Welcome to Bathroom Break, Refinery29’s series all about poo and the complicated relationship we have with our bowels. To see the rest of the articles, click here.
In the winter of 1973, against the backdrop of an oil crisis and worldwide economic slump, the television host Johnny Carson sparked a run on toilet paper after declaring to a Tonight Show audience of millions that the United States was experiencing an "acute shortage" of the stuff. As it happened there was nothing to worry about – a Wisconsin congressman, beset by complaints of a shortage of pulp paper in his densely forested constituency, had stumbled across reports of a parallel tissue shortage in Japan and put two and two together to make five – but Carson’s influence combined with media hysteria to get the knickers of an American public already struggling with shortages of everything from onions to electricity in a proverbial twist. Panic buying ensued and before long supermarket shelves across the country were stripped bare, with customers restricted to just two rolls each.
The slow trudge of lockdown makes it seem like a distant dream but seven months ago much of the Western world found itself in a similar situation. News of an encroaching enemy, invisible but deadly, drove us to the shops to lay our hands on whatever we thought might see us safely through quarantine. Store cupboard staples – garlic, eggs, pasta – were among the first to disappear but toilet paper was the biggest ticket item of all. In Hong Kong, armed robbers stole 600 rolls from a delivery worker outside a supermarket. Some European toilet paper manufacturers reported a 700% increase in sales. And we’ve probably all seen the video of customers in a Sydney store playing tug-of-war with a trolley full of Quilton. Arguably there are more essential 'essentials' (toothpaste anyone?) yet the prospect of tending to a dirty bottom without a helping handful of three-ply is evidently too much reality for many of us to bear.
It might interest you to know that, globally speaking, us papyrophiles are in the vast minority: around 70% of the world’s population does not use toilet paper at all. The reasons for this – and the alternatives – are many and varied, ranging from religious to socioeconomic. Islam, for instance, encourages cleanliness of the body as well as the spirit and many Muslims use a vessel filled with water, known as a lota, to wash themselves after visiting the toilet. Bidets are common in southern Europe while further north, Finland – one third of which is above the Arctic Circle, remember – is home to the hand shower, or 'bum gun' (one can only assume that Finnish bathrooms are extremely well insulated). When it comes to toilet technology, Japan of course is head and shoulders (hips and arse?) ahead of everyone else: half of the country’s households have a jet spray toilet and the latest models not only wash and dry but also massage your buttocks, can adjust the temperature of the room and will no doubt bake you a cake for afters. At the other end of the spectrum, those in poorer or underdeveloped countries without access to proper sanitation might clean themselves with schoolbook paper, leaves, grass, stones, corn cobs or simply their hands.
Read the testimonies of those who use water and you may well wonder why we bother with toilet paper in the first place. Back in 16th century France, the satirist François Rabelais was wondering the same thing. In his comic novels Gargantua and Pantagruel, in what is believed to be the earliest reference to toilet paper in the West, Rabelais points out that it is not very good at its job. Yet here we are, five hundred years later, living with skid marks. For all our technological leaps and bounds – and despite the premium we place on personal hygiene – polite society clings to this method which is not only primitive but – let’s face it – inefficient. As this writer puts it: "If a bird shat on your hand you wouldn’t just wipe it off with a tissue would you?"
Is it as simple as out of sight, out of mind? Research on the subject of anal cleansing tends to focus on communities with limited or no access to improved water and sanitation (and rightfully so) but among those of us in the UK for whom this is not an issue, the reluctance to ditch toilet paper in favour of a water-based cleanse most likely boils down to two things: convenience and a sense of disgust. The former speaks for itself but the latter is not quite so straightforward. Certainly there is a squeamishness around this part of the body – a hangover from our Victorian ancestors’ insistence on modesty at all costs – but some scientists believe that disgust is actually a biological mechanism which, historically, played an important role in our survival. It has been observed that the things we consistently find disgusting – vomit, corpses, rotting meat – also make us ill and so disgust, it is thought, once helped us to avoid infectious diseases. Providing you wash your hands thoroughly afterwards using soap and water (just as you do after using toilet paper), there is no real reason to shy away from a water-based cleanse; that hesitation is simply your lizard brain alerting you to the unfriendly bacteria in your faeces.
