Early in the pandemic, toilet paper shortages pushed weary Americans to the fringes.
Out of necessity, millions tried rolls made from recycled paper or bamboo. And what they found surprised them. These alternatives were actually soft, far from the sandpaper-ish versions they grudgingly used at their office or in a public restroom. That revelation is shaking up what had been a stable — even boring — category that racked up about $10 billion at U.S. retailers last year.
Purchase patterns for toilet paper have historically been simple and lucrative: Shoppers found a brand, like Charmin, and bought it like clockwork every few weeks for years, even decades. But all those empty shelves made shoppers reconsider a product they had rarely given a second thought. That opened them up to emerging brands — some backed by venture capital — making claims about softness similar to those that had dominated the category for half a century, while adding a benefit for this era: saving the planet.
“Supply shortages forced consumers to become more experimental,” said Jamie Rosenberg, associate director of global household and personal care for researcher Mintel Group. “Often that meant trying eco-niche products for the first time.”
In one telling example, Seattle-based Cloud Paper, a startup founded in 2019 that counts Jeff Bezos and Robert Downey Jr. as investors, saw its core business of supplying companies dry up early in the pandemic, but then shifted to selling its “tree-free” bamboo option directly to consumers on the web. Revenue boomed, and the company has since shipped more than two million rolls across America.
Now these alternatives need to show they can sustain that momentum as COVID fades, and the masses return to some normalcy and possibly their old ways. In-store sales of toilet paper surged at the beginning of the pandemic but have since slowed, according to data from NielsenIQ. And options deemed sustainable have retreated even faster. However, the figures don’t capture a lot of the purchases from these startups because they mostly sell online directly to consumers.
“There are those people who buy recycled tissue paper because they want to advance the environment,” said Martin Wolf, director of sustainability at Seventh Generation, a Unilever brand that offers eco-friendly paper products. Then there is “the much larger group of people who want something that’s very soft, very strong.”
And therein lies the challenge with products pitching sustainability: Their growth is capped if they can’t win over consumers beyond the group that already places a high premium on what’s deemed good for the environment. In surveys, majorities of consumers will often say they care about climate change or being green, but in reality that only goes so far.
To convert the masses, these brands need to get close to the real thing. History shows that to truly upend a category, a product needs to meet the basic requirements of the consumer before being considered. Diet soda needed to taste like soda. Plant-based burgers didn’t become meaningful until they got closer to mimicking beef.
The U.S. toilet paper industry revolves around softness, with giant brands engaging in a decadeslong marketing battle over touch and feel. In the 1960s, Procter & Gamble broke through with a long-running TV campaign featuring a supermarket manager who tried to get housewives to resist squeezing the Charmin because it was so soft. Georgia-Pacific pitched “pillows of softness” for Quilted Northern. And Kimberly-Clark’s Cottonelle created the tagline: “Of course it isn’t cotton, but it is cottony soft.”
The sector has since tried to add benefit stories around infusing toilet paper with lotion or scents like lavender. Lately, it looks like the industry is running out of ideas, with a recent push to make rolls fluffier and market them as “mega.”
But the baseline remains softness, and recycled toilet paper, which has been around for more than two decades, has generally fallen short on that front. Reclaimed tissue makers work with fibers that are shorter because they get damaged during the recycling process, so they yield tissue that’s not as smooth. It’s possible to make up some of that soft feel consumers want, but not all, according to Seventh Generation’s Wolf.
In 2020, recycled toilet paper accounted for just 1.6% of sales from U.S. retailers, while the big three — P&G, Kimberly-Clark and Georgia-Pacific — controlled 70% of the market, according to Euromonitor International. A look at reviews on Seventh Generation’s website shows why. Customers no doubt like that the recycled toilet paper is eco-friendly, but one emblematic comment simply states: “It is not very soft, but doing its job.”
Upstart bamboo brands are now trying to make the case that they are just as soft, or coming really close, while layering on messaging that says they are fighting deforestation that hurts the environment. On its website, Cloud Paper says the equivalent of 40,000 trees are cut down per day for traditional toilet paper and paper towels.
Who Gives a Crap, which sells recycled and bamboo options, touts in a cheeky online commercial that people who care about the environment won’t settle for “regular toilet paper,” while ticking off similar stats about lost trees. It then adds the selling point that could be the big unlock: “Eco-friendly toilet paper doesn’t have to feel scratchy.”
Shortly after its founding in 2012, Who Gives a Crap realized it needed to match the quality of traditional offerings. Otherwise, it would struggle to get beyond “crunchy hippies,” according to Danny Alexander, a co-founder and chief of product. The brand began with a recycled line and added a bamboo option in 2016 because the plant, which is classified as a grass, has longer fibers that made the tissue softer. Using bamboo also avoided the psychological baggage recycled options might have already inflicted.
