A Case Study in "Greenflushing"
Despite Procter & Gamble’s claims of leadership in sustainability, the company continues to mislead the public in its marketing and commitments, hiding the fact that its tissue product sourcing, including for Charmin toilet paper, falls far short of what’s necessary to protect critical forests like Canada’s boreal. By continuing to manufacture tissue products that rely entirely on 100% virgin forest fiber, including a major portion from the climate-critical Canadian boreal which also provides critical habitat for the threatened boreal caribou, P&G is fueling a tree-to-toilet pipeline that exacerbates the climate crisis and furthers massive biodiversity loss.
In October, Charmin announced its new “Go Beyond” sustainability commitments. Unfortunately, P&G’s new commitment doesn’t get at the root of the problem. Their continued lack of progress in the boreal belies their marketing claims, and the company recently responded to the 120 groups who called on P&G to adopt far more sustainable practices by sending a letter that was rife with red herrings and unsupported claims. In fact, the way the company has talked about the environmental impacts of Charmin and its other tissue products has been so misleading that we’ve invented a new word for it: greenflushing.
Here’s what Charmin has been saying about its new commitment:
“For every tree we use, at least one is regrown.”
This commitment has been the focal point of Charmin’s sustainability commitments for many years. Unfortunately, it should provide no comfort to customers of this brand.
Tree replanting has long been used to justify damaging logging in intact forests, which have unrivaled value for wildlife and the global climate. This is particularly true in Canada.
But there are vast differences between areas that have been replanted after clearcutting and intact, old-growth forests. In fact, studies show that threatened boreal caribou populations have not returned to forest areas that have been clearcut, even decades later.
In the boreal, the difference between intact forests and replanted ones is particularly stark because the boreal regrows very slowly, taking decades or centuries to reach the same biodiversity and structural diversity of intact old-growth boreal. Moreover, replanting efforts often replace biodiverse old-growth boreal forests with monocultures that bear more resemblance to tree farms than natural forests.
“Our tissue toilet products are not contributing to deforestation.”
One of the most common myths the Canadian government perpetuates about the sustainability of Canada’s forestry practices is that there is very little deforestation in Canada; and in the absence of deforestation, the logging that does occur must be sustainable.
But this claim couldn’t be further from the truth. A recent report released by the Canadian NGO Wildlands League revealed Ontario’s deforestation rates to be fifty times higher than the province reported, indicating that deforestation rates from clearcut logging in Canada’s boreal forest are wildly underestimated. The type of logging done in Ontario isn’t unique to the province, either. In fact, the actual deforestation rate from logging operations across Canada is likely orders of magnitude higher than the country estimates.
By relying on clearcut forests for its tissue pulp, P&G is driving species declines and climate impacts, regardless of whether this is deemed “deforestation.”
Cutting the forest down is better for the climate than leaving it standing.
One of Charmin’s most egregious sustainability claims is that it is better to cut old and dying trees before they become carbon and methane emitting. Parroting an argument made by the government of Canada, they claim that harvesting old trees and turning them into wood products that store carbon is a win-win for the environment and economy.
Never mind that toilet paper is not a carbon storing wood product and therefore has no place in a Charmin rebuttal, this argument has no basis in science. Much of the carbon from dead trees is locked in the boreal’s acidic soils, making the soils of the boreal the most carbon rich on the planet. In order for its soils to continue storing carbon, the forest must be left as intact as possible.
Recent studies show that logging in intact forests generates more than six times as much carbon as previously estimated, and NRDC’s analysis shows that even under the best regrowth scenarios, boreal forests never fully recoup this carbon deficit. Moreover, once the impacts of higher than reported levels of deforestation plus the replanting of monocultures and other poor regrowth outcomes are considered, the climate footprint of industrial forestry in intact boreal forests becomes an issue of global significance.
Finally, to minimize its responsibility, P&G states that lumber is really the driver of the logging in the boreal. However, in Ontario, up to 44% of pulp inputs are whole trees. And Ontario is one of Charmin’s biggest suppliers.
“You can use 4X less with Charmin.”
P&G often claims that one can use up to “4X less” than the “leading value brand,” and points to this as a reason it must not move away from 100% virgin forest fiber. But it never explicitly tells the consumer what, exactly, that leading value brand is. One can deduce from commercials that P&G may be referring to Scott toilet paper, based on similarities between their “Leading Value Brand” logo and Scott’s. Scott is a single-ply toilet paper brand also made with 100% virgin forest fiber.
P&G’s straw man argument belies the fact that there are plenty of toilet paper options which are far more sustainable because they are made with recycled content and/or alternative fibers, and are 2- or 3-ply. It’s clearly not as if P&G needs virgin forest fiber to make toilet paper that has multiple plies.
Furthermore, P&G has yet to provide any evidence that Charmin toilet paper leads to less total consumption of fibers. And if Charmin doesn’t lead to consumers using significantly less, the environmental impacts of Charmin’s production become all the more senseless.
“[We will] increase our use of Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified fiber to 75% across all Family Care brands by 2025.”
The cornerstone of P&G’s new “Go Beyond” commitment is its pledge to source 75% of its fiber from Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified fiber by 2025, increasing that percentage from its current 40%. FSC is a voluntary certification system that provides third-party verification that forests are well-managed and that human rights are respected. While P&G’s commitment is a step in the right direction, the commitment has glaring holes that raise questions that the net effect in the Canadian boreal forest will be positive.
- First, FSC Canada has a new standard, and it’s critical that demand for the Canadian standard increase. While P&G has said it has a preference for FSC, the 75% commitment is global - in other words, there is no Canada-specific commitment. P&G should be fully onboard with the new FSC Canada standard and insist that its Canadian suppliers meet the standard rather than allowing FSC fiber from Canada to be replaced by FSC fiber from other parts of the world where FSC’s standards are potentially weaker.
- Second, the key elements of the new FSC Canada standard are its boreal caribou indicator and its Indigenous rights standard, which requires obtaining free prior and informed consent (FPIC) from Indigenous communities where logging occurs. But without P&G explicitly supporting those underlying values by requiring their entire body of suppliers to obtain FPIC and adhere to Canadian federal government recommendations on boreal caribou habitat management, P&G undermines the intent of the standard.
- Finally, a commitment to 75% FSC-certified fiber leaves a whole lot of fiber that comes from less rigorously certified forests (and due to the lack of a Canada-specific commitment this could mean even more in the boreal).
P&G: It’s time to walk the talk
Procter & Gamble is a massive multinational corporation that has virtually unrivaled reach and influence in the global economy. The company constantly touts its commitment to be a “force for good,” and uses its tissue sourcing as evidence of that commitment.
Behind the curtain, however, the real impacts of their sourcing for Charmin, Bounty, and Puffs are hugely detrimental to both biodiversity and the global climate. It’s time for P&G to stop the “greenflushing,” and instead walk the talk.
Tell Procter & Gamble CEO David Taylor that you want P&G to stop flushing our forests.