That toilet paper in your bathroom? It’s destroying some of the world’s most critical forests.
The coronavirus pandemic put toilet paper in the spotlight, but many shoppers don’t realize major brands like Charmin are exacerbating the world’s climate crisis by refusing to create more sustainable products.
By Tyson Miller, Forest Programs Director, Stand.earth
The amount of ink that has been shed about toilet paper since the coronavirus pandemic began is truly astounding.
There are the musings on what Freud would have said about our toilet paper panic. The in-depth explanations on how supply chain challenges are the real reason for TP scarcity. The articles making the case for bidets. The harrowing stories of workers risking their lives to keep TP factories running. The flood of embarrassing TP-themed PR pitches. And the much-needed resurgence of funny music videos and brazen bidet ads.
But that’s okay. During this time, as we focused on keeping our families healthy and safe, many of us took comfort in knowing that toilet paper — a commodity that connects humankind across many cultures — is something we could rely on.
It’s important to acknowledge that not everyone has unfettered access to these creature comforts. Many Indigenous communities continue to lack access to clean water, including more than 60 First Nations in Canada and the Navajo Nation in the U.S., and have implored outsiders to stay away during the pandemic. These issues left many asking a simple question: How can governments spend billions of dollars to support communities during the pandemic, when they previously claimed to be unable to fund solutions to these problems?
Even before the COVID-19 crisis, many households couldn’t afford the extra $5 for a sustainable TP brand, let alone $50 to upgrade their toilet with an attachable bidet. Instead, as U.S. unemployment claims broke records, millions of people who lost their jobs focused on buying whatever they can find on store shelves. The pandemic not only exposed the unreliability of global supply chains, but how millions of so-called “low skill” grocery store workers are actually an essential backbone to our economy. This workforce clearly deserves paid health care, paid sick time, and a living wage.
Global crises: Coronavirus & climate change
As the world holds its breath and waits for the peak in coronavirus deaths, many articles have drawn comparisons between the global response to coronavirus and how it differs drastically from our lack of a coordinated international effort to fight climate change.
Conversations are also starting to surface about the intersection between climate change and pandemics, in the form of forest destruction.
A number of researchers now say humanity’s destruction of biodiversity creates the conditions for viruses like coronavirus. Just last month, the International Union for Conservation of Nature formalized its policy on the importance of primary forests.
This policy confirms what many of us working in the environmental movement already know: We cannot solve the climate crisis, fix the biodiversity crisis, or prevent future public health crises without prioritizing the protection of forests.
Scientists are increasingly sounding the alarm over how the destruction of forests increases the likelihood that viruses will jump from wild animals to humans. Most of the world’s attention is focused on tropical forests like the Amazon, which are being destroyed at record rates for agriculture and other commodities, at the same time that oil spills are decimating water supplies for Indigenous communities.
Meanwhile, the loss of primary forests in the U.S. and Canada, which contribute to the spread of animal-borne pathogens like Lyme Disease, are also a very real concern. To make matters worse, logging in intact forests can make communities more susceptible to devastating fires and floods, which is why some people are now left asking how they are going to be able to safely sandbag while maintaining social distancing.
It’s time to have an honest conversation about toilet paper’s role in destroying forests.
The issue with tissue
A report published last year highlights how toilet paper brands are destroying North American forests and exacerbating the world’s climate crisis.
The Issue with Tissue reveals leading TP manufacturers use zero recycled content in their at-home toilet paper brands, instead relying on trees clear-cut from the boreal forest in Canada.
Not familiar with the boreal? Let me paint a picture. The boreal covers a broad swath of Canada and is the largest intact forest on Earth. Often called the “Amazon of the North”, the boreal stores more carbon per acre than almost any other forest type on Earth and is vital to mitigating the worst impacts of climate change.
It is home to over 600 Indigenous communities, as well as boreal caribou (aka reindeer), pine marten, and billions of songbirds. The loss of this intact forest is impacting the traditional ways of life for many Indigenous communities and driving the decline of caribou and other species. This is exactly the kind of forest we need to protect.
So why do manufacturers like Procter & Gamble, maker of America’s #1 toilet paper brand Charmin, continue to rely on fiber from the boreal to make their products?
Their refusal to create more sustainable toilet paper means that consumers are unwittingly complicit in destroying forests, despite continued pleas from environmental groups asking companies to come up with a solution to this tree-to-toilet pipeline.
Creating products that are better for the planet
Last fall, as I was deep in the negotiation process with Procter & Gamble executives trying to work out a solution to these challenges, none of us could have predicted where we’d be just six months later: the pandemic, the lockdowns, the toilet paper craze.
At that time, P&G executives wouldn’t provide a timetable for ensuring their fiber sourcing policies would be in line with thresholds necessary for the long-term survival of boreal caribou, a threatened species and indicator of forest health. They also refused to make time-bound commitments for adding recycled or alternative fibers like bamboo to their at-home toilet paper brands like Charmin, even though the company clearly has the resources and the means to create products that are better for the planet.
P&G executives claimed their customers care too much about softness to switch the formula for their TP. That’s simply unfounded.
Polling shows 85% of Americans want greener toilet paper, and the majority of consumers are concerned their products come from trees clearcut from ancient forests like the boreal.
If consumers know about toilet paper’s impact on forests, and if they have the purchasing power to choose a more sustainable brand, they choose recycled.
Intact forests = resilient communities
The coronavirus pandemic and the existential threat of climate change have many parallels, and many people much smarter than me have waxed poetic about how coronavirus holds key lessons in the fight against climate change. They point out that while many of us may be looking around and not seeing signs of a pandemic, the principle is the same: if we wait until we can see the impacts, it’s too late.
When you say it out loud, it seems obvious. Intact forests form the foundation of resilient communities, whether it’s mitigating against climate change or protecting communities against fires, floods, or the spread of disease.
As we emerge from the economic rout of coronavirus, it’s time to envision a new global paradigm. This current societal upheaval helps shed light on what’s important: how we can, and must, work together as global citizens to protect globally important forests, which in turn support resilient communities and prevent future crises.
It might seem small, but TP is a window into much bigger climate issues. During this strange and intense time, we need major toilet paper manufacturers to lead the way in becoming true environmental champions, and commit to stop cutting down globally important forests like the boreal just so we can wipe our butts.
It’s time to stop flushing our forests.
Tyson Miller is the Forest Campaigns Director at Stand.earth, an international environmental organization known for its groundbreaking research and successful corporate and citizen campaigns to create new policies and industry standards in protecting forests, advocating the rights of Indigenous peoples, and protecting the climate. Miller has worked to develop environmental initiatives to advance large landscape conservation and sustainability in the forest products industry for more than 25 years.