Trees for tissues: a trade off that American companies can end

By changing how they make tissue products, American companies can help protect the boreal forest.


Sammy Herdman

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

As the impacts of climate change – from  wildfires and hurricanes to droughts and heat waves – become ever more disastrous and apparent, some American companies remain complicit in degrading one of our greatest and most promising natural climate solutions, the boreal forest. Circling the Northern hemisphere in a ring of spruce, firs and pines, the boreal forest is the most carbon-rich ecosystem on Earth. In Canada, the boreal forest covers more than 1 billion acres — making it the largest intact forest remaining on our planet.

The Canadian boreal forest hosts an incredible ecosystem — it’s a refuge for such species as caribou, cougars and grizzly bears, whose habitats have dwindled further south. Billions of birds, nearly half of all avian species in North America, breed in the boreal before flying southward into our backyards and parks each winter. Indigenous Peoples have lived in balance with these ecosystems for millennia — stewarding the land as well as relying upon it for sustenance and their traditions.

Photo credit: Ethan Gosnell, Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

However, the Canadian boreal is being cut down at a rate of one million acres per year. That’s 1.5 football fields’ worth of forest every single minute. Many of the trees are logged, pulped and turned into toilet paper, tissues and paper towels that are sold in the United States. It’s a wildly unsustainable pipeline — trees that grew for centuries are destroyed in hours, then turned into products that are used for seconds. When the boreal is logged, the rich soil and peatlands that have been storing the carbon captured by trees for centuries are disturbed. In total, the degradation of the boreal results in an average of 26 million metric tons of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere each year, which is roughly equivalent to the emissions of 5.5 million passenger vehicles per year. Regardless of claims to the contrary, no amount of saplings planted amongst the graveyards of tree trunks can offset the damage done to our climate from clear-cutting the boreal.

The solution is simple: Reduce the amount of logging in the boreal forest. Trees are not a necessary ingredient in paper production. In fact, companies can reduce waste and their reliance on trees by using recycled materials to make paper products. Another method of relieving pressure on forests is using alternative materials to make paper products, such as certified sustainable bamboo, wheat straw, hemp or cotton. Many companies already offer paper products made of 100% recycled materials or bamboo and as a result have received high scores for sustainability on the annual NRDC Issue with Tissue Scorecard.

Despite these feasible alternatives, the majority of the at-home tissue market is dominated by brands with a heavy reliance on virgin forest fibers, which are fibers made from freshly harvested trees. Trees belong in the forest, not in our toilets. This is why we’ve asked Amazon, Walmart, Costco, Procter & Gamble, which produces Charmin, and Georgia-Pacific, the manufacturer of Angel Soft, to relieve pressure on all forests, and especially the boreal forest by making their tissue and paper products with less virgin wood pulp and more sustainable materials instead. 

Logging operation in the boreal forest. Photo credit: River Jordan, NRDC

Specifically, we’re calling on tissue product manufacturers to increase the amount of forest-free fibers in their tissue products by 50% (or more) by 2025. We’re also asking the companies to ensure their wood pulp suppliers only develop Indigenous territory if given the free, prior and informed consent of Indigenous and forest-dependent communities— a stipulation that ensures that the people most likely to be directly affected by logging activity are involved in making decisions about what happens to their land.

Kimberly-Clark, producer of Scott and Kleenex, is proving to be a leader on this issue in the at-home tissue market. Those brands have made commitments that outpace all of their competitors, including a pledge to reduce their natural forest footprint by 50% by 2025. That means that they’re incorporating more alternative and recycled fibers into their tissue products. Although this goal is not as ambitious as it could be, it is an incremental step toward protecting our forests.

It’s time for our nation’s top tissue and toilet paper manufacturers and retailers to demonstrate a commitment to their consumers and communities. To protect our climate, our animals and people all around the world, Amazon, Walmart, Costco, Procter & Gamble and Georgia-Pacific must agree to protect our forests.


Sammy Herdman

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

Ellen Montgomery

Director, Public Lands Campaign, Environment America Research & Policy Center

Ellen runs campaigns to protect America's beautiful places, from local beachfronts to remote mountain peaks. Prior to her current role, Ellen worked as the organizing director for Environment America’s Climate Defenders campaign. Ellen lives in Denver, where she likes to hike in Colorado's mountains.