If however our attachment to toilet paper cannot be helped then at the very least, as conscious consumers, we must consider how the choices we make in the supermarket impact our wider environment. For those Andrex puppies – adorable as they are – belie an inconvenient truth: toilet paper is extraordinarily bad for the planet. The average Brit rattles through 127 rolls each year and most major manufacturers rely heavily on virgin wood pulp to make their product. Despite growing awareness of the climate crisis, a report from Ethical Consumer in 2019 concluded that toilet paper is becoming less – not more – sustainable. If you’re wondering how this can be, take a moment to browse the toilet paper aisle next time you’re in Sainsbury’s. The selection is staggering: coloured paper, quilted paper, 'pampering' paper infused with lavender, 'soothing' paper enriched with lotion, decorative paper for the festive season… All this for a product which is used once, scrunched into a ball and flushed away.
Clearly our rear ends have the upper hand. According to market research firm Mintel, 57% of Brits rank softness as their number one priority when buying toilet paper, followed by strength (45%) and thickness (36%). Meanwhile just one in 10 look for paper which has been recycled. This is not just Big Toilet Paper designing ever more elaborate ways to relieve us of our cash. Recycled toilet paper is undeniably kinder to the planet – calling for fewer trees to be felled and using half as much water and generating half as many hazardous air pollutants as the production of virgin wood pulp – but it has a reputation for being scratchy and, well, prone to disintegrating. In the privacy of the bathroom, behind closed doors, do we allow comfort to trump environmentalism? Are our backsides the bottom line?
Andrex and Cushelle lead the UK’s toilet paper industry yet neither brand sells paper which is marketed explicitly as recycled (Andrex’s bamboo/recycled range was discontinued in 2015). This is not to say that sustainability is altogether absent from their business models: Andrex’s Classic Clean Toilet Tissue is packaged in 30% recycled plastic which is 100% recyclable, while Cushelle has recently introduced Double Rolls in 85% recycled and renewable packaging. Perhaps it makes sense for brands to concentrate their sustainability efforts in an area such as single-use plastic – which we all agree is bad news – rather than attempt to change ingrained consumer habits. Sian Dixon, marketing manager at Cushelle, confirms that many of us are reluctant to embrace recycled paper. "One hundred percent recycled toilet tissue products tend to be niche – accounting for less than 2% of the market – as sometimes quality can be impacted which is a barrier for shoppers." Nevertheless the brand is working towards a more Earth-friendly offering. "We’re introducing more recycled fibres into our product across the range and have just successfully trialled making paper from recycled paper drinks cups in collaboration with some of the best-known high-street coffee chains."
This does sound promising but there is a brand already producing 100% recycled toilet paper whose customer base and online profile suggest that it is anything but niche. Who Gives A Crap launched in Australia in 2013 and has since expanded to the US, the UK and across Europe. The brand, which donates half its profits to charity, sells exclusively recycled and bamboo paper and has been plastic-free from the start. Cofounder Danny Alexander explains how demand for their product soared amid the panic buying of early lockdown. "Australia was the first of our countries to really go crazy. We went from an average day of sales to the next day being several hundred percent higher and then the next day was over 1,000% higher than normal. At its peak we were selling 27 or 28 rolls of toilet paper a second and we went from normal to completely selling out of our inventory in about 48 hours."
The cynics among us might assume that demand tailed off once supermarket shelves were restocked but Danny says this has not been the case. "We put a pop-up on site saying we’ve sold out [but] if you want to sign up for our email list, we’ll let you know when we’re back in stock. We had over half a million people sign up for toilet paper in a couple of weeks."
Global pandemic notwithstanding, the secret behind Who Gives A Crap’s success is their determination to resist the trade-offs – in price, quality, convenience – that Sian mentions above. "Our hypothesis from the beginning was that to drive change at a scale that would make a difference, we needed to reach beyond the crunchy hippy market and in order to do that we needed to make a product that not only required no compromises on the customer’s part but actually offered significant benefits," says Danny. "We’ve always aimed to be the most delightful toilet paper in terms of the product quality as well as the packaging, the design, the overall customer experience."
"There are a lot of big toilet paper companies out there," he continues, "who have the technology to make great quality recycled paper and do everything that we’ve done but their answer is usually 'the customer’s not ready' or 'the customer doesn’t want it'. Brands should be actively working towards creating better solutions. We have limited time left to make these kinds of changes and so we see it as our responsibility to guide the customer towards these changes and make them feel good about making those changes."
So there you have it. Toilet paper does not have to destroy our forests and pollute our atmosphere. Nor should it warrant a punch-up at the checkout. There are alternatives: grab an empty bottle and fashion yourself a makeshift bum gun or – if that’s a sluice too far – do some research and switch to a sustainable brand like Who Gives A Crap (there are others out there too). We’re running out of opportunities to save the planet and toilet paper – the single-use product to end all single-use products – is a quick and easy way to make a difference. As a wise man once said: shit or get off the pot.