Days after the UN Global Biodiversity Assessment announced that the world is teetering on the brink of ecological collapse, Forbes released its annual global Fortune 500 ranking of the most economically powerful companies. Coming on the heels of the Assessment’s revelation that as many as a million species are facing extinction and that the causes of this biodiversity crisis are directly traceable to our economic and political structures, this year the coveted distinction read like a list of indictments. Many of these are the companies that have not just fiddled while Rome burned, but profited off fanning the flames. The Assessment outlines that the devastating outcomes it foreshadows for ecosystems around the world are avoidable, but only through “urgent and concerted efforts fostering transformative change.” The way we get there is complex and multifaceted, but the message for the private sector is clear: from shampoo to toilet paper, companies’ reckless pillaging of natural resources has to stop, and we need them to help chart a new way forward if we’re going to avoid a truly cataclysmic future.
There are few everyday products that epitomize the wanton resource consumption the Assessment outlined more perfectly than toilet paper. Those plush white rolls that most hardly give a second thought are taking a tremendous toll on our forests. With a third of our earth’s forest cover gone and intact forests growing scarcer by the day, according to the Assessment, we can’t afford to keep taking these lungs of our earth for granted. Yet, in households across America, we are flushing forests down the toilet.
For decades, Procter & Gamble (P&G), which ranked 45th on this year’s Fortune 500 list of companies with the highest revenue, has made its flagship toilet paper, Charmin, from trees. Much of the virgin forest fiber used to manufacture Charmin comes from the Canadian boreal forest, the largest intact forest left in the world and the home of hundreds of Indigenous communities and iconic species like the boreal caribou. The boreal, a vast and vital carbon storehouse, is also critical to preventing even greater climate catastrophe. Yet every year, logging companies across Canada fell over a million acres of boreal forest, in part to feed demand in the U.S. for toilet paper like Charmin.
P&G has remained entrenched in business as usual, even as other brands have innovated to create high-quality, forest-friendly toilet paper out of recycled materials and sustainable alternative fibers. Recycled toilet paper avoids forest impacts and has a fraction of the carbon footprint, yet P&G continues to market its Charmin rolls made from virgin forest fiber with lighthearted ads, pithy slogans, and even nods at sustainability. Behind the scenes, however, their products are driving the erosion of intact boreal forests. P&G isn’t alone—in fact, none of the major household tissue brands in the U.S. are made with anything except virgin fiber from forests like the boreal. But Charmin is the most prolific of the bunch, and P&G’s commitments are particularly lacking.
The good news is there is still time for P&G to make the switch to recycled toilet paper and lead the way toward a more sustainable status quo before it’s too late. But it needs to take bold, swift action. The Global Biodiversity Assessment prescribes “transformative change” as the only way to avoid a truly unthinkable future without life on earth as we know it. That means we need a complete overhaul of how we value and interact with the natural world. To do this, the Assessment outlines several “leverage points” for moving toward a system more in balance with what ecosystems can handle long-term. P&G is in a prime position to dramatically move the needle on many of these leverage points in the toilet paper sector:
- Reduction in consumption and waste: The Assessment calls for reducing global pressure on the world's natural resources through a realignment in how we value and use them. Turning our forests into throwaway products like toilet paper is the height of reckless consumption and needless waste. P&G needs to stop driving this wasteful practice and transition away from the current tree-to-toilet pipeline by integrating more recycled material and sustainable alternative fibers into Charmin.
- Innovation and investment: We need to spur "environmentally friendly technological and social innovation," according to the Assessment. As 45th on the Fortune 500 list, P&G has more resources than many of the world’s countries. It needs to dedicate its substantial research and development capital to creating a forest-friendly toilet paper that offers the public an alternative to flushing away the boreal forest.
- Changes in value and action: The Assessment emphasizes "unleashing existing widely held values of responsibility to effect new social norms for sustainability." People are already looking for products that don’t come at the expense of the natural world. In fact, in a recent poll from Stand.earth and NRDC, 85 percent of respondents said they wanted companies to make toilet paper that was more sustainable for the environment. P&G can’t keep hiding the ball on the true cost of its toilet paper and needs to channel the public’s existing values into a concerted push to bring consumers the sustainable alternatives they’d like to buy.
In some sectors, P&G has taken positive steps toward leadership on the leverage points. For example, P&G recently launched a new partnership with TerraCycle to help reduce waste from single-use plastic containers. Now, the company needs to rise to the scale of the threat our forest ecosystems face and overhaul the way it manufactures and markets toilet paper and other tissue products. P&G has taken important measures to promote Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification, which is the only credible system for identifying more sustainable logging operations. However, P&G needs to do far more, ending the wasteful tree-to-toilet pipeline altogether.
This is not the problem of C-suite corporate executives a few years down the road. The crisis is here. Without the swift, transformative change the Assessment demands, we will see the world as we know it unravel in just a handful of decades. P&G, as one of the most powerful entities on the planet, has to make the choice: to help pull us back from the brink and shape a healthy, livable future, or continue pushing the planet further toward extinction. P&G’s been telling us for decades that nature’s calling. It’s true. P&G, it’s for you.