Why Kimberly-Clark is banking on bamboo

When Kimberly-Clark announced its plan to source 50 percent of its wood fiber to alternative sources by 2025 -- more than the amount that’s in three billion rolls of toilet paper -- the company wasn’t quite sure how it would make that happen.

It’s a tall order, even for the one of the world’s top suppliers of facial tissue, toilet paper and paper towels.

“We don’t know how we’re going to get there yet,” Brenda Nelson, a director of business planning and sustainability for the company's family care division, told GreenBiz. “It’s not like there was a lot of precision around number and years,” she said of the pledge made in June.

So why would Kimberly-Clark, best known for its Kleenex, Huggies and Scott brand products, commit to an actual deadline? After all, Walmart famously announced goals to become 100 percent supplied by renewable energy and create zero waste -- yet failed to disclose a timeline.

Like the advice given to Benjamin, the young man searching for a future in the 1967 film “The Graduate,” the answer lies in one word.

Kimberly-Clark is banking on bamboo.

“We did enough research on the fibers and potential barriers to know that it’s achievable,” Nelson said. “2025 was a date we put out there to hold ourselves accountable to make it happen.”

Mitigating risk

In 2011, Kimberly-Clark used 3.53 million metric tons of fiber to manufacture its products, according to company figures. Less than one-third of that amount – 1.05 million metric tons -- came from recycled sources, the company reported.

Eighty percent of Kimberly-Clark’s product line contains wood fiber. Its primary sources are from the U.S., Brazil and Canada. In a 2011 report, the company describes itself as “highly reliant” on the material. 

In the last few years, Kimberly-Clark has been hunting for a commercially viable alternative to wood fiber. In 2009, the company adopted a procurement policy requiring 40 percent of its fiber to be sourced either from FSC-certified or recycled sources by 2011. The move brought an end to a five-year campaign by Greenpeace pressuring the company to cut its ties with suppliers hawking non FSC-certified wood. The policy also banned the use of any fiber from endangered species.

But the motivation for the search extends beyond environmental reasons, Nelson says. It’s also an effort to insulate the company from a fiber market marked by volatile prices and a dwindling supply.

“We’ve taken a long look at what are the outlook and trends in virgin and recycled fiber supply,” she says. “There’s increasing pressures and demand on land that’s available. We know that where there’s constraints in terms of resources, we’ll someday have business impacts associated with them.”

To build the business case for alternative fibers, Nelson’s team examined a whole range of characteristics for several materials including bamboo and wheat straw, a product left over from wheat farming. They looked at fiber characteristics, biomass available, processing requirements and whether the infrastructure needed for processing was available. The group also identified barriers to commercializing the materials, along with broader trends that could affect the supply.

After a year of initial R&D tests, bamboo appears to have become the focus in the company’s alternative fiber strategy. Kimberly Clark is also evaluating other candidates, Nelson said, but declined to disclose more information.

Photo of bamboo in test tubes courtesy Booshoot

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