Could Consumer Focus on Sustainability Disrupt the Tissue Business?

Sustainability is taking on a more prominent role in consumer products, with a growing number of customers willing to pay more for goods that reflect various ethical concerns, from working conditions to environmental impact.

While consumer-facing sustainability considerations can be cut and dried, sustainability from a business perspective is more nuanced. In the pulp and paper industry, sustainability encompasses processes critical to a company’s health and ongoing operations, including the continued availability of raw materials and clean water, as well as operational efficiencies.

With that in mind, is the increased focus on sustainability from the consumer perspective aligned with the business view of it? How is this consumer focus disrupting the pulp and paper industry and, in particular, the tissue business? More importantly, how will this disruption impact the future landscape in the tissue sector?

Organizations such as Greenpeace and the Natural Resources Defense Council have published high-visibility articles calling attention to the fact that leading tissue brands are using only virgin fiber in their production, which they claim to have a negative impact on sustainability, particularly in Canadian boreal forests.

Interestingly, the World Wildlife Fund identifies the leading deforestation threat as almost exclusively confined to tropical regions. While these two positions could be considered conflicting, more likely they reflect different parts of an overall global concern when it comes to deforestation.

Looking at global tissue fiber furnish, recycled fiber comprises 26 percent (Fig. 2), with the proportional majority of it being used by North America, while the rest of the world is more dependent on virgin fiber.

Tree-free fiber from bamboo, sugar cane, and wheat/cereal straws have been touted as possible alternatives to pulp. However, some of these ‘replacements’ may not be completely green as they raise different concerns, such as the threats to biodiversity and endangered species caused by replacing indigenous forests with tree-free plantations, or the depletion of soil caused by growing fiber as an annual crop in land currently being used for food production.

Those concerns notwithstanding, a change needs to occur. Tissue products as they currently exist permanently remove fiber from the recycling stream (as opposed to other paper products such as corrugate, which can be recycled), and that affects sustainability worldwide.

Water is a huge component to the tissue production process, and the world is currently experiencing a water crisis, with varying degrees across regions (Fig. 4). Water risk is dependent on numerous factors, including usage versus availability, population shifts, climate change, industrialization, pollution, and more.

Figure 4

Virgin and virgin/recycled integrated sites have the highest water usage, but they tend to be located by large water sources. So, companies need to look locally in order to determine risk when considering access to clean water and the impact their mill has on the local water supply. Surprisingly, advanced structured processes, such as Through Air Drying (TAD), do not use more water than conventional tissue making.

Consumers hear on a daily basis about the impact of carbon footprint on climate change, and it is a critical concern to most individuals. But what does that mean for tissue producers, and how can they best address it?

Many paper mills have significant potential for improvement in their energy efficiency, which is a win-win for both the mill in terms of improving the bottom line, and the environment by helping reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Unfortunately, coal still remains the dominant fuel in India, Indonesia, and China, and there’s still a ways to go before this changes. That said, most biomass fuels can be burned in coal-fired boilers, so there may be an opportunity to improve the environmental impact of those mills still using older energy sources.

Figure 7

Despite the continued use of coal in Asia, North American tissue production still has the highest global rate of carbon emissions (Fig. 7). Carbon taxes or government restrictions on carbon emissions, which are most likely coming, will significantly impact North American tissue, causing cost disruption on a mill-by-mill basis, particularly in commercial and industrial mills, depending upon the amount of recycled fiber being used and each mill’s specific energy requirements.

TAD processes use more energy per ton of tissue produced than conventional processes, both in electrical and thermal energy consumption. However, TAD tends to reduce the fiber needed by 20-30 percent to make an equivalent consumer use unit of product. This and other alternative energy processes would need to be evaluated on a different scale should carbon taxes be implemented since they may use less energy per sheet or consumer use.

In recent years, designs to reduce the carbon footprint of tissue have come to the forefront. Examples include eliminating the cardboard tube in toilet paper or increasing the amount of tissue per roll. Other options being hyped to consumers as environmentally sound alternatives are cloth toilet paper, bidets, hand air dryers, and more. But are these really positive disruptions or simply greenwashing?

It is possible the alternative toilet paper roll options are more carbon efficient to ship, so this could be a positive change. Other ‘solutions’ such as bidets and hand air dryers may be impacting the environment in other ways, through increased water use, the addition of plastics, or increases in energy costs. That said, paper companies are looking for ways to make changes. An easily implementable process, and one that could come quickly, would be to replace plastic outer wraps with paper wraps.

As with many industries, making tissue production more sustainable is actually raising more questions than answers. In order to responsibly and profitably move forward, businesses will need to weigh all the variables from an informed decision base prior to making any substantive changes to their current models.

Bruce Janda is senior consultant, business intelligence, Fisher International. By virtue of its deep expertise in the pulp and paper industry, Fisher International provides insights, intelligence, benchmarking, and modeling across myriad scenarios. By arming companies with the knowledge that will help them gain a better understanding of their strengths and help identify weaknesses, Fisher is helping businesses stave off challenges and better position themselves for long-term growth. For more information, visit or email [email protected].