Last updated: Mar 2007
In a world realising that current levels of consumerism are unsustainable, what is the role of a company making products that are used once and thrown away?
As we all adjust to the environmentalist mantra reduce, reuse, recycle, Kimberly-Clark continues to produce disposable toilet paper, nappies, facial tissue, napkins, sanitary protection and paper towels. Household names like Andrex, Huggies, Kleenex and Kotex are playing their role in our mission to leave a barren and uninhabitable junk yard of a planet for future generations.
Items like disposable nappies have been criticised for ending up in landfills, tissues are made from trees from valuable forest resources, and continuously manufacturing ephemeral items such as facial tissues squanders raw materials and energy. In this context, it’s a bit disheartening when you spot Kimberly-Clark’s Kleenex website proudly stating it will not use recycled paper for tissues because virgin fibre “provides the superior softness consumers expect from a premium facial tissue product.”
Kimberly-Clark has attracted criticism for using animal tested ingredients, environmental impacts, misleading marketing claims, logging ancient forests, pollution and excessive directors’ pay over the years. For example, the University of Massachusetts listed Kimberly-Clark as number 96 in the top 100 polluting companies in the US. The rating was based on figures from 2002. All this against a background of exorbitant salaries, according to US trade union AFL-CIO. In 2005 the CEO of Kimberly-Clark was paid $9,664,784 (£4,981,848) in total compensation and had another $10,162,317 (£5,238,308) in unexercised stock options.
Kimberly-Clark’s involvement in disposable nappies has added insult to injury. They are made from paper and plastic, and plastic requires fossil fuels for its manufacture. It is estimated that 4% of the world’s annual oil production is used as a feedstock for plastics production, and an extra 3-4% during manufacture.
They also contain bleach, whiteners and gels which take a long time to biodegrade. “Huggies Pull-Ups training-pant nappies” have been singled out because they encourage parents to buy high-impact environmental products when their children no longer need nappies.
The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) also overturned a complaint in February 2003 by the Absorbent Hygiene Product Manufacturers Association, of which Kimberly-Clark was a member, about waste and savings that could be made if parents re-used nappies. Liz Sutton from Women’s Environmental Network stated that “The success of our appeal is a landmark in the struggle between an environmental charity and the huge companies which profit from environmentally costly products”.
Kimberly-Clark has responded to such criticism with an array of corporate social responsibility (CSR) documents. It has been practising CSR since 1990, and much of the documentation is complete with beautiful images of trees. Environmental reports dating back to 2001 are available on its website, and its most recent report (dated 2005) contained discussions on carbon emissions and sourcing of wood pulp. The report included a large number of past achievements and figures.
However, it did not include any fixed or measurable targets for future environmental performance, and was not independently verified. It did contain mentions that the company had a plan called ‘Vision 2010’ which could be taken to include such targets. ECRA has awarded Kimberly-Clark its worst rating for environmental reporting.
WWF is working with the major companies that produce tissues for the European market, including Kimberly-Clark. It is aiming to improve their records on sustainability issues. WWF’s report ‘Second Scoring of the Tissue Giants’ was a detailed analysis of sustainability under the headings in the table above that was published in late 2006. It compared companies’ ratings from 2005 and 2006, and plans to re-score them in 2007.
Kimberly-Clark scored 40% overall in the six categories, and this was a middle rating, which WWF claimed showed “encouraging signs but still major issues to address.”9 Kimberly-Clark had improved from its last position in 2005, when it scored 24%. Helmas Brandlmaier from WWF’s Global Forests Programme says “We welcome the improvements made, but we urge these companies to seriously work on the persistent weaknesses identified in the assessment.”
Kimberly-Clark’s ratings are shown in the table above, and this clearly shows that its main improvements have been in reporting rather than actually improving environmental impacts. WWF’s accompanying statement to the tissue report states ‘WWF is critical of retailers who demand virgin fibre for luxury, bright white and fluffy tissue products.’ Let’s hope the scoring in 2007 pushes companies forward on this, rather than just recording their impacts.
The Kleercut campaign
Greenpeace USA are focusing on Kimberly-Clark because the company is destroying ancient forests in North America. The forests are being clearcut, a particularly destructive form of logging, where most if not all trees are removed from an area of forest.
“Kimberly-Clark has been unwilling to listen to common sense and good business practice, so we are taking our message to the global public,” said Richard Brooks, forests campaign coordinator with Greenpeace Canada. “Canada’s boreal forest is too ecologically important, especially in fighting global warming, to destroy it to make toilet paper and facial tissue for markets in Europe or North America.”
As you painstakingly recycle every bit of plastic, cut out dairy from your diet and pledge not to fly, its hard to not feel bitter as Kimberly-Clark destroys a carbon storehouse. Such forests are essential in fighting climate change, as they store large amounts of carbon that would otherwise contribute to global warming. Forest protection can play a critical role in alleviating global climate change, but Kimberly-Clark is destroying one of the largest intact ecosystems.
The boreal is home to numerous aboriginal communities, and hundreds of species of birds and animals. Wildlife like bald eagles, boreal owls, black and grizzly bears, the endangered woodland caribou and wolverines are all threatened.
In December, Greenpeace brought European public attention to Kimberly-Clark’s clearcutting of Canada’s boreal forest through an advert in the International Herald Tribune. The ad shows a Kleenex tissue box and instructions on how to continue destroying ancient forests using the company’s products.
“European consumer markets are particularly sensitive to environmental issues such as this one,” said Greenpeace’s Richard Brooks.” Since Kimberly-Clark has decided not to stop its destruction of Canada’s boreal forest, we have no choice but to educate these consumers and urge them to stop buying Kimberly-Clark products.”
More then 700 businesses have signed up to the boycott of Kimberly-Clark products. Greenpeace are calling for Kimberly-Clark to stop making throw-away tissues like Kleenex from clear-cut ancient forests, including the Canadian boreal. Greenpeace want Kimberly-Clark to increase the content of recycled fibre in all its products, and only purchase virgin fibre from logging operations that are certified as sustainable by the Forest Stewardship Council.
In the mid-nineties Kimberly-Clark was involved in the tobacco industry, but this was spun off due to pressure from ethical consumers. We can make them see sense on tissues too.
- Avoid disposable products! Especially those, like Kimberly-Clark’s, made from non-recycled fibres. Handkerchiefs, cloth nappies, and face flannels were perfectly acceptable once, and they must be again.
- Read Ethical Consumer’s report on sanitary protection.
2 Naturewatch Shopping Guide, 2004
3 www.peri.umass.edu 2006
4 Executive Pay Watch, AFLCIO, 09/06
5 Earth Island Journal, 03/00
6 WEN news, Spring 2003
7 ‘Plastics Recycling Information Sheet,’ Wastewatch, viewed on 16/1/07
9 ‘Tissue giants get mixed scores for forest-friendly practices,’ WWF 11/10/06
10 Corporate Examiner, Vol 24, No5 1/1/95
From Ethical Consumer, Issue 105, March/April 2007