Consider this the next time you buy toilet paper. 

If you’re like most American consumers your toilet paper was recently a decades- or centuries-old tree in Canada’s boreal forest that was cut along with some one million acres last year. The chlorine and other chemicals used to make it a sinless, fluffy white devastate the environment. 

Worst of all, says Jennifer Skene of the Natural Resources Defense Counsel, you’re flushing a vital resource for combating climate change down the toilet — in the form of trees absorbing carbon — mostly because advertising has convinced you that you should. 

The good news: green alternatives exist that cost just a bit more. The bad: They’re making little headway with consumers, according to industry executives who spoke with Karma, despite a crop of hip, millennial-focused startups hawking toilet paper, tissues and paper towels made from greener sources. 

Your TP Most Likely Deserves an F

Skene’s recent paper for the NRDC paints a bleak picture of the environmental effects of decades of marketing-driven American consumer behavior. Canada’s far northern forests hold perhaps 12% of the planet’s carbon, and are home to indigenous communities and wildlife species. Clear cutting for so-called virgin fiber — that becomes toilet paper, tissue and paper towels — leaves forests struggling to regrow, sometimes for decades. Scientists have found long-lasting changes to the Canadian forests even after they’ve regrown. 

“Economic projections show that our demand for wood pulp is going to increase over the next few decades and we need to find ways to reduce pressure on these forests,” Skene told Karma. Saving the Canadian boreal isn’t the solution to climate change but, she says, we likely won’t solve climate change without it. “If we lose [the forest] we have almost certainly lost the climate battle.”

Skene and the NRDC decided to call attention to continued clearcutting in Canada partly because past promises, including government and industry agreements to mitigate logging effects, improve sourcing and protect wildlife have stalled or been broken. Consumer products companies like Procter & Gamble and Kimberly-Clark, paper makers like Georgia Pacific,  devote few of their vast resources to improving environmental impact or shifting consumer demand, NRDC says. 

Handing out grades for sustainability of various products on store shelves, NRDC gave the most popular brands like Charmin, Scott and Brawny Ds or Fs for using essentially no recycled material and continuing to bleach with chlorine.

“Economic projections show that our demand for wood pulp is going to increase over the next few decades and we need to find ways to reduce pressure on these forests.”

To a degree, big consumer products makers agree with NRDC’s point that consumers largely determine the marketplace for recycled versus tree-sourced paper.

“The consumer is king,” John Mulcahy, Georgia-Pacific’s vice president of sustainability, told Karma. The paper company, he points out, has been making toilet paper from recycled fibers for almost a century but sells most of that to restaurants, airports and other “away-from-home” markets. 

When consumers vote with their wallets at the supermarket, he said, they opt for white, fluffy paper made from trees. “We try to understand who our consumers are, what attributes are important to them and serve them in the most environmentally responsible way,” he said. He believes that the forestry practices in Canada strike the right balance in protecting the environment, wildlife, the rights of indigenous peoples and providing fiber to the paper markets. 

Procter & Gamble said in a statement emailed to Karma that buying a P&G brand such as Charmin toilet paper is a “responsible choice.” Aside from subscribing to certification authorities like the Forest Stewardship Council and Rainforest Alliance, P&G said it is working to develop non-wood fibers that it can use at scale and to plant trees and expand its sourcing from certified forests.

The American Forest & Paper Association’s website says the group is on its way to beating its goal of recovering more than 70% of paper for recycling by next year. In 1990, the group says, about 34% of paper was recovered for recycling.

A New Crop of Tree-Friendly Paper Brands

That’s despite the existence of plentiful alternatives that don’t cost much more than the leading brands and have shed the recycled reputation for being ugly, brown and sandpaper-y. Companies like Seventh Generation and Green Forest have been making tissues and toilet paper from recycled fiber for decades. Supermarket private label brands have invaded the space, albeit in a less green way, seizing some market share. And newer companies with cheeky marketing like Who Gives A Crap are testing subscription and online-only business models.

Founded in 2013 by two Australians and an American who raised money for their first batch of products on crowd-funding platform Indiegogo, Who Gives A Crap eschews traditional advertising and mostly draws customers through online buzz and word of mouth, says senior retention marketing manager Mike Altman. The company’s products are made of bamboo or post-consumer recycled fiber and ship directly to customers. 

“There is a growing consumer demand for post-consumer recycled fiber products made without trees, without wrapping in plastic,” Altman told Karma. “People are willing to purchase this type of product online. We’re still pretty early on but we’re seeing positive trends.” 

Among other differentiators like cute designs, the company donates 50% of its profits to improving sanitation in the developing world. Who Gives A Crap doesn’t release sales figures.

“There is a growing consumer demand for post-consumer recycled fiber products made without trees, without wrapping in plastic.”

Other companies hawking eco-friendly alternatives to traditional paper products include Cheeky Monkey (bamboo- and sugarcane-based toilet paper), Number Two (bamboo-based) and Tushy, which sells an attachment to turn your toilet into a bidet. The problem, says two longtime green industry executives, is overcoming entrenched consumer behavior and dealing with a paper supply chain that is wedded to the largest fiber buyers.

Green Alternatives Struggle With 2% Market Share

Advertising constantly hammers consumers that “you really want to buy the softest tissue as opposed to you really want to think about the environment and what the costs are to our few remaining boreal forests,” Martin Wolf, director of sustainability and authenticity at Seventh Generation told Karma. 

Add a broken recycling system that makes sourcing the kinds of recycled fibers best suited to toilet paper and tissues difficult or expensive and you have a recipe for inaction by large companies. There isn’t enough recycled fiber for the biggest brands to switch and that, perversely, allows the biggest brands to justify chopping down trees based on lack of consumer demand.

Allen Stedman, CEO of British Columbia-based Planet Inc. which owns the Green Forest brand that was awarded NRDC’s highest grades, agrees. He guesses that eco-friendly products have perhaps 2% of the market and if anything, it’s going in the wrong direction. 

Private-label brands from major supermarket chains are displacing Green Forest and Seventh Generation from shelves but are often not as eco-friendly. Both men agreed that the new startups, while innovative, aren’t likely to have a major impact on the overall market and bamboo and sugarcane, while better than chopping down old trees, aren’t as good for the environment as using post-consumer material.

Still, says Wolf, increasing awareness is allowing for meaningful changes, even at the largest companies. After Anglo-Dutch consumer goods giant Unilever purchased his firm in 2016, Wolf met with Unilever’s packaging engineers to compare how much recycled plastic each was using. Seventh Generation’s packaging was 86% recycled, Unilever’s was a paltry 1%. 

Today, says Wolf with a bit of pride, Unilever’s packaging now is half recycled material.