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Kimberly-Clark pledges to stop cutting down 'natural forests' for tissues, diapers

New strategy centers on Canada and Alaska, which have 25 percent of the world’s remaining primary forests.

Eucalyptus farm

Kimberly-Clark sees eucalyptus farms as one way to decrease its dependence on natural forests. Source; Kimberly-Clark

Kimberly-Clark in early June elevated its chief sustainability officer to a C-suite role and made a commitment to stop relying on "natural forests" for its paper products. 

The company wants a 50 percent reduction in natural forest fiber by 2025 on its way to "natural forest-free" status at some unspecified time after 2030.

Its definition of natural forests includes old-growth forests and those that naturally generate, usually those in boreal and temperate ranges. The $20 billion maker of Huggies diapers, Kleenex tissues and Kotex menstrual products has already reduced its use of fiber from natural forests in Canada and Latin America by 39 percent since its 2011 baseline, according to its 2023 sustainability progress report published June 4.

Canada and Alaska contain about 25 percent of the world’s remaining intact primary forests. Much of Kimberly-Clark’s fiber is from there, the Southeastern U.S., and from plantations in Brazil and Chile. There are significant biodiversity impacts with northern forest logging, especially for species such as caribou. More frequent wildfires in Canada have increased those risks.

The company has also committed to sourcing 90 percent of its fiber from "environmentally preferred sources." Those include recycled paper, wood from eucalyptus plantations or managed forests certified by the Forest Stewardship Council; and fiber from wheat straw, sugar cane, sorghum and others. 

"We’ve had many years now of exploring multiple alternative fibers that are more plant-based, so we feel pretty excited about the future," said Lisa Morden. She was named Kimberly-Clark’s first chief sustainability officer June 4 after about a dozen years in various sustainability, safety and category management functions. 

Closer linkage with Kimberly-Clark board

Kimberly-Clark also promoted Morden to a C-suite title, reporting to the company’s chief supply chain officer, where she will more regularly interact with committees that have collective oversight of the Irving, Texas, company’s emissions, conservation and other climate strategies.

"I think it recognizes the need to continue to focus and accelerate and make really more focused resource investments around sustainability, and then go forward," Morden said. "That’s incredibly exciting."

The teams responsible for Kimberly-Clark’s environmental, ESG reporting, risk management, fiber sourcing, water management and other climate strategies include:

  • An executive steering committee, led by the CSO, that includes CEO-appointed business leaders from across the company.
  • A Responsible Sourcing Steering Committee that shares ownership of forest/agriculture management and supply chain human rights, coordinated by the CSO and chief procurement officer.
  • A Sustainability Reporting and Disclosure Committee that handles material assessments and data collection.
  • A board-level committee that considers environmental issues in the context of long-term risks.
  • An environmental health and safety steering committee.

These teams meet at least quarterly, with some meeting monthly if possible, Morden said.

Lisa Morden

In early June, Kimberly-Clark promoted Lisa Morden to a C-suite title, reporting to the company’s chief supply chain officer. Source: Kimberly-Clark

Forest advocates hope for ‘ripple effect’

The new natural forest-free goal is stronger than Kimberly-Clark’s previous fiber procurement and deforestation commitments, even though the company hasn’t set a date for reaching it, experts say.

"Since around a third of the most influential companies in forest-risk supply chains don’t have commitments at all, it’s positive to see that Kimberly-Clark have published this with a relatively ambitious target date of 2025," said Emma Thomson, a researcher with Global Canopy, which ranks corporate forest pledges in an annual report.

The approach is stronger because of its focus on compliance through formal traceability systems and its pledge to respect Indigenous communities’ resources and territory, Thomson said.

"These actions represent a huge step forward for the toilet paper manufacturer and for addressing longstanding loopholes in global supply chains that harm northern forests, and which will hopefully create a ripple effect for more responsible sourcing across the market," said Shelley Vinyard, corporate campaign director for northern forests with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Kimberly-Clark’s decision to hold suppliers responsible for compliance with its new forest degradation and Indigenous rights policies is especially notable and sets it apart from other companies that purchase wood products, including Procter & Gamble, Home Depot and Lowe’s, Vinyard said in a blog about the new policy

Wood alternatives needed quickly

Over the past decade, Kimberly-Clark has invested $40 million in research to develop non-wood fiber sources. It needs to speed up commercialization of alternatives and not simply switch to plantations, especially those converted from natural forests, said Nicole Rycroft, founder and executive director of nonprofit Canopy.

One thing that remains unclear is how much of its fiber will be sourced in the future from recycled sources (which are declining as the world goes digital and uses less paper), from plantations and managed forests, and from non-wood sources.

Research shows fiber sources such as wheat straw left over from food production have fewer negative impacts on biodiversity, carbon emissions, water consumption and chemical usage than wood, Rycroft said. "I would like to see them be more explicit about recycled content and non-wood sources," she said. "They have the ability to invest and bring their R&D dollars to this. If they are serious about this, they could set ambitious targets."

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