Over the last decade or so, people have become increasingly interested in where their products come from and whether they align with their values. Starbucks customers can trace their coffee back to the farm where it was grown; Patagonia will tell you where its Better Sweater fleece was made.
But what about toilet paper? A new ad campaign is hyping a start-up called Flush, that wants you to know which old growth forest you’re wiping with.
OK, not really. Flush is, thankfully, completely fake. But the campaign is from a real toilet paper start-up called Cloud Paper, which makes TP and paper towels out of bamboo. Launched in 2019, Cloud Paper has an impressive list of backers, including Marc Benioff, Mark Cuban, Robert Downey Jr.’s FootPrint Coalition Ventures fund, Ashton Kutcher, Gwyneth Paltrow, Guy Oseary, Code.org CEO Hadi Partovi, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, NFL star Russell Wilson, and Ciara.
Cloud Paper cofounder Ryan Fritsch is hoping the juuuust about believable absurdity of Flush will get people’s attention, not just for his own brand, but about the deforestation perpetrated by Big TP. “With Flush, we’re just trying to start this conversation, get people to stop and think a bit more about why things are the way they are,” says Fritsch, who cofounded Cloud Paper after working in operations at Uber and freight startup Convoy. “Then we can have that conversation.”
When creating the fake ad, “we spent a lot of time on what the personality and character of the CEO [would be], like the type of person who would actually say they wanted to be the Glossier of toilet paper,” says Fritsch. “We’re not trying to mock it, but we did want it to force people to ask, ‘Is this real?'”
Instagram apparently didn’t appreciate the dupe, taking down the Flush Instagram account on Tuesday, without explanation. (Fast Company reached out to Instagram to confirm but did not receive a reply at press time.)
Fritsch says toilet paper and paper towels are a $20 billion business in the U.S., monopolized by three companies: P&G (Charmin), Georgia-Pacific (Angel Soft, Quilted Northern), and Kimberly-Clark (Scott). But while much of the companies’ marketing around sustainability focuses on replanting trees, they source from environmentally crucial areas like Canada’s boreal forest.
That boreal forest is the largest remaining forest on the planet, and according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), stores more carbon acre for acre than any other ecosystem besides mangroves. Shelley Vinyard, the NRDC’s boreal corporate campaign manager, told me last week that simply replanting clear cut forests isn’t sustainable. “Anyone can tell the difference between a Christmas tree farm and an old growth forest,” said Vinyard. “Science shows that intact forests, forests that have never been logged before, are critically important to staving off the worst effects of the climate emergency.”
And that’s where Cloud Paper comes in. Bamboo is one of the fastest-growing plants in the world and can be harvested in as little as three years, making it a sustainable alternative to tree-based paper, while still matching its quality and cost.
Toilet paper is such a routine product that most of us don’t even think about it. That doesn’t give major companies an incentive to change. “Toilet paper is a consistent, steady business,” says Fritsch. “These big companies are being hit from all angles, from the new natural deodorant to the new plastic-free toothpaste, and so on. Toilet paper is at the bottom of the list of things they want to shake up, because it’s such a cash cow.”
There are other bamboo toilet paper competitors, including Reel, Who Gives A Crap, Tushy, and Ecoboo. Then there are recycled options like Unilever’s Seventh Generation. But Fritsch says too many alternatives don’t take sustainability far enough—like shipping recycled toilet paper in plastic packaging—or are simply offshoots of larger companies that churn out the regular stuff as well. Cloud Paper has used plastic-free packaging from the start, and buys double the carbon offsets that it uses in shipping and distribution.
As for Flush, created with Portland, Oregon-based agency Buena, Fritsch hopes it’s able to help bring the kind of attention to toilet paper that has recently been focused on plastic and packaging. Cloud Paper is trying to look at the long game, beyond just another direct-to-consumer company spamming you with Instagram ads.
“We want to push this narrative of going tree-free,” says Fritsch. “To rally broad, cultural support around that, rather than just selling as much TP as we can.”