Earlier this year, the World Wildlife Fund published a report titled Don’t Flush Tiger Forests: Toilet Paper, U.S. Supermarkets and the Destruction of Indonesia’s Last Tiger Habitats. The report presents the link between a major producer of paper products to deforestation and habitat loss. A description of the issue is found within the report:
“Increasingly, the end products from this deforestation are winding up on U.S. supermarket shelves and in restaurants, hotels, schools and homes as tissue products. WWF set out to investigate the connection between U.S. toilet paper and tissue products and the destruction of tropical forests on the other side of the world.”
The report describes in detail the deforestation and related impacts going on in Indonesia, which includes a full market analysis of top grocery store chains and the distribution of the brands in question, as well as WWF’s history of trying to stop the deforestation. It then describes its efforts to engage top supermarket chains to support the initiative. Best practices include avoiding specific brands of toilet paper, encouraging the purchase of a Forest Stewardship Council Certified or 100% recycled toilet paper, and asking suppliers about where toilet paper comes from. Finally, it lists the results of its requests to specific supermarkets in the report, placing the list on an updated website with a link to where consumers and businesses can take a pledge not to buy paper products linked to deforestation and habitat destruction.
Though the report did not single out hotel and restaurant chains, it did with supermarket chains. The WWF has been reaching out to other buyers of bathroom tissue to get them to support the initiative and stop sourcing tissue products linked to deforestation. This case is very interesting for the insight into broader trends in sustainability today that it provides:
Increased upstream and downstream awareness. Increases in technology, transparency and supply chain engagement now allow society to view, map, understand and even quantify the impacts along the entire value chain. This isn’t necessarily new but time-old battles such as producing fur coats are simpler since we know the type of animal providing the fur. And now we add to the mix the raw materials of a building—furniture, fixtures and equipment, or operating supplies and equipment—which often are several steps up the supply chain and where the waste actually ends up.
Environmental commitment. Here we see a clear issue touching on green, eco-friendly, sustainable, corporate responsibility and commitment. This is a specific commitment for a specific aspect, and it moves away from the limited questions of “Will the guest pay more?” or “Does green pay?” Switching out sourcing in this case may not bring about operational return on investment. These types of issues force businesses to reconsider the ubiquitous and generic “we’re committed to the environment…” boilerplate language. With the cynicism and lack of trust in business today, perceived inaction on these issues may cause some to think that slogan should be qualified with, “… as long as it doesn’t cost us money or isn’t an operational hassle.” Internally, even though an organization may have to face complex challenges to address these issues, which need proper verification and understanding beforehand, public perception places immediate pressure on them.
Consumer (non) choice. Though the report encourages consumers to support the initiative, the WWF takes the stance that consumers should not have to choose to wipe responsibly. Rather it should be a given that the supermarkets in which they shop are the stewards of responsible wiping. This is interesting, particularly for our industry, as we have been encouraging the hotel guest to save the planet.
Brands and operational control. Also contained in the current supermarket list is a footnote about one particular company, IGA, which reads “IGA has noted that, as a group of independent retailers trading under the IGA brand, individual stores make their own decisions about what goods they sell. IGA is currently working with its retailers to take a stand against selling Paseo and other paper brands in IGA stores that are linked to Indonesian rainforest destruction.” Separate operations under a common brand, making their own purchase decisions about the purchase of ongoing consumables. Sound familiar?
Stacked pressure. Most interesting, in my opinion, is the before-and-after difference in the list of supermarket chains that stopped carrying the brands when WWF first published the report in February 2012, as compared to the current list to-date. In the original report, only eight of the 20 supermarkets had stopped stocking the brands, while the current list shows support from 17 of the 20. This type of combined stakeholder and peer-benchmarking pressure is representative of much of what we see in sustainability and corporate responsibility today.
Finally, and most importantly, this demonstrates the complexity of what corporate sustainability departments are dealing with on a wider range of topics and from a wider audience. In addition to the survey fatigue of responding to sustainability questionnaires, surveys and reporting frameworks, the ROI task of improving the bottom line, and roll-out of guest engagement and innovative practices, they also have to respond to issues that pose reputational risks of linking brands to unsustainable practices. New risks and opportunities arise as issues of climate change and resource depletion force us to move from caring about them to coping with them.
Eric Ricaurte works with the hotel industry and its leading companies to advance sustainability through reporting and measurement. His current activities include consulting, industry engagement, academic fellowship, column writing and publication authoring.
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