Having to walk two hours for contaminated water from the river – this is the harsh reality for up to 2.2 billion people across the world. With the sale of every bottle of its water, social start up share donates 20 liters of potable water to people in need. Schulz spoke to the co-company founder Ben Unterkofler about the 1 + 1 Principle and the battle against plastic waste.
Schulz: What happens when I buy a bottle of share water?
Ben Unterkofler: The idea that underpins our enterprise is that consumers share an equivalent product – or service – with another person with every product they purchase from share. The consumer, for example, treats his or herself to a healthy and delicious snack and with their purchase automatically donates a meal to another person. Or they buy a fabulous care product and donate a bar of soap. Or, as mentioned, they donate a day’s worth of drinking water for every bottle of mineral water purchased. We call this the "1 + 1 Principle".
How does the donated drinking water reach people in need?
Obviously, we don’t send share water bottles to countries suffering from a shortage of drinking water. Instead, jointly with our partners Aktion gegen Hunger and FundiFix, we finance the building and upkeep of wells to give people sustainable access to clean drinking water. Per bottle of water sold, the equivalent of at least 20 liters of water from a well is enabled.
Why is it so important to support people in gaining access to clean drinking water?
Access to clean drinking water is among a person’s basic requirements to lead a life in dignity. Contaminated water causes the spread of diseases from which an especially large number of children suffer. Clean drinking water is extraordinarily important to battle these diseases. Moreover, clean water improves the hygienic standard, and this goes hand in hand with a significantly higher quality of life.
How does access to clean water change the lives of people?
During project visits we often hear that it makes a huge difference in people’s daily lives. It’s hard to imagine for us, but without wells people sometimes have to walk two or more hours to get to drinking water – and this water is often from rivers and thus contaminated. Having a well in the vicinity rapidly improves living conditions.
What successes have you already been able to achieve?
Since we started out in March 2018, we have already been able to complete 60 well projects that have given 20.000 people access to clean drinking water. Beyond this, we have donated 5.2 million meals and handed out 2.3 million bars of soap – frequently in combination with hygiene training. These are wonderful numbers; we are pleased to have been able to help so many people in such a short space of time.
Is it worthwhile for you as well?
From an entrepreneurial perspective the expansion of our product portfolio, which we managed to double thus far, has been a huge success. Moreover, we have tapped into new distribution channels over the past year. Our products are offered, for example, at Eurowings, REWE To Go and in the meantime also at BILLA and Merkur in Austria. The bigger our market presence, the easier it is for us to reach people in need and do even more good.
Your vision is to build a social enterprise that merges social responsibility with economic viability. What does that mean?
We think that the 1 + 1 Principle is the purest form of social entrepreneurship. We have obligated ourselves to provide social benefit for each sold product even if we post losses in the process. We had a very successful start – both from a social and economic point of view. With share we demonstrate that economic viability and social benefit are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, at least in the medium term, they can actually be mutually beneficial.
Do you think that it would make sense for such a model to become standard in the business world?
By all means as long as – in addition to returns – there is also a social objective that the enterprise is pursuing. But a lot of time will pass before this becomes normal. We do, however, already see that the coming generation – customers and employees alike – expect a greater measure of corporate social responsibility. Businesses need to rethink the way they do business and we see that this is happening.
You are the first brand on the German market that offers bottles made of plastic waste. What prompted your decision to go down this road?
With our decision to go with 100% recyclate we want to get the ball rolling and set an example for other businesses in Germany. And I think that we are well under way: In the meantime, a few other companies have also caught up with us by switching to recyclate.
Why do the others still struggle with this idea?
Recyclate is rarely used for two reasons: On the one hand, it is cheaper to produce new plastic than to collect and recycle old plastic. It may sound crazy but, unfortunately, that’s the way it is. On the other hand, currently there is not that much recyclate for sale, which may have to do with the fact that the current demand is not high enough. This can – and should – change in the future.
What could change if all PET manufacturers would switch to working with recycled plastic?
The demand for recyclate would increase and thus also the supply. It would make the entire process more economical and we could dispense with huge amounts of new plastic. Apart from share water your product range also includes soaps and organic nut bars whose sale entails the donation of a meal.
Are you planning additional products?
Theoretically the 1+ 1 Principle could be applied to all areas of our lives. In other words, it’s possible to offer a social alternative to a cell phone contract or to clothing. Generally there are no limits although there are some products that we at share would never get involved with, alcohol and tobacco products among them.
Are you also planning products in the education sector?
We are in fact thinking very hard about how to redouble our efforts in support of educational projects. The idea thus far is focused, for example, on "social stationary" which could be used to support school children with school supplies.