Americans use an estimated 36.5 billion rolls of toilet paper every year and the average consumer will go through the equivalent of 384 trees just for toilet paper in the course of a lifetime. Deforestation causes a range of environmental problems, including loss of wildlife habitats and biodiversity. It also contributes to climate change, since trees absorb and store carbon dioxide, which is the most common greenhouse gas.
Amid a growing interest in which brands use the best sustainability practices, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), an environmental advocacy organization, analyzed the sourcing of the largest brands of toilet paper, facial tissue and paper towels on the U.S. market. Its resulting scorecard, released on Wednesday, gives failing sustainability grades to most of the biggest household names.
The four-largest name brands in the country — Angel Soft, Charmin, Cottonelle, and Quilted Northern — all received an F.
“As this year’s scorecard shows, the largest tissue brands in America are failing the climate, communities, and biodiversity by continuing to create their products from forests like the Canadian boreal, which stores more carbon than any other terrestrial ecosystem,” wrote NRDC’s Ashley Jordan in a blog post explaining the ratings. The largest brands, she added, are made “almost exclusively from virgin forest fiber and fail to avoid sourcing from primary forests.”
Virgin forest fiber refers to any wood that has been cut down and used for the first time. Since cutting down trees releases the carbon dioxide stored within them, recycled paper has a much lower carbon footprint, as it only creates emissions from the energy used to manufacture and transport it. Tissues made from recycled paper create one-third of the carbon emissions of tissue made from virgin wood, according to the Environmental Paper Network’s Paper Calculator 4.0.
Of the 58 types of toilet paper scored by NRDC, 12 received either an A or A+ because they are made from post-consumer recycled paper. The vast majority of those are specifically eco-conscious products, including Green Forest, Natural Value, Nature’s Promise, Seventh Generation Soft and Strong, and Marcal 100% Recycled.
Trader Joe’s store brand and Whole Foods’ 365 Everyday Value 100% Recycled both received A+ scores. That stands in contrast to some of the store brands from other large retailers. Wegman’s, Stop & Shop/Giant Food, Publix Super Soft and Publix Ultra Strong, Kirkland (which is Costco’s store brand), Amazon Basics and every variation of Walmart’s store brand Great Value all received an F.
"We’re looking into that, it’s the first we've seen of the rating” a Walmart spokesperson told Yahoo News when asked for comment. She also pointed to Walmart’s Sustainable Forests policy, which sets a goal that “By 2025, Walmart’s goal is that private brand products made of pulp, paper, and timber will be sourced deforestation and conversion-free.” (Conversion in this usage means when forest land is converted to another use, such as farming, by cutting down its trees.)
Different products from the same brand can often receive very different scores. While Trader Joe’s regular brand received an A+, Trader Joe's Super Soft got an F, for instance.
The same also applies to different brands from the same manufacturer. For example, Kimberly-Clark makes Cottonelle and Georgia-Pacific makes Quilted Northern, both of which received an F grade. But those companies also offer greener alternatives. Georgia-Pacific’s Pacific Blue Basic and Kimberly-Clark’s Scott Essential Standard Roll both got a B+. Procter & Gamble, which makes Charmin, does not offer any recycled-paper bathroom tissue.
“For the first time ever, Georgia-Pacific landed itself among the B-plus scores after making a 100 percent recycled content toilet paper option available online directly to consumers; Kimberly Clark made this same move last year,” Jordan wrote. “This development leaves P&G last among the ‘Big Three’ U.S. tissue companies to still receive straight F scores across all of its tissue brands, including Charmin, Puffs, and Bounty.”
Yahoo News contacted all three companies.
“Georgia-Pacific relies on forests and recycled content for the wood/fiber we use to make the paper and building products people want and need. With regards to those raw materials, we’ve always been careful in the way we source and use natural resources,” a spokesperson for Georgia-Pacific said in an emailed statement. “We are committed to sustainable forestry and actively take steps to ensure that the virgin fiber (trees) used in our products is responsibly sourced, no matter the location. And, we are committed to helping maintain healthy forests now and into the future — not only to use available resources more efficiently, but to also follow and promote good science-based forest protection and enhancement practices.”
Georgia-Pacific also referred to a website where it asserts that the logging for its products is sustainable because new trees are grown in place of the ones cut down.
Procter & Gamble made a similar claim. “Responsible sourcing is an important issue for not just our business but, more importantly, for the environment and people who depend on it,” P&G spokesperson Tonia Elrod told Yahoo News in an email. “Our sourcing prohibits deforestation, respects the rights of Indigenous peoples (FPIC), and protects biodiversity. For every tree Charmin uses, at least two are regrown.”
Kimberly-Clark did not respond to Yahoo News.
Some environmental experts say that replanting is not an adequate substitute for preserving existing trees. Cutting down trees can destroy wildlife habitats, which are not immediately replaced by a much younger and smaller tree in its place. A 2019 study also found that new trees have less nutrients, due to the effect of logging on soil. Replanted trees are often also all of the same species, creating a less rich ecosystem than what is found in nature and making the forest more susceptible to infestation by fungus or invasive species.
The NRDC scorecard also examined paper towels and facial tissues, and it found a similar range of performance. The same eco-conscious brands such as Trader Joe’s, Green Forest and Natural Value produced A-rated paper towels and facial tissues. But many of the most popular brands, including Brawny Paper Towels (made by Georgia-Pacific) and Kleenex Everyday (made by Kimberly-Clark), got Fs.
Correction: Kimberly-Clark makes Cottonelle and Kleenex Everyday. Georgia-Pacific makes Quilted Northern.