Ryan Fritsch knew he wanted to do something meaningful with his life, to help others and fill a need.
He just never expected to find his purpose in toilet paper.
But at 31, the University of Washington graduate is one of the founders of Cloud Paper, a Seattle-based company that makes bathroom tissue from fast-growing bamboo — a product that is saving the forests, and filling a crucial human need in the process.
On Friday, Cloud Paper marked the donation of 100,000 rolls of toilet paper to Food Lifeline, which will distribute them to its network of 300 food banks and shelters.
“There is a stream of food being donated to food banks and shelters,” Fritsch said. “But people don’t think about all the non-perishables that people need.”
The company was created to address the need to save the environment, and has expanded its focus to helping the community.
While researching his plans for the startup, Fritsch said he learned 40,000 trees are cut down daily to meet consumer demand, and toilet paper contributes to 15% of global deforestation, while paper towels contribute 5%.
An acre of forest is cut down every second, he said. “The numbers are scary.”
The paper products are so widely used that people don’t consider what it takes to make them.
“They have a brand they like, grab it and that’s it,” Fritsch said. “They’re not debating different brands. People aren’t talking about the sustainability impact.”
Theirs is a soft, three-ply toilet paper that ships in a recycled package, with carbon-neutral deliveries. Bamboo is a grass, so it’s “tree-free,” Fritsch said. It is also the fastest-growing plant in the world, absorbs more carbon and releases more oxygen than trees. And it grows back almost immediately; there’s no deforestation.
Cloud Paper was started as a business-to-business company — targeting restaurants and hotels — before COVID-19 hit, and it began a household subscription program that has seen a “steady increase” over the year.
But there are those who cannot afford, let alone subscribe to a toilet-paper service. And while they were getting help with food, necessities like toilet paper and cleaning products were hard to come by.
It didn’t hurt that Food Lifeline’s warehouse is right across the street, where the Cloud Paper team could see its work — and the volume of food that was being distributed to the nonprofit’s network of 300 food banks.
After Gov. Jay Inslee imposed new restrictions in November, Fritsch saw people once again “panic buying” toilet paper.
“That meant the shortage was ramping up,” he said. “And it was the holidays and I wanted to do something good for the community.
“We really wanted to stand for something good beyond the core product.”
Fritsch grew up on the Oregon Coast, appreciating the natural beauty of the region.
“Protecting the trees and the environment was a no-brainer,” he said. “On the environmental side, it made sense. And I just wanted to spend time taking care of other people.
“It’s part of the company culture,” he said. “We want to continue to build out a company that cares about this stuff.”
To that end, Cloud Paper has started an Instagram campaign, “Double Tap to Donate a Roll.” For every like, share or tagging on a post, the company will donate a roll of toilet paper to Food Lifeline, beyond the 100,000 rolls it has already donated.
So what is it about toilet paper?
The pandemic “has forced people to really define what is a truly, must-have product,” he said. “In this moment of panic, people make these very quick prioritizations. And toilet paper is on the top of the list.”
Indeed, as the coronavirus began to spread, sales of toilet paper skyrocketed by up to 700% between February and March.
A study released in June by the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology showed that people who felt acutely threatened by the pandemic were more likely to stockpile toilet paper than those less worried about the disease.
Researchers surveyed 996 people in 22 North American and European countries about how they purchased and stored toilet paper, and participants ranked the threat of COVID-19 on a 10-point scale.
Those who placed high on the risk scale were most likely to buy toilet paper in bulk. And emotional and conscientious people tended to stockpile.
But that doesn’t seem to be necessary, said Anne Goodchild, the academic director of the Supply Chain Transportation and Logistics master’s degree program at the University of Washington.
Supply chains’ response to the pandemic “have been remarkably adaptable, resilient and creative,” Goodchild said. “For all the talk about toilet paper, I don’t actually know anyone that ran out.”
But it is in “high demand” at Food Lifeline, according to a statement by Linda Nageotte, the nonprofit’s president and CEO.
“It’s a necessary, daily product with a high retail price that is very seldomly donated,” she said. “Our clients often have to choose between buying groceries and an essential daily item, such as this.
“While all of us might be experiencing a TP shortage right now, it can be a day-to-day reality for many in our community without a pandemic.”
With the 100,000 donated rolls, it’s unlikely Food Lifeline clients will run out of toilet paper for a while. Cloud Paper intends to keep donating into the new year.
“As our company has grown, so has the volume of donations,” Fritsch said. “Our motto is ‘We Roll Different,’ and in these times, we’re adapting it to, ‘Let’s Roll Different, Together.'”