There are many brands of facial tissues out there, but to me the name Kleenex is synonymous with the product. That’s probably because the maker of Kleenex, Kimberly-Clark, invented facial tissues almost a century ago. Like many people, my husband and I have used that brand for most of our lives. He buys in bulk at Sam’s Club. So we always have one of the colorful cardboard boxes of fluffy wipes at the ready. At least four times a day, I pull out a tissue from one to blow my nose into–––and that’s when I’m healthy. When I’m sick, and because I work with toddlers that happens a lot, it feels like a zillion times.
Four tissues a day and the planet
In trying to make our lives greener I’ve been becoming more conscious of how the little things my husband and I do impact the globe. And, I’m always searching for that middle road between living green and living comfortably. With single-use items, like tissues, the impact of my four tissues a day plus is embedded in a cycle that starts with how the basic materials are acquired.
For the paper industry, that usually amounts to cutting down lots of trees. This industry has been accused of unapologetically deforesting virgin woodlands, which the planet needs to manage the carbon emissions we people produce. On the list of Planet Earth’s biggest polluters the paper industry is number three, right behind oil and clothing manufacturers. So, my assumption was that: even four tissues a day amounted to a heavy environmental toll.
A hankie to the rescue. Me thinks snot.
The problem is, the soft tissues we love all come from wood fibers, and there are no great alternatives to them. Tissues made from recycled content are generally scratchy to the snout and not strong enough to hold up to a sneeze. There are tissues made from bamboo and sugar cane fibers, but to me that’s just swapping one raw material for another. Hankies are the number one green alternative to single-use tissues. But the thought of sneezing into one and then putting it in my pocket seems way too unhygienic –––and gross.
It’s a good thing then, that my assumption about Kimberly-Clark was wrong.
Kimberly-Clark is an American paper company that started in the 1800’s. It now has mills all over the world. It’s the largest producer of tissue products. Between 2004 and 2009, Greenpeace and the Natural Resources Defense Council targeted the giant in their online Kleercut campaign. They accused K-C of clear cut logging: a practice where acres of forests are cut down and not replenished.
The demands of the campaign included:
- Stop using wood fiber from endangered forests such as the Boreal forest.
- Stop producing tissue products using only virgin wood fibers and instead increase the use of post-consumer recycled fiber in all of its products.
- Utilize Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) eco-certified forestry operations for what virgin wood fibers it does use
A victory for us all
In 2009 Kimberly-Clark agreed to the terms, which made Kleercut one of the most successful online environmental advocacy campaigns. It also made Kimberly-Clark and Greenpeace partners in improving the impact of paper companies on the planet; of which many have put up barriers against positive environmental change and have engaged in greenwashing to hide that from consumers. Kimberly-Clark has since created a plan for sustainability that is not just for show. It has also become more transparent.
(Thanks to Samuel Wicks of the NRDC for directing me to the above article and for educating me about this great accomplishment.)
A final thought
Now, I’m not saying that just because Kimberly-Clark is doing the right things, I should continue to use 4 tissues plus per day. It’s important to reduce our consumption of single-use items, like tissues, to slow down the cycle of production, and lessen the amount of trash we bring to the landfill. So, I’ve bitten the bullet and have been using hankies (cut up old shirts, old linen napkins, old baby washcloths are hankies to me,) which I keep in my night table and at my desk. It felt weird at first to blow my nose into something that’s not paper, but now I’m okay with it. I just have a separate hankie-receptacle that I toss the cloths into when I’m done using them, the contents of which I boil before throwing in with a load of wash. But the truth is, because most of these are rags that I would have thrown out anyway, I could just as easily use toss them after each use.
But the story of Greenpeace and Kimberly-Clark has made me feel encouraged about my efforts to save the planet. I realize what I’m doing is tiny in comparison. But here’s the thing, while Greenpeace and the NRDC had gotten the ball rolling, part of the reason that K-C decided to change was because it made good business sense. If we as customers make it known that we care about the planet, and if we use our buying power to choose companies that care about it too over ones that don’t, then green production becomes smart business, as Kimberly-Clark had realized. If a big paper company like Kimberly-Clark can adopt planet-friendly ways, maybe others in the paper industry will, too. It’s a reason to feel hopeful and to keep striving to improve our own habits, no matter how small they seem. It’s also a reason why my husband and I will continue to buy Kleenex.