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Whole Health: On a Roll

Supermarkets hope to spur paper product sales with innovative, eco-friendly selections

SALES OF PAPER PRODUCTS MAY HAVE matured, but that doesn't mean retailers and manufacturers are happy staying the course. On the contrary, they're pushing natural lines harder than ever and coming up with clever innovations to liven up the category.

According to market research firm Mintel, Chicago, paper product sales grew by 9.1% between 2005 and this year. Since 2008, however, market growth has slowed considerably — to 1.3%. That's encouraged companies to shift their focus, and naturally, many of them have turned to eco-friendly lines of napkins, toilet paper, paper towels and tissues.

“There are a couple of categories that are top-of-mind when it comes to sustainability, and paper products is one of those,” said Laurie Demeritt, president of the Hartman Group, a whole health consulting firm based in Bellevue, Wash.

This summer, Wal-Mart Stores began stocking Seventh Generation products in more than 1,500 of its stores — a move viewed throughout the industry as a sweeping acknowledgement of the popularity of environmentally positioned brands. Started 20 years ago, Seventh Generation has grown from a cottage industry into a multimillion-dollar company that offers a wide range of paper and household cleaning products. In addition to expanding it distribution, Seventh Generation will also leverage its “green” marketing expertise by partnering with Wal-Mart on sustainability promotions and research.

Paper products were pioneers of the sustainable product movement, Demeritt noted, and so have built up wide distribution throughout the industry. Nowadays, most traditional supermarkets carry 100% recycled, dye-free toilet paper right next to the standard ultra-soft double rolls.

“We're represented in every paper category with at least one or two brands of natural products, and we're completely integrated,” said Brian Williams, grocery manager at Pennington Quality Market in Pennington, N.J.

To further capitalize on awareness and at the same time offer a competitive price point, many retailers have developed premium lines that rival national brands. Publix Super Markets, for instance, offers several paper products under its Greenwise label, including double rolls of 100% recycled toilet paper.

Offers like this have convinced numerous shoppers to make the transition. Mintel data shows that 43% of consumers say they're buying more private-label paper products this year.

“While national brands are expanding offerings in lower price points, private-label offerings are expanding into upper price points with premium products that integrate many of the features of national brands,” stated a recent Mintel category report.

Mainstream brands, which control three-quarters of the market, aren't taking any of this sitting down. Kimberly-Clark has made inroads with its Scott Naturals line of paper towels, napkins, toilet paper and sanitary wipes. This fall, the company went a step further with the release of a tubeless line of toilet paper, now undergoing a trial run at Wal-Mart and Sam's Club locations in the Northeast.

Americans use 17 billion rolls of toilet paper per year, equivalent to 160 million pounds of waste.

“There's not a lot of consumer value, if any, to having the cardboard tube,” said Doug Daniels, strategy and innovation brand manager for Scott. “For us, it was something that we've thought for a long time — hey, did we really have to have that in there?”

Other companies are staying competitive with green-themed promotions. Earlier this year, Atlanta-based Georgia-Pacific announced a deal with Mother Nature Network, an environmental news website, to sponsor content and stories about the paper company's sustainability initiatives. Marcal, which manufactures a green line of paper products called Small Steps, recently proclaimed itself “the official sponsor of fall foliage.”

At Pennington Quality Market, natural lines of paper towels and toilet paper are showing strong growth, according to Williams, while tissues and napkins are moving more slowly. That's in line with national sales trends, according to Mintel, with toilet paper growing 17.7% over the past year and paper towels 11%, while facial tissues have declined in sales by 6% over the past five years and napkins by 8%.

One reason for the decline in napkin and tissue sales is the growing tendency for consumers to repurpose their paper products. Call it a symptom of the recession: Rather than pay for multiple boxes and rolls, they're using paper towels as napkins, toilet paper as tissues, and so on. This represents a conundrum for the companies that have worked hard to court green behaviors, only to see consumers redefine the game.

Some companies have stepped up to the challenge. 3M offers reusable cloths made from renewable materials. Niche brands like Twist, meanwhile, sell reusable wipes that are also biodegradable. Indeed, market research suggests that the next frontier in the category is multi-use products made from natural materials.

“About a third of respondents report using reusable products instead of paper ones in seeking out eco-friendly brands,” stated Mintel. “Almost one in three also report being willing to pay more for products with recycled materials.”


  • Comfort is key in this category. Ideally, promotions should include samples that shoppers can feel.
  • Competitive price points invite integrated merchandising.
  • If shelf space is an issue, at least offer a recycled paper toilet tissue, the category leader.

Down the Tube

It sounds very Zen — taking the tube out of the toilet paper. And yet, that's just what Kimberly-Clark has done with the newest offering under its Scott Naturals brand.

In a paper product category that's fairly mature in terms of sales — totaling $8.3 billion, with only 1.3% growth over the past two years — innovation needs to extend beyond simply making products softer, stronger and more absorbent, according to market research firm Mintel. By removing the cardboard tube from inside toilet paper rolls, Kimberly-Clark says it can make a dent in the 17 billion rolls used every year by American consumers.

“It sends an obvious, tangible signal that this is a sustainable product,” said Doug Daniels, strategy and brand innovation manager for Scott.

The tube-free rolls are wound in such a way that allows them to fit on standard toilet paper rollers, though the holes are not perfectly round.

As for the tubes themselves, companies and environmental groups encourage recycling. That can be tough, however, since bathrooms don't often have recycling bins.

“You can recycle the cardboard tubes, but the vast majority of consumers don't,” said Daniels.