Senior Brand Manager Patrick Gil explains how confronting challenges with our paper products helps us become a brand that looks forward.
"Creating great products never happens in a void. In 2010, we were forced to respond to external circumstances affecting both the sheet count of our bath tissue and the ratio of the different types of recycled paper in our paper products.
Sourcing recycled fibers for our paper towels
Our paper products have always been (and still are) made from 100% recycled paper. In the past, we have specified that this paper must be at least 80% post-consumer recycled content (PCR) with the remainder of the recycled content coming from post-industrial recycled (PIR) sources such as factory scraps. Our manufacturing partner found that it was becoming increasingly difficult to guarantee consistent delivery of high PCR-content at a reasonable price as the North American supply of recycled paper is shrinking.
It's an interesting cycle. More of the paper waste in North America is being shipped to Asia to make the recycled fiber boxes used there for exporting goods back to this continent. As the overall availability of recycled fibers shrinks, our supplier must look farther for PCR content, increasing the energy demand for transporting the heavy paper bales. To avoid increased shipping impacts and costs, we decided to ease off on our PCR percentage requirement for all of our non-brown paper items - now at least 50% of the recycled content must be PCR — while still firmly living up to our commitment to produce the best 100% recycled paper products.
At the same time, we were able to invest in upgrading our paper towels. We improved the absorbency, hand feel and perforations of our paper towels as well as increased the number of sheets from 112 to either 140 or 156 per roll. Paper towels are an important gateway product for our brand as they represent a low-cost / low-risk way of trying Seventh Generation products. These changes are helping us access more consumers, bring recycled paper products into more homes, and grow our overall brand.
This decline in available recycled fibers is forcing our company to confront difficult questions about having a long-term business strategy based on selling high PCR-content paper products. We know we need to work on redefining what a sustainable paper product is and bring that concept to life. The benefit of being forced to address this issue now is that we’re thinking long-term and in a more creative and innovative way.
Downsizing our bath tissue
On bath tissue, our competitors responded to higher input costs by reducing sheet count to maintain retail price points. We knew that our bath tissues were priced too high on the shelf so we tried to correct this by charging less for fewer sheets on a roll — 300 sheets instead of the original 352. Despite the fact that this increased the amount of packaging per product, we thought that lower prices would encourage more people to purchase recycled products — clearly one of our goals. The reality is that not all of our retail partners passed this cost reduction on to their shoppers as rapidly as we hoped. While we still think that our overall strategy was correct, we need to demonstrate more clearly and more broadly to our retail partners how this move would benefit them."
Consumers seeking healthy products may have their own sense of what a term term such as "natural" means. But without clear definitions established by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) or another appropriate agency, there is no common understanding of this and other similar words. Being able to describe our products clearly and make supportable claims is important for Seventh Generation as it helps us communicate information that differentiates our products.
Early in 2010, Seventh Generation's claims for our household cleaning and laundry products were reviewed by the National Advertising Division (NAD) of the Council of Better Business Bureaus in response to a challenge by Procter & Gamble Company. At issue were our "Protecting Planet Home" commercial, a video on our website that discussed health issues and cleaning products, and the use of the term "natural" on the labels for our Liquid Laundry Detergent. NAD recommended that we modify or discontinue certain advertising claims. We have withdrawn the items in question and conducted our own review of the issue. We determined that we need to take greater care in making our claims specific enough and to qualify general claims to give appropriate context.
Seventh Generation is in the process of developing precise, verifiable methods of defining the terms we use to describe our ingredients or products. These new definitions will have a quantifiable basis that will allow them to be independently verified.
As an example, oils taken from plants need to be modified before they can be used effectively in a product. Several terms such as "plant-derived" or "plant-based," that we use to communicate if an ingredient is from a plant oil, and how much it has been modified, if at all, are defined on our website.
We applaud the FTC’s efforts to prevent consumer deception and confusion regarding environmental claims and submitted comments on their "Green Guide" revisions in December, 2010. Our recent experience underscores the importance of clear definitions and we look forward to official guidance in the future.