The Issue with Tissue Fifth Edition

Five years in, laggards remain far behind a growing number of sustainable tissue brands


Ben Wiseman for NRDC

Never before has the gap between the tissue industry’s sustainability leaders and laggards been more apparent. In the nearly five years since NRDC’s initial The Issue with Tissue report and scorecard launch, more sustainable brands have entered the market than ever before. Yet, the largest, most powerful U.S. tissue companies are those that remain entrenched in a destructive “tree-to-toilet pipeline” model that has widespread impacts on the boreal forest in Canada and its inhabitants, threatened species, and vast stores of carbon. Foot-dragging from companies flushing away one of the world’s greatest natural climate allies now increasingly risks leaving themselves marginalized in a marketplace embracing solutions for stronger forest protection.

Now, NRDC’s new The Issue with Tissue Fifth Edition report and scorecard–which grades 145 brands across toilet paper, paper towels, and facial tissue–spotlights the many sustainable alternatives to turning trees into single-use, throwaway tissue products. Of the 29 toilet paper brands that receive A or B grades, half were launched within only the past five years. This includes new private-label brands from retailers, like Target’s Everspring and Field & Future by H-E-B, which each earn A grades for their toilet paper being made from 100 percent recycled content (recycled content has just one-third the carbon emissions compared to tissue made from wood pulp, according to Environmental Paper Network’s Paper Calculator 4.0).

A growing number of tissue brands made from bamboo, including PlantPaper and Amazon Aware, are also among the sustainability leaders in this year’s scorecard. While less environmentally friendly than recycled content, bamboo is a fast-growing plant with a much smaller land use and carbon footprint compared to wood pulp. Importantly, bamboo’s sustainability can vary, so consumers should opt for those bamboo products that carry the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) logo, which indicates that the fiber was grown and sourced in a way that limits negative forest impacts. All FSC-certified bamboo brands earn B grades in our scorecard, falling just behind the A scores of recycled fiber products. 

As more sustainable tissue brands have gained traction, so have other tissue-saving products. Bidets and bidet toilet seat attachments have been rising in popularity in the United States, and not only help to reduce the use of toilet paper but also use less water per use than the tissue-making process does. Reusable cloth napkins and cloth towels as substitutes for paper towels is another great option for consumers looking to reduce their use of disposable household tissue products.

Despite the many signs of progress in the report, there is still a long way to go for some of the largest brands available in the U.S. tissue market. The “Big Three” U.S. tissue producers–Procter & Gamble (P&G), Kimberly-Clark, and Georgia-Pacific–continue to make their flagship tissue brands like Charmin, Cottonelle, and Quilted Northern almost entirely from forest fiber and fail to avoid supply chains that degrade irreplaceable primary forests. These brands have now earned consistently failing scores across all five editions of NRDC’s Issue with Tissue scorecard.

An infographic titled "Toilet Paper Sustainability Scorecard"

The above graphic features a limited selection of the brands reviewed in The Issue with Tissue Fifth Edition scorecard.

For P&G in particular, the company’s refusal to adopt more responsible wood pulp sourcing practices has caused it to come under fire with consumers and investors. Since the landmark passage of a 2020 shareholder resolution directing the company to report on if and how it can eliminate deforestation and forest degradation from its supply chains, P&G has doubled down on its existing operating model while also making new misleading claims

While P&G remains stagnant, groundbreaking new policy frameworks like the European Union Deforestation Regulation are poised to foster unprecedented accountability for unsustainable forest sourcing–helping to transform supply chains of forest-risk commodities like wood pulp, while creating new risk for companies continuing to operate under unsustainable business-as-usual practices.

The compounding regulatory shifts and growing reputational pressure surrounding corporate impacts on climate-critical forests foster unprecedented risks for P&G–and its shareholders. As P&G’s annual general meeting approaches on October 10th, shareholders have a prime opportunity to hold its leadership accountable for this inaction by voting against members of the board of directors, who have overseen P&G’s years of failure to mitigate these risks and problematic responses to shareholder concerns.

The last five years have shown that sustainability can be a disruptive force in a tissue market whose biggest players have remained willfully mired in business practices that not only jeopardize the future of the planet, but also place these companies on a precarious trajectory. Embracing transformative innovation remains not only a vital step toward creating a more forest-friendly and climate-safe economy–it’s essential for brands looking to stay competitive in an increasingly sustainability-conscious marketplace. 

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