The pitch to switch to eco-friendly toilet paper mainly boils down to color

Bamboo brown.
Bamboo brown.
Image: Plant Paper
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During the early months of the pandemic, toilet paper was such in high demand that it became known as “white gold“. In the US, premium pillow-soft brands were so coveted that some consumers were willing to shell out $10 a roll.

PlantPaper, a startup that sells unbleached toilet paper with a hue that’s been likened to “oat milk cappuccino,” has been speaking about the true cost of white toilet paper. It turns out that most industrially made toilet paper contains trace amounts of potentially harmful bleaching agents that have been found to cause skin irritations or urinary tract infection. One 2019 study even links the whiteners found in toilet tissue with a rise in cancer incidents in Ghana.

Meeting the high demand for TP also has a great impact on our ecosystems. In a 2019 report titled “The Issue with Tissue,” the US Natural Resources Defense Council outlined how much the US toilet paper industry is to blame for the destruction of Canada’s boreal forest. Alternatives made with recycled content don’t solve the problem either. Because bathroom tissues are produced with waste pulp—think office paper, corrugated boxes, old newspapers—they have to undergo a lot of processing to get to those pristine, ultra-soft, lily-white rolls we love. It takes gallons of water and chemicals to produce a single roll of toilet paper; the whiter and softer the brand, the more processing it has undergone.

But for all these known health and environmental factors, PlantPaper’s pitch also has to reckon with deep-set cultural attitudes about color. In Western culture, the color white is associated with purity, safety, and goodness. Going against this norm is an even greater challenge for brands that sell products that touch sensitive parts of our bodies.

“It wouldn’t be the first time that something people associated whiteness and quality,” says Lee Reitelman, who co-founded PlantPaper with sustainability expert Deeva Green and art director Scott Barry in 2017. “There’s an amazing opportunity to push back against all that,” Reitelman says.

Brief history of TP

Toilet paper hasn’t always been white.

The Chinese, who are credited for first using paper as a cleaning aid, repurposed scraps from manuscripts. In the Ming Dynasty, some emperors spent a fortune on perfumed silk sheets for their households.

Advertising for Gayetty's Medicated Paper
Advertising for Gayetty’s Medicated Paper

Before the 1900s, most Americans cleaned themselves with old newspapers or pages from old catalogs and back issues of the Farmer’s Almanac. Inventor Joseph Gayetty sold aloe-soaked sheets of Manila hemp as an anti-hemorrhoid product in 1857.  Gayetty’s business ultimately tanked because most customers couldn’t stomach the idea of spending for his medicated papers when so many free alternatives were around.

It would take nearly 30 years before toilet paper, as we know it, would become a household necessity. Marketing savvy brothers E. Irvin and Clarence Scott, inventors of Scott Toilet Paper, are credited for making it a mass commodity in the US.

Today, the global toilet paper industry is worth about $26 billion. The average American consumer uses about 140 rolls each year.

Eco-branding color games: White vs. brown

PlantPaper’s light brown hue is derived from the bamboo fiber it’s made of. Barry says the company didn’t do any type of manipulation to arrive at the color. “By removing bleach [from the manufacturing process], this beautiful color came through and that’s what it should be,” he says. “It was a very specific design decision.”

A number of bamboo-based toilet paper brands in various shades of white and brown have emerged in recent years, but Reitelman contends that PlantPaper is among the few to reject using bleach altogether. The UK brand Who Gives A Crap says on its website that it bleaches its products with chlorine dioxide and hydrogen peroxide because it knows that “people get uncomfortable when their loo rolls aren’t sparkly white.”

Cascades, among the first brands to pitch the virtues of “mocha” colored toilet paper, didn’t exactly become a household name since it launched nine years ago.

Indeed, Reitelman recalls encountering resistance during Plant Paper’s development phase. Manufacturers warned that consumers would never buy toilet paper that looked anything less than pure white. They also learned that some customers just didn’t like the aesthetics of seeing a brown roll of toilet paper in their color-coordinated bathrooms, Green adds.

“Even though the color might have been an impediment to some, it’s something we didn’t want to compromise on,” explains Reitelman.”We believed that we might actually turn it to our advantage.”

Reitelman points to the history of consumer goods like organic eggs and whole wheat bread that have made the leap from white to brown. “White meant it that it was fit for consumption by privileged individuals. I think people feel very differently now, they want something that looks natural,” he observes. “You’re probably going to see higher prices on those because the color somehow signifies that they’re of a higher quality.”

Brown bread and brown eggs
Brown can be better.
Image: Reuters

Plant Paper’s founders might also be buoyed by the rise of brown as a marquee color for sustainable brands. Seventh Generation, for instance, dyes its baby diapers light brown to stand out as an eco-friendly option.

Of course, color-based branding can be highly misleading. As The Wall Street Journal noted back in 2012, companies like Dunkin’ Donuts and Target switched to brown paper napkins to hint at their commitment to sustainability, but this didn’t necessarily correspond to any meaningful action.

Green says customers who are willing to go past the optics will realize that less-than-white toilet paper can feel as luxurious as premium bleached varieties. “The product itself is not thin, shitty toilet paper,” she argues, referring to Plant Paper’s absorbent texture. She says that a roll of brown toilet paper also serve as a reminder that micro-actions can lead to changing planet-polluting standards. “Every time we go to pee, it can be a reminder that we can do something as consumers, even if it’s as simple as choosing a different-color toilet paper,” she says.