Strategic lessons from toilet paper

Toilet paper is destroying North American forests – and with it, resources that are vital to the continent’s Indigenous Peoples. John Dyer reports.

Image credit: kropekk_pl via Pixabay

Environmentalists recently took aim at toilet paper.

In a report entitled “The Issue with Tissue”, the National Resources Defense Council and blasted Procter & Gamble, a multinational company that makes Charmin, America’s leading brand of toilet paper, as well as consumer goods giant Kimberly-Clark and paper manufacturer Georgia-Pacific.

“Stop flushing forests down the toilet,” said National Resources Defense Council activist Shelley Vinyard in a press release.

Three rolls of toilet paper per week

The average American uses three rolls of toilet paper a week, the report found. The three companies do little or nothing to curb that excess despite evidence that it is hurting the planet, the environmentalists argued. They don’t even use recycled materials in their toilet paper, the report claimed. Instead, the companies use paper from clear-cut ancient trees in the Canadian boreal forest, the so-called “Amazon of the North.”

“This destructive ‘tree-to-toilet pipeline’ does massive harm to Indigenous Peoples and iconic species like the boreal caribou and Canada lynx,” the press release said.

Hundreds of indigenous communities affected

The Canadian boreal forest is home to more than 600 indigenous communities. “As Indigenous Peoples in the boreal forest, we live on the food from our land,” said Deputy Grand Chief Mandy Gull of the Cree Nation. “The forest is our supermarket, with aisles of berries and meats and fish.” International Program Director Tzeporah Berman said the findings should shock consumers.

“As a Canadian, I am horrified,” she said. “These forests are some of the most important intact ecosystems left on earth—they are the breeding grounds for the majority of North America’s songbirds and home to threatened species such as boreal caribou—and we are flushing them down the toilet?”

Report making headlines but companies stay silent

Ohio-based Proctor & Gamble and others didn’t issue a statement in response to the study. But coverage of the report in the financial press will likely put pressure on executives to at least consider the researchers’ findings.

“Does P&G deserve an ‘F’ for toilet paper sustainability?” was the headline in the Cincinnati Business Courier.

“Fight Climate Change: Use Recycled Toilet Paper and Less of It,” wrote Bloomberg.

This kind of corporate public relations disaster could become increasingly common in the future.

Many consumers are eager for sustainable choices, according to the Nielsen Global Corporate Sustainability Report. More investors are reportedly seeking sustainable options for their portfolios. More companies, including most recently those in the fashion and cosmetics industries – such as Adidas’ recycled ocean plastic sneakers – are marketing themselves as more sustainable.

‘Convergence of sustainability’

The phenomenon could reflect a trend towards what the researchers in the Harvard Business Review recently called the “convergence” of sustainability.

In economics, the concept of convergence is when multiple market forces – like, say, labour markets in different regions – merge with each other and become part of a unified whole, often stabilizing prices.

For years, many executives considered environmental, social and governance, or ESG, goals in business “at the margin” of their work, wrote London Business School Professor Ioannis Ioannou and Harvard Business School Professor George Serafeim. Others, meanwhile, have long thought ESG goals promised big dividends because “doing good” often resulted in “doing well.”

But after looking at almost 4,000 companies, the researchers found that sustainability had become a strategic necessity for companies throughout the world economy.

Sustainability good for the bottom line

“Our exploratory results confirm that the adoption of strategic sustainability practices is significantly and positively associated with both return on capital and market valuation multiples, even after accounting for the focal firm’s past financial performance,” the authors wrote.

Vinyard suggested that Proctor & Gamble embrace that advice.

“Procter & Gamble has the innovation resources to bring Charmin into the 21st century,” she said, referring to the most popular toilet paper brand in the United States “The question is whether the company will embrace its reputation as an innovator to create sustainable products using recycled material instead of clear-cut trees.”

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