A lot of people “aren’t willing to try it again,” Alexander said.
Grove Collaborative, a startup selling eco-friendly goods with about $385 million in annual revenue and a valuation of around $1.5 billion, churned through half a dozen versions of its bamboo toilet paper in pursuit of softness. One big leap was making it completely from bamboo fibers, instead of mixing in sugar cane. Simplifying the inputs made upgrades easier, and each improvement increased sales, according to Grove CEO Stuart Landesberg.
“Price matters. Packaging matters. Story matters,” Landesberg said. “But ultimately quality matters probably most, especially in this category.”
Bamboo toilet paper makers have also narrowed the gap on cost — another common hurdle for brands pitching sustainability. Grove furled its rolls tighter, boosting how much tissue it fits onto each roll and reducing shipping costs. Cloud Paper began offering bulk orders of 96 rolls, which helped cut the number of deliveries.
In a Bloomberg analysis, some bamboo offerings are about the same price as those from major brands made with virgin trees. Cloud Paper’s 24-pack comes out to roughly 40 cents per 100 sheets, about the same cost as Charmin’s ultra soft offering of the same size. Bamboo options are now sold by major retailers, including Walmart, Target and Amazon.
Brands pitching sustainability have also benefited from environmental groups pressuring the industry. In 2019, the Natural Resources Defense Council sparked media coverage with a report titled: “The Issue With Tissue: How Americans Are Flushing Forests Down the Toilet.”
The advocacy organization accused the big brands of not doing more to shift away from using virgin wood pulp that was being harvested from trees cut down in places like the boreal forest in Canada, which according to NRDC estimates removes in a year the carbon dioxide equivalent to the emissions of 24 million cars.
Alexander, the Who Gives a Crap executive, sums up his side’s criticism like this: “It’s just a really poor use of resources. The thought of walking through a forest, seeing a tree and thinking: ‘You know, I should wipe my bum with that.’ It’s pretty ludicrous.”
Making matters worse, according to the NRDC, is that long-term demand for toilet paper shows no signs of slowing down, with gains powered by a growing middle classes in Asia and South America.
“Forests are finite,” said Zoe Levin, founder of Bim Bam Boo, another bamboo brand. “We have to find a better solution.”
The industry disputes the NRDC’s findings, with some big brands saying that their products are already green because they come from woodlands managed sustainably, and that they plant trees to replace the ones being cut down for toilet paper. Meanwhile, the publicly traded companies in this sector, including their retail partners, are all facing investor pressure to reduce their environmental footprint.
Critics point out that trees take decades to grow back, while bamboo is one the world’s fastest-growing plants. Bamboo, which is increasingly being employed for industrial uses like flooring, does have an environmental cost, including that most of it is grown in Asia and then shipped to end markets. A 2013 study commissioned by Kimberly-Clark found that using bamboo appeared to have less of an environmental impact than harvesting trees.
These startups aren’t just changing what’s used to make toilet paper. Like a lot of direct-to-consumer brands born over the last decade, their marketing stands out from industry norms. Attempts to create emotional attachment come through humor or helping the world.
No. 2 pitches reducing what it calls “butt crumble” and claims to back that up with a video testing how many paper particles remain after rubbing its roll and a competitor’s on a man’s beard (spoiler: No. 2 wins). Reel, another brand, positions buying its products as joining a movement that uses its proceeds to improve sanitation in poor countries like Haiti.
These companies are also adding creative flair in a category where there was little. Some wrap each roll individually in packaging decorated with artsy patterns marketed as cool enough to be an interior design element. It looks like a savvy move, with Instagram posts showing bamboo rolls stacked out in the open.
“Toilet paper has never looked so dang sexy,” says the Tushy brand, which makes a bamboo option packaged in ever-changing prints.
R.A. Denny, an author living in Wilmington, Delaware, learned about bamboo toilet paper on Twitter where a post touted its sustainability and softness. She ended up buying a box from Reel and was hooked — so much so that she gifted a roll to her son.
“It’s strong. It’s soft. I really like it.” Denny said. “I would not go back.”
Winning over the masses will be harder because of the millions the big players can toss at marketing. That may mean that even if these young brands never become the next Quilted Northern, they could get consumers to rethink toilet paper enough to push the sector’s behemoths beyond trees.
“I’m hopeful that the big companies, with even more resources, will follow,” said Grove’s Landesberg.
Some are already headed in that direction. Kimberly-Clark launched a bamboo-based toilet tissue under its Kleenex brand last year in Australia. Alison Lewis, the company’s chief growth officer, recently touted it at an investor conference by rattling off what could be a future slogan.
“Softness you don’t expect.”