Which toilet paper companies are taking steps to be more sustainable?

Wild forests shouldn't be logged for toilet paper. We asked six tissue paper companies to take steps to reduce their impact on forests and we've graded them on their progress.

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Each year, one million acres of the boreal forest are logged in Canada. That’s equal to 1.5 football fields worth of forest every minute. This threatens to release the 300 billion tons of carbon that the forest holds, which is nearly twice as much carbon as all of the recoverable oil reserves in the world.

Many of the trees, which may be decades or centuries old, are turned into virgin wood pulp. Virgin wood pulp is used to make at-home tissue products, such as toilet paper, facial tissues and paper towels.

In 2020, Canada exported $4.99 billion worth of wood pulp, 34% of which was exported to the U.S. Much of that wood pulp was processed, packaged and sold to American consumers as toilet paper rolls and tissue, sporting familiar brand names.

Grade for tissue paper companies (Amazon: F, Costco: F, G-P: F, K-C:F, P&G: D, Walmart: F
Alex Meltzer | TPIN

In December 2021, Environment America Research & Policy Center sent a letter to 6 manufacturers and distributors of tissue products, asking them to protect the forests in their supply chains by making three commitments:

  1. To reduce the amount of virgin wood pulp in their tissue products by 50% (or more) by 2025.
  2. To commit to reducing their scope 3 greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2030.
  3. To ensure their wood pulp suppliers only develop the land of Indigenous and forest-dependent communities if given their free, prior and informed consent.

One year later, Environment America Research & Policy Center graded these 6 toilet paper companies based on the progress they’ve made to protect forests, including the Canadian boreal forest.

Report Card

Kimberly-Clark: C

Paper Product Brands: Cottonelle, Scott, Kleenex

Compared to the other large at-home tissue companies we sent a letter to, Kimberly-Clark (K-C) is ahead in the move towards sustainability. K-C had already committed to reduce its use of “natural forest fibers” by 50% by 2025 from a 2011 baseline. For K-C, natural forest fibers “are primarily fibers from northern boreal and temperate forests,” i.e. freshly harvested or virgin forest fibers. As of 2021, K-C reduced its use of natural fibers by 34%, which is significantly greater progress than its competitors.

K-C has no explicit policy in place to protect the free, prior and informed consent of Indigenous communities, and while its goal to reduce scope 3 emissions by 20% by 2030 has a deadline and a specific goal, it is not as ambitious as we recommend.

Procter & Gamble: D

Paper Product Brands: Charmin, Bounty, Puffs

Procter & Gamble (P&G) shareholders and executives received a letter laying out five recommendations signed by Environment America Research & Policy Center and more than 100 environmental organizations in October of 2021. Since then, P&G has made progress on several fronts and has released an updated forestry practices report.

In 2022, P&G released a 100% bamboo toilet paper line, increasing the percentage of non-virgin wood fiber used in its at-home tissue products up from 0%. Although P&G has a long way to go to reduce its use of virgin wood pulp, this bamboo line is a step in the right direction.

P&G has a scope 3 emissions reduction goal to reduce emissions 40% (from a 2020 baseline) from specific parts of its value chain by 2030. This commitment is specific and has a deadline but falls short of the 50% reduction goal we recommend.

P&G has a policy to protect the free, prior and informed consent of Indigenous communities in the boreal forest. A recent report by Friends of the Earth implicated suppliers of P&G with human rights violations in Indonesia, where P&G sources palm oil. Although P&G has cut ties with the supplier, this report indicates that P&G’s free, prior and informed consent policy has not been effectively enforced across the board. We hope that P&G will continue to avoid business with problematic suppliers.

Amazon: F

Paper Product Brands: Presto!, 365

Amazon’s 2021 ESG report makes several references to reforestation and reducing deforestation, but according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, Amazon’s Presto! brand is made of virgin wood pulp fibers. When Amazon acquired Whole Foods, it also acquired the Whole Foods 365 Everyday Value 100% recycled toilet paper, which increased the company’s percentage of non-virgin wood pulp.

Amazon has an ambitious goal to have net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2040. While Amazon has calculated a portion of their scope 3 emissions, it left out the scope 3 emissions from its upstream ‘purchased goods and services,’ which is where the emissions from deforestation would be accounted for in the company’s carbon footprint. Until Amazon’s greenhouse gas reduction goals incorporate scope 3 emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, the company’s scope 3 goal is not sufficient.

Amazon has not publicly implemented a free, prior and informed consent policy.

Walmart: F

Paper Product Brand: Great Value

In an updated sustainability report, Walmart disclosed that 92% of the pulp and paper products made by its private-brand product suppliers who responded to a survey contain certified wood pulp or recycled content. However, this does not specifically reveal how many tissue products are made of recycled fiber or other types of non-virgin wood fibers.

Walmart has a time-bound and specific goal to reduce its scope 3 emissions by 2.5% each year by 2030, from a baseline year of 2015. This goal is not as ambitious as the 50% reduction goal we recommend. Also, the scope 3 emissions baseline is a rough estimate based on other companies and may be inaccurate for the largest retailer in the world.

According to Walmart, the company will be reassessing its overall scope 3 “footprint, action plan, measurement methodologies, and disclosures in 2022.” We hope to see scope 3 emissions reduction goals with greater accuracy and more ambition.

