Don’t Squeeze the Old Growth Forest

Yesterday, the Washington Post drew attention to a battle being waged to shift how we wipe our behinds. Should we use soft, cushiony toilet paper made from virgin wood fiber (a.k.a., trees), or should we use somewhat rougher tissue made from recycled fibers?

In one corner, you have environmentalists and companies that make recycled toilet paper rallying for the recycled fibers. (Full disclosure: I’m in that corner.) In the other, you have the majority of toilet paper companies and a large percentage of consumers.

Not surprisingly, the latter companies claim that they are not in control of what consumers want, but are just reacting to demand. The question, of course, is where did this demand come from in the first place? For most of our history, we didn’t use toilet paper at all. It was only in 1890 that this luxury item started to be adopted. Before then, people simply conscripted other papers or fibers to do the job.

But upscale toilet paper can be sold at upscale prices. Could today’s consumer demand be the result of decades of marketing that promoted the use of softer tissue? “Don’t Squeeze the Charmin” or Cotonelle’s “Be Kind to Your Behind” campaigns are just some of the memorable ads through the years. Now, decades later, consumers have internalized the feeling that they want to use softer tissues.

So, how do we change that?

Already, Greenpeace has spent four-and-a-half years putting pressure on Kimberly-Clark, the manufacturer of Kleenex and Cotonelle and one of the world’s largest toilet paper producer. The good news is that Greenpeace has declared victory (well, a partial victory anyway) and Kimberly-Clark will increase its use of recycled paper content and/or sustainably harvested wood to 40 percent by 2011. So one round goes to environmentalists (just don’t ask how many rounds have already been fought).

But that’s just 40 percent—and not all from recycled content. How will environmentalists, the proxy fighters for the forests, win in the end?

Here’s where a little-known term called “choice-editing” comes into play.

As the Post article mentions, when you’re at a restaurant, the office, or a public building, most likely you’re using the rough stuff. No choice. It’s there, you need some, you use it.

But in grocery and convenience stores, the fancy brands beckon and are placed preferentially on shelves. You “indulge” in softness. You choose to be kind to your behind, because, after all, only weird people would choose not to be.

So, targeting the consumer will probably fail (except for the eco-conscious segment). And while the paper companies will yield to some degree to avoid massive negative publicity, they’re not going to stop selling a more profitable product.

Unless, of course, it becomes less profitable.

Solution: make the plush stuff less attractive. One possible way is to put a 10–25 percent tax on luxury toilet paper. Then, use that money to help better manage national forests so that, instead of catching fire, they can serve as reserves of biodiversity, carbon, and other resources for the products we really need.

As one environmentalist pointed out in the Post article, “We don’t need old-growth forests…to wipe our behinds.” But until we teach people that, stop encouraging them through advertising, and put barriers in their way, that’s exactly what they’ll keep doing.

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