Haunting Image Drives Reckitt Benckiser CEO to Clean up Poverty

Rakesh Kapoor, the chief executive of British consumer-products maker Reckitt Benckiser, recalls taking a train from his home in India's Uttar Pradesh state to a boarding school 250 kilometers (155 miles) away in New Delhi. Kapoor, then just 13, would look out as the plodding train approached the city, and see scores of people using the ground abutting the tracks as a toilet.

"I have not taken that train for 20 years but I would not be surprised if that scene still exists," he said in a Sept. 3 interview in London.

Today, Kapoor can do something about it. Among his company's everyday household brands is Harpic, a toilet bowl cleaner that's sold in over 50 countries around the world, including India, where it's the market leader. In Kapoor's home state of Uttar Pradesh, less than 36 percent of households have toilets, according to a government survey cited by UNICEF. That means about 130 million people in the state must defecate in the open.

Urban areas like New Delhi have built community toilets over the past two decades, but a 2011 report from the Municipal Corporation of Delhi found them in deplorable condition, with most of them "practically unusable" -- forcing people out into the open. Such unhygienic conditions can promote water-borne diseases, which kill millions of people annually in developing countries, according to the World Health Organization.

"The community toilets are shambolic, not cleaned or upgraded," Kapoor, 53, said. "It's just bad."

Harpic, an RB business unit, is working with the Save the Children charity, has pledged to fund programs that will build and repair India's community toilets and perhaps, over time, develop more hygienic models. The drive is part of the Slough, England-based company's new sustainability plan. It also aims to reach one million African people by 2015 with safe-sex education through its Durex condom brand, and conduct bedside talks with new mothers in hospitals across 40 developing countries about keeping their babies clean -- complete with free samples of RB's Dettol soaps.

Tying it all together is the goal of deriving one-third of total sales from sustainable products by 2020, up from less than 10 percent today. The company also wants to cut by one-third the water impact per dose of its products, which means the water consumed in the manufacture, transport, and use of its products by consumers, who buy 15 million of RB's products every day.

That's much easier said than done, as it entails convincing people to, say, run their dishwashers on the eco-friendly cycle with less water. Companies such as Unilever, whose Sustainable Living Plan aims to change the habits of the 2 billion consumers who use its products daily, have not had much luck so far in that arena. “This is by far our biggest challenge and as yet we do not have a viable solution,” the company said in its April progress report (pdf), referring to its efforts to get people to take shorter or colder showers.

Reckitt Benckiser gives consumers an idea of what more they can do by plastering eco-friendly tips on the back of bottles of Harpic, Dettol, and other brands. Kapoor is also shifting more of RB's advertising budget away from traditional television ads and more towards educational campaigns, which have a more lasting influence. "Most consumers will not be convinced by a simple 'Turn off the tap' message," Dave Challis, RB's global sustainability director, said in an interview earlier this year.

Reckitt Benckiser's Finish brand is working with European dishwasher manufacturers to increase dishwasher penetration in the U.K., which at 40 percent of households lags far behind countries like Germany and France. The company even commissioned a study, published in the International Journal of Consumer Studies, showing that dishwashers use less water than washing up by hand. Almost half of Britons believe the opposite is true, the research found, which has hindered adoption.

While the water reduction target is ambitious -- Kapoor calls it a "stretch goal" -- the company's track record on sustainability is solid so far. In 2008, Reckitt Benckiser said it would reduce its total carbon footprint by 20 percent by 2020, and it ended up meeting that goal this year, eight years early.

Small tweaks to the design of French's mustard bottles and Harpic toilet cleaners reduced packaging size and helped make the difference, Challis said. But that begs the question, is a more sustainable product a better product? And in the drive to green its portfolio, might Reckitt Benckiser overlook or abort promising new products that gobble up too much water, or churn out too much greenhouse gases?

Challis said such a scenario could "potentially" happen, although he wouldn't elaborate. Kapoor said if one product puts "a negative foot forward," the company's product development teams work to offset that impact with a cleaner variation.

As is often the case with corporate sustainability programs, tradeoffs are necessary. But if it means that the unsanitary practices Kapoor witnessed on that rickety train to New Delhi years ago become a thing of the past, they're worth it.

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