Walmart has no public policy relating to the free prior and informed consent of Indigenous or forest-dependent communities.

Costco: F

Paper Product Brand: Kirkland

Costco’s sustainability goals for their tissue products emphasize procuring certified wood pulp and using recycled materials where feasible. However, Costco has no time-bound commitments to decrease its use of virgin wood pulp in its at-home tissue products.

At the company’s annual shareholder meeting in January of 2022, 69.9% of Costco shareholders voted yes on a resolution to have Costco set a carbon emissions reduction goal of net-zero by 2050, including tracking and setting goals to reduce its scope 3 emissions. Recently, Costco announced that these Scope 3 reduction goals will be set in 2023.

According to Costco’s environmental and stewardship goals, the company wants to work with suppliers that ensure the free, prior and informed consent of Indigenous people. However, there is no publicly available timetable or roadmap to achieving this.

Georgia-Pacific: F

Paper Product Brands: Angel Soft, Quilted Northern, Brawny

Georgia-Pacific (G-P) has not disclosed what percentage of its tissue products are made from non-virgin wood fibers. Nor does G-P have a publicly available policy to reduce its scope 3 emissions or protect the free prior and informed consent of Indigenous groups and forest-dependent communities. If G-P has made any progress since receiving our letter, it is not public.

How can companies improve their grade?

Reduce their use of virgin wood pulp

The best way to reduce pressure on our forests, and thus mitigate carbon emissions from forest degradation and deforestation is to reduce the use of virgin wood pulp to make tissues, toilet paper and other paper products. There are a wide variety of alternative options. Recycled wood fibers are the most sustainable material, because in addition to reducing pressure on forests, they divert waste from the landfill. Among others, sustainably sourced bamboo, hemp and wheat straw fibers are potential materials. The transition from virgin wood fibers will not, and likely cannot, happen overnight. For an A grade, companies should:

● Use some amount of non-virgin wood pulp in at-home tissue products. Either by incorporating non-virgin wood pulp into many of their products, such as K-C, or by testing out sustainable materials as new product lines, such as P&G.

● Make a commitment to incorporate or increase the amount of non-virgin wood pulp into its at-home tissue products.

● Have that commitment be specific, ambitious (50% or more), and with a deadline (2025 or sooner).

Reduce their scope 3 emissions

We also asked companies to commit to reducing their scope 3 emissions by 50% by 2030. Scope 3 emissions are all of the greenhouse gas emissions that a company produces indirectly, including ‘upstream emissions’ (the greenhouse gas emissions caused by extracting resources, transporting those resources to a processing plant, etc.) and ‘downstream emissions’ (the greenhouse gas emissions caused by consumers driving to the store to buy a product, using it, and the emissions released by the product once it is disposed of in a landfill). The vast majority of most companies’ greenhouse gas emissions are categorized as scope 3 emissions. Walmart estimated that 95% of its greenhouse gas emissions fell into this category. Logging a forest for virgin wood pulp creates scope 3 emissions, which companies could significantly reduce by using alternative, sustainable fibers.

Strong scope 3 emissions reduction plans are imperative to mitigating the worst effects of climate change. Large companies’ have an outsized impact on our climate, and as a result, an outsized opportunity to help fight climate change. With an environmentally focused, forward-thinking attitude, companies can do what they have done decade after decade: innovate and move our society forward. This time, in a more sustainable direction. For an A grade, companies should:

● Is specific and measurable.

● Is time bound, with a reasonable deadline.

● Is sufficiently ambitious (aiming to reduce emissions by 50% and incorporating the “purchased goods and services category” into the scope 3 emissions reduction plan).

Implement a Free, Prior and Informed Consent Policy

The free, prior and informed consent of Indigenous and forest-dependent communities that have ties to forests and the areas surrounding them is important. Overlooking the free, prior and informed consent of a group that lives closely with the environment is an indicator that environmental degradation will ensue, harming ecosystems, the people who rely on that land and, in the case of deforestation and forest degradation, our climate. Forests that are owned legally or customarily by Indigenous communities are deforested half as much as other forests. For an A grade, companies should:

● Have a free, prior and informed consent policy that applies to every supplier.

● Have an accessible, clear mechanism for communities whose FPIC has not been secured to submit grievances and receive reparations and compensation.

Writing a free, prior and informed consent policy doesn’t mean that it will be implemented. Sometimes, a tissue company’s suppliers neglect free, prior and informed consent policies. In these cases, as soon as the transgressions are reported, the tissue company should take action immediately – to investigate, provide reparations and cut ties with the supplier. If a tissue company does not take immediate and decisive action when dealing with free, prior and informed consent policy transgressions, they cannot receive an A grade.

The at-home tissue industry has a long way to go to become environmentally responsible. For consumers looking to purchase sustainable toilet paper and tissue products, check out the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Issue with Tissue Scorecard or read Sustainable Shopping: A consumer’s guide to purchasing wood products.
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Authors

Sammy Herdman

Save The Boreal Forest Campaign, Associate, Environment America Research & Policy Center

Sammy runs the Save the Boreal Forest campaign for Environment America, calling on American corporations to stop degrading forests that are critical for the climate, biodiversity and people. Sammy grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, but now lives in Denver. She enjoys snowboarding, camping and reading.

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