seen as a status symbol. If toilets are seen like Prada or Louis Vuitton handbags, people will buy toilets. So we are using what we learned from the shopping mall to use all the same emotional aspirational triggers to do marketing in the poverty sector, and it works really well. Jealousy, one-upmanship, acceptance by community, ego, pride, dignity — these are all top sellers.
The Japanese, when they visit your house they actually go to your toilet, and they will judge your entire family based on how clean the toilet is. If it’s bad, they have a terrible impression and will talk about you behind your back.
J.T.: As you’ve worked on this issue, how much has homelessness been linked to it?
J.S.: The homeless need to have access to toilets as well, and, of course, many cities do not have facilities, so typically a lot of countries are cutting back on budget and are closing down public toilets. I heard that the Portland Loo (Portland’s public toilet initiative) is open 24 hours and are doing a good job here. So there might be something we can all learn.
J.T.: Would you say that the issue of having good clean public toilets is a sanitation issue, but also a civil rights issue to some degree?
J.S.: I think that they just declared sanitation as a human right in the United Nations. I mean, you can’t live without it. Whatever you need for human survival is a necessary human right. Toilets extend human longevity by 20 years. The flush toilet extended our lives. According to some scientists, the flush toilet is the biggest medical advancement of the last century. They could have said vaccination; they could have said a lot of other medical advances, but they said the flush toilet. It is the cheapest preventative medicine. The problem with health care is that it’s driven by vested interests to cure people when they are sick, not to prevent them from being sick. Investment in the toilets has to be viewed as the cheapest health care and hygiene tool.
J.T.: In the developing world there’s a litany of issues that need to be addressed. How do you make sure the issue of clean toilets is included along with issues like education and these others?
J.S.: In the beginning, they refused to talk about it because water and sanitation were lumped together. They taught that sanitation is a water issue. It is not. Water is a supply issue. If you can supply clean water everybody knows how to use water. Sanitation is a behavioral change issue, which requires a lot of effort. If you lump water and sanitation together, it’s like putting your grandmother next to Miss Universe, where the glamorous part of it takes all the attention. The money goes to water. In fact, water and sanitation engineers know very little about poverty and rural sanitation. So what we need is for us to decouple sanitation from water, which is what the WTO seeks to do.
J.T.: In the U.S., it seems that we’ve largely privatized toilets, is that the right approach? Should this be treated more as a public good?
J.S.: I think that as long as people have access. Like they say, it doesn’t matter if the cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice. A lot of cities actually have laws that the private retailers have to open up their toilets for public use regardless if it’s their customers, and surprisingly there’s a law in America that says that too. I think that’s good because then the market actually will supply the toilets. Of course, after closing hours you need to government to come in and help. I think that’s where the Portland Loo is important.
J.T.: Are there any cities or countries that are really serving as a model for addressing this issue?
J.S.: I think in Singapore, we have 60,000 public toilets. Almost all of them are at commercial shopping centers. It’s a very dense city and we have no shortage of public toilets. So it’s a good model. The other advantage is that a lot of businesses are open 24 hours so you can actually have access to them. So you might want to have some outlets that are open 24 hours.
J.T.: In the developing world, are there any countries doing good work?
J.S.: In the developing world, there are good models. And we find that market-based solutions are very important. Because giving people toilets is not the solution. It’s not scalable. Once you stop giving, then that’s the end. And how about maintenance? People have to take ownership of their toilet, and that’s when they buy it with their money.
The myth that the poor have no money is only pertaining to the poorest of the poor, very destitute people. Most people have some money, otherwise they would never have survived. They would not even have bought food. But if you go to a slum, every child and adult has a cellphone, so that proves that a large majority, other than the destitute, actually have money. There are people who are just about to die from starvation, and that’s not possible to solve by a market-based approach. But almost all of them can buy an $8 toilet, or a $35 toilet, and if you design it according to the affordability, all you have to do is give them access.
Right now, about 290 SaniShop factories have been set up, in Asia and Africa.
J.T.: The Gates foundation has shown some interest in this. What has been their involvement so far?
J.S.: They’ve funded us for our advocacy effort. In the past I was doing it without any public relations and not in a structured manner, and it’s already gone very well. They thought, if we give you some money and some consultants it might be better. Last year we reached one billion people thanks to their help.