Green manufacturing practices and products continue to be front and centre of the industry agenda in the consumer tissue industry. While recycled products remain the mainstay of eco-friendly tissue found in the retail and away-from-home markets, recent years have also seen a number of other approaches to the development of more sustainable tissue products, such as the use of materials other than recycled fibre.
As a part of ongoing research into trends and developments in the realm of green consumer tissue, Euromonitor International spoke with Peter Rostami, VP of Global Sourcing, at California-based NatureZway. The company manufactures and markets toilet paper using 100% bamboo pulp.
1) Development of eco-friendly tissue products is not a new trend. However, these products remain relatively small in terms of retail sales, compared to “standard” tissue. Quality and price are often cited as factors behind fairly limited consumer demand. The situation is also complicated by the fact that most consumer tissue brands are subject to constant promotions, and many Americans are used to discounts on what they consider household staples. What is your take on the balance of price and “green” quality?
Offering best value is, in fact, a part of our mission statement. Consumers like more sustainable, more eco-friendly products. However, if retail price is high, only a very small proportion of consumers would switch from standard to green products. Our goal is to work out, through a combination of technology and supply chain, how to bring the price of products closer to the price of standard products. If we bring prices down, more people will be willing to switch. Of course some consumers are set in their purchasing habits and are loyal to specific brands. Nonetheless, with the right price we are likely to see more consumers switching to eco-friendly tissue.
2) There are a number of alternative sources that are being tried in consumer tissue to replace virgin pulp and to also anticipate the expected shortage of recycled materials in the future. Could you comment on the advantages of using bamboo?
The switch from wood pulp to more sustainable and renewable sources of fibre is on the agenda. Grass family, such as wheat straw, sugar cane bagasse, and bamboo, offers such an opportunity. Tissue production, however, requires a large amount of biomass to convert. Based on current production technologies and what is available to our company, bamboo became our choice. We brought it to the market now rather than years from now.
We didn’t want to develop a business model based on the use of recycled materials for a number of reasons. First, recycled materials are becoming increasingly scarce. Also, with the use of recycled fibre we would have no control over the quality of raw materials. Recycled materials contain resins, such as BPA, which leads to environmental problems like water contamination. Bamboo, on the other hand, is fast growing and thus fast renewable as a source, and it gives us better control over the quality of raw materials and sustainability.
3) What are some of the main challenges you are facing, in terms of production, distribution and consumer acceptance?
Our biggest challenge is consumer awareness and acceptance. People have certain habits and lifestyles, including the use of tissue products. With the switch to green products, they are being asked to make new decisions, to change their behaviour, to be more aware and more educated when making choices. To facilitate the transition, we are trying to remove price difference between green tissue and standard products.
In terms of production processes, such a change in sources of fibre does not really involve drastic changes in production processes for the entire industry. Most manufacturers use the same production systems and can adapt to the use of these materials. Besides, grass-based raw materials can be grown almost anywhere and are accessible. We are looking at increasing field acreage for such raw materials. Since we started, the bamboo plantation area that we source our raw material from has grown.
There are no significant challenges in terms of supply chain. It is a matter of getting more consumers to switch to the products.
4) How would you describe a typical consumer of NatureZway tissue products?
Our typical customer is well-educated and younger, from around mid-20s up to about mid-40s. Also, we see both men and women purchasing the products. More educated consumers are more aware of the sustainable products and practices.
5) What are some of the key retail distribution channels for NatureZway products? We see large retailers like Bed, Bath & Beyond, Costco, Target, Whole Foods also carrying the products now.
Indeed, we finally see more retailers willing to try our products. When we started two years ago, we encountered more resistance. The retailers have limited shelf space and preferred large brands. It was very difficult to get in. However, we did a lot of tests and tried different types of retail channels. Our challenge was to raise buyer awareness. Now they are more familiar with the products and are becoming more flexible.
6) What are some of the marketing strategies you are using, eg digital/social media, others, to raise the awareness about your products?
We use social media, such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, as well as digital marketing. We also have a PR firm on board working with the media and bloggers.
7) How do you see the future of NatureZway consumer tissue products and “green” products in general? Challenges/opportunities ahead?
We already see the growth now, but we are far from maturity. Everybody realises the switch towards more sustainable products needs to happen. How fast and the paths to achieve this goal is what everyone is working on.
We are a small company. But our actions have encouraged further changes in the behaviour of owners of larger brands. To that end, this behaviour will shift the entire industry in the direction of greener tissue products.
Obviously, one of the challenges for all small companies is funding. Eco-friendly products were not on investors’ radar, as they should have been. When we started, we could see this challenge. However, fortunately, this is changing as well.