The Power of Soap to Shape the World
Clean the World Protects the Planet and Saves Lives With Discarded Soap
Devin: As you think about how you got here, what do you think of as your superpower?
Shawn: Having your passion of your mission, getting visuals of faces and people in areas that you are protecting and saving. That is really a driver for me. I’m not going to stop. I’m going to be relentless in our pursuit of helping and impacting and changing the world and saving lives because of the people that are on the other end of it.
Clean the World recycles used soap from hotels and gets it into the hands of vulnerable people who need it. Clean the World has many impact products that offer sustainable, socially conscious solutions to the global marketplace, aiming to prevent the millions of deaths caused by hygiene-related illnesses each year. Since inception, the organization has served more than 15 million individuals, distributed 68 million bars of soap, provided 30,000 showers, distributed 5 million hygiene kits, and diverted over 23 million pounds of waste from landfills around the world.
Shawn Seipler’s above introduction to his social enterprise Clean the World explains in simple terms what the business does and how it helps people.
The Story of Clean the World
Leading a global sales team for a tech company, Shawn found himself in hotel rooms about four nights per week. One night, out of curiosity, he called the front desk to ask what happened to the soap and shampoo he didn’t use. “They said it was thrown away.”
He couldn’t have guessed then what would result.
“In 2009, we figured out that if all hotels across the United States were throwing their soap away, we were throwing away a million bars of soap every day,” Shawn says. “And if all hotels across the globe were throwing their soap away, it was probably two or three million bars of soap a day.”
That gave him a clear vision of the supply side of an economics equation.
“We found in 2009 that there were nine thousand children under the age of five dying every single day to pneumonia and diarrheal disease, and number one and number two leading cause of death among children worldwide,” he said. “All these studies showed that if we just gave those children soap and taught them how and when to wash their hands, we could cut those deaths in half.”
This second phase of research fixed the demand side of his economics equation.
He remembers the first efforts to make soap from soap:
I had to corral a bunch of family members to get into a single car garage in downtown Orlando, Florida, where we sat around on upside-down pickle buckets with potato peelers, scraping the outside of bars of soap that we were collecting from hotels across Orlando. We had a meat grinder where we grind it all up. We had cookers where we were cooking it into a paste and we had these big wood salt molds where we put wax paper down and put the soap paste on and more wax paper and we top it and clamp it. And it would dry overnight.
I'm half German, half Puerto Rican, so it was my Puerto Rican family members that were the ones that were willing to come into this garage with it. The power would cut in the garage every 30 minutes or so, which was a really big issue because the salsa music would stop playing. And so the workforce would stop if there was no music playing.
We had to figure out how many cookers and grinders and fans you could have on.
Initially set up as a nonprofit, Shawn discovered a flaw. “I learned that in that nonprofit world of just asking people for money for your mission. I wasn’t very good at that.”
Shawn recognized that he needed to create a different business model.
He began to see that collecting waste from hotels was adding value for the hotel chains in several dimensions. By diverting waste from landfills, hotels could add to their sustainability efforts. Saving lives with soap also generated corporate social responsibility benefits. Additionally, many of the back-of-house staff members had roots in the countries Clean the World was supporting, helping the hotels build relationships with their essential staff.
“So we kind of bundled all of that up, and we went to the hotel base, and we said, we think that you should pay for this program,” Shawn says. It took some time, but ultimately he succeeded after reminding clients repeatedly, “We are really protecting the planet. We are really saving lives.”
He got real traction in 2010. “We just so happen to be in Haiti right after the earthquake, and CBS Evening News called me and said, ‘Hey, are you here?’ ‘I am, I’m handing soap out in a tent city,’” he says, noting that they came right down to film him in action. “They dubbed me the Pied Piper of soap.”
The Power of Soap
Shawn remembers his first trip to deliver soap to a group in Haiti:
We only had two thousand bars of soap for ten thousand people. And one by one, we had mothers that came down that said that they lost a child, they've lost another child. And they talked about in the past or taught them about the importance of soap and why and what it means and when. You should wash your hands before you eat, before you cook and after you go to the restroom and those types of things. I remember handing the soap out and that experience and everybody just dug into those boxes like it was food and they hadn't eaten for four weeks. It was just so heartbreaking. But it was also so motivating for me that we were going to come back and we were going to send as much soap as we possibly could to that region and to that country.
Shawn has owned that commitment. “Since then have sent upwards of four or five million bars of soap to the country to that region.”
The mission trips have evolved a bit. They feature “Super Soap” and “Super Water,” superheroes who fight germs onstage in skits.
Having performed the program in many countries, including Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, the Dominican Republic and India, they measure consistent results. “We see 50 percent decreases in diarrheal disease. We see 50 percent increases in school attendance.”
He notes that in a partnership with nonprofit giant World Vision, which added fresh water and toilets, there was a 98 percent reduction in diarrheal disease.
Shawn works to make Clean the World’s work sustainable so that communities don’t quickly revert to past behavior after it’s gone. They organize soap-making and purchasing programs to enable people to affordably get the soap they need going forward.
Shawn says that he is driven by his sense of purpose and mission and consciously maintains that orientation in his work.
How to Develop a Purpose Orientation As a Superpower
Shawn reflects on the faces of the children he saw on his first trip to Haiti as he delivered soap. When things get difficult—and he acknowledges they do—he focuses on those faces and remembers the purpose of his work.
When the pandemic shut down travel almost entirely in the spring of 2020, Clean the World’s supply of soap and primary revenue stream dried up. Tough times were in store for the enterprise.
Shawn made the difficult decision to lay off a third of the staff and, weeks later, had to do it again.
In that mode, he stayed focused on the mission and kept working. Before long, he got a request from shelters in Las Vegas for hygiene kits. Shawn and his team developed a covid-safe program for small family groups to assemble hygiene kits 100 at a time at home.
Since then, he’s been able to bring back everyone who wanted to return to work and more. The company is thriving again. He credits his purpose orientation with helping the business through those difficult times.
He notes that service doesn’t just help the people we serve, but it changes us:
When you start looking at historical figures, you look at Princess Diana, you look at Mother Teresa, you look at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. You look at these people whose love in action, whose service was standing up for social justice, feeding the hungry, holding the babies, the AIDS babies, when no one else wanted to touch it, just living a life of service.
With that service comes two awesome things. One serving and loving somebody else and helping that person in need. But the other big thing that also comes out of that is what it does to you internally—the thing that it turns on inside of you when you are helping and loving and serving others. It's proven scientifically, it's proven that the act of actually getting something for somebody else does more internally for you than actually buying something for yourself when you are helping and loving and giving.
Shawn’s advice is to find your purpose and act on it. “We’re all charged with loving somebody with helping somebody.”
The small things we do matter, too. Volunteering at the food pantry, sitting with a senior, and other simple acts are important. “That’s serving a major purpose,” he says.
His final advice is, “Find out what your service is in the act of loving somebody; find anything and just start doing it.”
By taking his advice, you can develop a purpose orientation as a superpower and do more good in the world.