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Kimberly-Clark Greenpeace Agreement: Milestone or greenwashing?

August 21, 2009

kleercut-case-closed-430px-300x181By Deborah Fleischer, Green Impact

After years of being worn down by Greenpeace’s arsenal of corporate campaign tools,  Kimberly-Clark, the maker of Kleenex, Scott and Cottonelle brands,  recently announced stronger fiber sourcing standards that will increase conservation of forests globally.

Greenpeace, which worked with Kimberly-Clark on its revised standards, announced that it will end its “Kleercut” campaign, which focused on the company and its brands.

Corporate campaign as a strategy

Corporations often need an extra push before they will begin to seriously address sustainability issues. The Kleercut campaign is a great success story of using media and the marketplace to associate a brand with bad environmental practices, ultimately moving Kimberly-Clark to change its ways. And Greenpeace even managed to ultimately gain respect from Kimberly-Clark in the end.

“We commend Greenpeace for helping us develop more sustainable standards.” said Suhas Apte, Kimberly-Clark Vice President of Environment, Energy, Safety, Quality and Sustainability.

Details of the deal

As posted on the Greenpeace blog, here is a summary of the deal:

  • Kimberly-Clark now has a goal of obtaining 100 percent of the wood fiber for its products — including its flagship brand, Kleenex — from environmentally responsible sources (that means recycled or FSC).
  • By the end of 2011, the company will get out of the Boreal Forest and only buy pulp that is Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) -certified.
  • The policy pledges to protect the integrity of High Conservation Value Forests and will keep Kimberly-Clark and its suppliers out of Endangered Forests.

The big winner is ancient forests

“Today, ancient forests like the Boreal Forest have won,” said Richard Brooks, Greenpeace Canada Forest Campaign Coordinator. “This new relationship between Kimberly-Clark and Greenpeace will promote forest conservation, responsible forest management, and recycled fiber as far and wide as possible.”

By the end of 2011, Kimberly-Clark will ensure that 40 percent of its North American tissue fiber – representing an estimated 600,000 tonnes – is either recycled or FSC certified, an increase of more than 70 percent over 2007 levels.

Grist.org interviewed Michael Conroy, an expert on grassroots campaigns. “This is a huge victory for global forests, the FSC, and Greenpeace,” he replied. “Kimberly-Clark is the world’s largest manufacturer of tissue paper products. The nature of the commitments, the specific timetables provided, and the Kimberly-Clark agreement to report back regularly on what proportion of the fiber sourced for its tissue has come from recycled and FSC-certified sources makes this a very credible commitment.”

Conroy also pointed out that the conclusion of Kleercut, which “used print media, social networking, YouTube videos, and incredibly creative ways to wear down Kimberly-Clark resistance, shows that the new tools for communicating with consumers are bringing even more power to civil society as we seek to transform the social and environmental practices of the world’s largest corporations.”

Will this announcement challenge the industry as a whole?

Corporate campaigns typically focus on a single name-brand market leader that can serve as a high-profile target. The target in this case, Kimberly-Clark, is not directly responsible for devastating old-growth forests, but targetting the logging companies directly would be difficult. It tends to be more effective to target those downstream in the process, who have the purchasing power to push changes down the supply chain.

Will this announcement set a new business best practice and challenge the industry as a whole to transform?

Marcal calls the agreement greenwashing

Marcal, a tree-friendly paper goods company that sells only 100% recycled paper products, calls the agreement greenwashing.

I had the chance to speak directly with Marcal’s CEO Tim Spring, as well as with Greenpeace, NRDC and Kimberly-Clark. Needless to say, the devil is in the details when it comes to this agreement.

Greenpeace double standard?

Greenpeace’s Recycled Tissue and Toilet Paper Guide penalizes Marcal because their  post-consumer content is not high enough (see Green Flushes).

“The celebration of the agreement with Kimberly-Clark is so much lower in altitude, it is an obscene double standard.”

While the agreement is a success for getting Kimberly-Clark out of old growth forests, there is more to the story.

Marcal’s key point is how can Greenpeace publish a guide that stresses the importance of having over 50-percent post-consumer content, and then promote the success of the agreement with Kimberly-Clark, when it lacks any specific targets for recycled fiber and post-consumer content?

Spring accused Kimberly-Clark of being “the masters of greenwashing.” He continues, “There is no commitment at all to go to recycled fiber. I am just shocked.”

And NRDC’s Allen Hershkowitz’s recent post agrees that Kimberly-Clark’s products remain problematic.

Greenpeace’s response to criticisms

When I spoke with Richard Brooks, Greenpeace Canada Forest Campaign Coordinator, he referred me to page three of the actual Fiber Policy. The policy states they will pursue opportunities to increase recycled content and give preference to post-consumer fiber. At the end of 2008, they currently are at 21.4 percent recycled content, with the majority (17 percent) of that post-consumer.

He explains, “There should be a realization on everyone’s part this is a vary large company with a very large footprint.  We need to be realistic about what we can expect them to do in a short period of time.  That is why we were comfortable with the agreement we did get.”

The lack of specific public  targets for increasing recycled content and post-consumer recycled content is an obvious flaw with the agreement, but Greenpeace says they pushed Kimberly-Clark to “the edge of their comfort zone.” They felt more comfortable releasing a combined goal, because they are so large and have such a broad range of products.

“I don’t think we will be seeing a decrease in recycled fiber by the company,” stresses Brooks.

Kimberly-Clark–“They like it soft.”

Kay Jackson from corporate communications at Kimberly Clark stressed that the US market “likes it soft.” As a brand, they have focused on delivering the highest quality product.  They must balance more recycled content with consumer demands for softness.   She also commented that they are working to be sure there is the capacity to meet their recycled-content goals. “It is a complex issue,” she concludes.

I have arrived as a blogger.

After the call with Marcal a box full of samples arrived at my door.  Being the complete investigator that I am, I went to the store and bought Scott 1000 and Charmin UtlraStrong. What is all this fuss about softness? I honestly don’t feel a big difference between the Scott, which is a Kimberly-Clark product, and the Marcal.

On the other hand, the Charmin is super soft and fluffy. Procter & Gamble, are you paying attention? You might be the next target.

Take action

Is it worth killing trees for a softer wipe? Personally, I say no. And part of me thinks companies like Kimberly-Clark should take a leadership role and increase their recycled content, even if it means a slightly less fluffy wipe. But as long as the Charmin’s are on the market, I doubt this will happen, due to the risk of losing market share. As a friend commented, it is like the arms race.  As long as anyone has the soft and fluffy on the market, it will be hard to ensure a real shift.

The solution? Companies need to hear a strong and loud signal from consumers that they don’t want to kill trees for their TP.

Go to NRDC’s action center and let Kimberly-Clark know that recycled content is important to you. And P&G, give me a call so I can help you figure out this complex issue!

More to come…

Stay tuned for part II of this series, which will dive into more depth on some of these issues, including pre-consumer versus post-consumer content and systemic capacity issues. Do you know where the paper you leave at the curb is going? And did you know only 10 percent of office buildings recycle their paper?

***

Deborah Fleischer, founder and president of Green Impact, works with mid-sized companies to launch green initiatives that encourage innovation and grow market share. She brings expertise in sustainability strategy, program development, stakeholder partnerships and written communications. You can follow her occasional tweet at GreenImpact.

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