Who Gives a Crap – Toilet Paper analysis

Who Gives a Crap is a toilet paper brand that has taken the world by storm with its inventive marketing, unusual concept and funky name. The company that claims to offer a sustainable alternative to your most necessary needs will be reviewed and analysed by your trusted sustainability expert – myself.

So what is this all about?

Toilet paper is made out of trees – as surprising at it sounds – so every time you use some you chop down some precious trees.

With our daily use of toilet paper, especially the Great Toilet Paper Rush of March 2020, and the non-existent recycling of this paper, we can pinpoint the problem quite clearly. This raw material will be used and flushed away – onto the sea if you live in the UK – not recycled and this cycle repeats itself until you buy a bidet but that doesn’t seem that common in this day and age. While tracing sourcing raw material isn’t easy, some certifications acknowledge companies with better practices such as using farmed trees rather than cutting down forests but that doesn’t solve everything

You get the problem? So Who Gives a Crap decided to offer an alternative to this problem with toilet paper that is “good for the bum, great for the world” and that builds toilets. But, Do they really do that? Drumroll!

Under the young start-up vibes of their founder’s page, who gives a crap tells the story of a 50-hour long strike to raise funds for their company. Their vision is to offer toilet to the 40% of the world population that does not have them.

The Unicef reports that:

  • 60% of the world’s population live in areas that do not safely manage human waste
  • 1/3 of schools globally are without adequate toilets
  • Many girls miss school due to their periods
  • 750 children die daily due to a lack of access to toilets

Tell me about putting my life in perspective… For this reason, Who Gives a Crap gives away 50% of their profit for helping to build toilets and has donated £4.5 million so far.

Photo by Daniel Cheung on Unsplash

How sustainable is Who Gives a Crap?

The main question asked to the company is “Why they wrap their toilet paper individually in paper?”

It’s quite interesting how picky people become with a sustainable brand when others feel fine selling you literally a plastic bag. But greenwashing is spreading like a disease, encouraging the questioning of the claims. Who Gives a Crap are very transparent on their methods, decisions and certified by a stringent body which gives me some confidence they are doing something right. As they explain, hygiene standards require toilet paper to be wrapped. They chose to do it plastic-free and due to the weight of the rolls, individual wrapping was the most resource-efficient. They also found it to be a great marketing tool to make their products recognisable on social media and other news sources. All good?

Photo by Geran de Klerk on Unsplash

In term of the material, they offer toilet paper made from recycled paper or bamboo. Toilet paper is usually made out of recycled paper or most frequently virgin wood chips, similar to that bamboo toilet paper uses bamboo pulp and fibres to create very similarly toilet paper. The recent interest in bamboo-based products stems from the properties of bamboo to grow much faster and being a strong material.

Bamboo is a grass that will grow to its full size in 3 or 4 months instead of the usual 30 years for a tree. It needs no pesticides and very little watering to grow. Bamboo offers a very strong fibre and absorbs more CO2 than equivalent tree mass. The crop helps with soil erosion especially when placed in areas with monsoon preventing landslide. Unfortunately, as with any other crop when it becomes popular in the West – or perhaps I should call it a craze – forests are being cleared to grow bamboo and the chemicals to process bamboo into a usable fabric are plenty, making the end product not as quickly biodegradable as pure cotton says National Geographic and a fashion website. Overall bamboo has a very positive impact on the soil and carbon capture if used in the right areas. We must recognise that most bamboo crops are located in hot and humid regions, so nowhere near where I would consume the end result. The emissions linked to their transportation seems unavoidable for bamboo. However, there is a growing worry that bamboo plantations will expand into areas that used to be forests or competing for space with food crops. As mentioned before, the process to make the crop into fibre requires the use of heavy chemicals. Although Who Gives a Crap claims they do not use chemicals, they are probably using a mechanical process that is more expensive and labour intensive according to this bamboozling article but I am not able to prove it to you. While bamboo seems like a very good option, it is not the silver bullet everyone is hoping for and the craze is one of the current sustainability issues we run into (think palm oil or bio-fuels).

In terms of sustainability, we also have to think about how this wonderful little piece of bamboo or paper breaks down in the dirty water system (will it end up in the sea like the UK?). In the best instance, the pressure from the toilet flush will break down the paper, however too much paper can lead to clogging and a fun Sunday evening for you. In this regard, bamboo is as good or perhaps better than tree-made toilet paper. The more chemicals are on the paper – scents, aloe etc – the less easy it is to break down so a mechanically treated bamboo is better for this matter too. Anything is better than wet wipes in the end.

Photo by Franco Mariuzza on Unsplash

The company is B corp certified, quite a certification if you ask me. To achieve this level of requirements balancing profit and purpose using business as a source of good. “The combination of third-party validation, public transparency, and legal accountability help Certified B Corps build trust and value.”  It measures the company’s entire social and environmental governance and the organisations are legally bound to their commitments. This is pretty good, Who Gives a Crap claims to support the environment and social causes and the practices are certified by a leading stamp of approval.

One of the main questions people ask is where they manufacture. It comes as no surprise that some countries have tighter legislation when it comes to working conditions, raw material sourcing and further technology in transportation that would support or hinder the company’s vision. The company is very transparent on their manufacturing being in China which has the advantage to allow them to use local bamboo and plenty of post-consumer wood chips, more flexibility around manufacturing options such as the ability to wrap their product in paper rather than plastic and box them by 48. While I have heard of a few sustainable companies producing in China or South Asia while monitoring the practices, I would not be able to say whether this is possible. What is clear is that the cost of production will be much lower supporting their vision of creating better toilets around the world and less shipping for the bamboo. Regarding the quality and processes of manufacturing, I would stay cautious of assuming it works all the time but B corp certifications must have also done their work there.

The last selling point of this toilet paper is its delivery: the emissions are offset from shipping to your door. While offsetting isn’t the solution to everything it is likely to be better than not. I have calculated that getting a box of toilet paper from Shanghai to me (an average as it is made in China) would emit 14kg Co2e. That is roughly a 55km drive with my petrol car.

The social enterprise is part of a new breed of companies with a purpose that believe in using their profit to help communities and further the pursue of Sustainability Development Goals. It seems to me that with the right vision, most things can be improved. I recall the company being smaller and doing only recycled paper and subscription.

Are you ready to switch toilet paper? Does Who Gives a Crap seem like a good alternative to you or a new product hype for a “sustainable swap”?


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