The Sanitation Economy: The New Economy Set to Tackle SDG 6.2
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Not only can business be a part of the solution that provides clean water and sanitation for all, but it can profit at the same time.

The Sanitation Economy monetizes toilet provision, products and services, biological resources, health data and information, to provide benefits across business and society.

This new economy is made up of three distinct sub-economies: the Toilet Economy, the Circular Sanitation Economy, and the Smart Sanitation Economy.

The news often reports the desperate lack of access to safe sanitation faced by a staggering 2.3 billion people globally. Around the world, one in three people still lacks access to a toilet, and hundreds of thousands of children die annually from diarrheal diseases caused by poor water and sanitation. There is an abundance of heart wrenching stories to share.

To address this challenge, in 2015, the global community adopted a Sustainable Development Goal dedicated to clean water and sanitation (SDG 6). Target 6.2 under this Goal calls for, “by 2030, achieving access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all and ending open defecation.” This article discusses the untapped opportunity for the private sector to help achieve SDG target 6.2. Not only can business be a part of the solution that provides clean water and sanitation for all, but it can make a profit at the same time.

So, where do we begin? From the outset, overcoming this global issue is daunting. Where do we look for the solution, when the issue includes complex cultural nuances, societal taboos, and the general ‘yuck’ factor?

To start, the global business community and savvy entrepreneurs can take a closer look at the bottom of our toilets. Yes, it may sound unpalatable, but there is method in the madness.

The Sanitation Economy presents vast potential for global economic growth, and has the ability to transform future cities, communities, and businesses.

In its latest report, the Toilet Board Coalition (TBC) introduces the ‘Sanitation Economya market that presents vast potential for global economic growth, and has the ability to transform future cities, communities, and businesses. This new economy monetizes toilet provision, products and services, biological resources, health data and information, to provide benefits across business and society.

This research shows that the market could be worth US$62 billion in India alone, by conservative estimates; it could turn trillions of liters of human waste into valuable biological resources each year; and it could hold a vast reservoir of information about human health.

It is rare today to find white spaces in the economy open for business and innovation, and that address such an urgent global challenge as outlined in SDG 6.

The Sanitation Economy is made up of three distinct sub-economies. They include: the Toilet Economy, which encompasses toilet product and service innovation that provides toilets fit for purpose for all environments and incomes; the Circular Sanitation Economy, which means toilet resources (commonly known as human waste) feed into a circular economic system that replaces traditional waste management; and finally, the Smart Sanitation Economy, which involves digitized sanitation systems that optimize data for operating efficiencies, maintenance, plus consumer use and health information insights.

The Toilet Economy

Providing basic access to a toilet and the sanitation systems that safely manage human waste is a serious issue. Access to “sanitation for all” made the least progress during the era of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that spanned from 2000 to 2015. As a result, the world is now watching, and acting, to ensure progress over the next 15 years under the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its SDGs.

The Government of India is leading the way with its ‘Swachh Bharat Mission – Clean India Campaign’, which aims to provide universal access to all Indians in just five years (2014-2019), become open defecation-free, and build more than 100 million toilets. The campaign is making swift progress in providing access to toilets and awareness is high among citizens. China is now following in its footsteps.

It is not just national governments rising up. Citizen movements are also encouraging behavior change. In November 2016, the Global Citizen Festival was held in Mumbai, India, to put a spotlight on the need for sanitation for all. About 100,000 citizens gathered to listen to an impressive mix of celebrities, musical artists, and sanitation experts – including Coldplay, JAY-Z, and famous Bollywood stars about the importance of sanitation. In 2017, Bollywood launched ‘Toilet: A Love Story,’ a film about a woman who turns down a marriage proposal until her husband-to-be agrees to buy her a toilet. Such cultural activities help educate people about the importance of sanitation and drive behavior change alongside the creation of toilets.

The Circular Sanitation Economy

The past decade has seen business embrace sustainable development, where private sector practices address growing constraints on resources and new responsibilities for the customers and communities they serve. Leading corporations have found new market opportunities by looking at where their unique value propositions can also address unmet needs, and market failures that underpin the SDGs, where no one is left behind. The circular economy – the mining of waste and available resources to save costs and generate new revenue – is trendy among global businesses.

Sanitation can play an important role in a circular economy and corporate sustainability strategies, and if viewed through a circular economy lens, become an important pool of valuable resources. If what goes into our toilets has value, those interested in extracting that value will invest in ensuring that the resource is properly managed.

And there is no shortage of this resource. Approximately 7.6 billion people globally create excreta every day, to the tune of 3.8 trillion liters of resources – an amount that is growing with our population growth. These resources, when captured and mined, present very interesting biological resource use cases.

For instance, entrepreneurs and businesses are starting to monetize these resources and are creating valuable products such as nutrient-rich organic fertilizers, electricity, bio-fuel, water, and proteins. All of these products were previously, and in many cases, are still, flushed down the toilet. From manufacturing operations to municipalities, there is growing demand for these new, renewable resources and organic or biological products. They help fill food, fiber, agriculture, animal feed, consumer goods and healthcare needs.

The Smart Sanitation Economy

The future of industry is being shaped by what the World Economic Forum is calling the fourth industrial revolution – a digital economy. This is characterized by a fusion of technologies that blur the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres.

Sanitation and toilets have a place here, too. There is a key opportunity now to apply new technologies and digitization to sanitation to create new business opportunities as future sanitation systems are developed. While the Smart Sanitation Economy is the least developed area of the Sanitation Economy to date, we believe that it could be a game changer for how we view our sanitation and toilets into the future. It can provide valuable data and insights on health, and for sanitation system operating efficiencies.

A Call to Action – Making ‘Your Business’ Business

The Sanitation Economy is the business response to a global crisis and resulting market and societal failures. With collaboration and investment on all fronts, there is an opportunity to turn the world’s toilet-related resources and data into valuable, life-saving resources and critical information.

This is our call to action to the global business community – because sanitation is every business’s business. It’s time to step up and be counted.

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