Paper Products that are Better, Cheaper -- and Greener?

Paper Products that are Better, Cheaper -- and Greener?

[Editor's note: has also published a podcast and transcript of Marc Gunther's interview with Tim Spring. You can listen and read it here: "Marcal's Secret Deep-Green Roots."]

Stopping by the supermarket today, I discovered something unusual: an environmentally-preferable product that costs less and performs as well as its competitors.

Marcal Small Steps paper towels are not only made entirely from recycled paper. They sell for less -- in some instances quite a bit less -- than paper towels made mostly from trees by the industry giants.

Here's how the consumer's choices look, measured from cheapest to most expensive, in terms of dollars per 100 paper towels:

• Marcal  $1.64
• Bounty  (Procter & Gamble) $1.79
• Giant (store brand) $1.85
• Brawny (Georgia-Pacific) 2.04, on sale
• Viva (Kimberly-Clark) $2.17

This is, of course, not the way things usually work. Solar power costs more than electricity made from coal. Organic food is pricier than conventional. You pay more for Starbucks' coffee than you do for Dunkin' Donuts. Partly that's because the price consumers pay for conventional fare doesn't reflect the full cost of the product. (See, for example, Getting Real About the High Price of Cheap Food, Bryan Walsh's recent Time magazine cover story, about the hidden costs of industrial agriculture.)

marcal products

To say that I "discovered" Marcal isn't precisely true. After I covered Greenpeace's recent agreement with forest-products giants Kimberly-Clark, a PR woman asked me to look at the company. So I got on the phone with Tim Spring, Marcal's CEO, who told me a little about Marcal and its history.

"This company was committed to saving trees for two decades before Greenpeace bought its first boat," Spring said.

It turns out that Marcal, a 77-year-old maker of paper towels, napkins, toilet tissue and other consumer goods, has been using recycled stock since the 1950s. Based in suburban Elmwood Park, New Jersey, its paper-making factory employs about 900 people and draws much of its stock from those blue plastic recycling bins under office desks in Manhattan skyscrapers about 20 miles away.

"Every time I look at that skyline," Spring says, "I see a big urban forest. I've got access to unlimited supplies of paper."

Marcal, he says, is a little like the electric car -- ahead of its time. "It almost, horribly, went off the face of the earth a couple of years ago."

In fact, the family owned firm went bankrupt in 2006, in part because its environmental history isn't exactly pristine. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency filed a claim of $945 million against Marcal over alleged pollution of the Passaic River, a claim that was disputed and later settled by the company. In any event, Marcal emerged from bankruptcy in 2008 under new owners, Highland Capital Management, an investment firm based in Dallas.

Spring, who is 47, was named CEO. He previously led a turnaround at Vlasic pickles and oversaw such consumer brands as French's and Log Cabin. (Now he's mopping up the mustard and maple syrup spills.) A longtime backpacker, he was eager to try his hand at green marketing.

"America is hungry for simple ways to be green," he says.

Marcal is certainly pushing a green message. Its packaging says, among other things "A Small, Easy Step to a Greener Earth," "Help Us Save 1 Million Trees," "100% Premium Recycled Paper," "Whitened without Chlorine Bleaching," "No Dye or Fragrance Added," "Right for the Environment" "Safe for your home," and "paper from paper, not from trees."

If consumers don't get it, they're not paying attention.

Spring says the company's goal is to appeal to mainstream buyers who want to be environmentally responsible without sacrificing anything in terms of price or performance. As he puts it:

We're not talking to deep green user. We're talking to mainstream America, the soccer moms. What they are saying is, is there any way we can be green without having to compromise?

I can't speak to the performance of the Small Steps paper towels. Other forest products companies claim they can't achieve maximum softness and absorbency without using virgin pulp, i.e., chopping down trees.

Spring differs: "The big guys are spending over $350 million a year promoting this concept of soft, and they've been doing it for the past 10 years. Everybody talks soft." But many if not most commercial buyers of tissues and toilet paper purchase 100% recycled product and most consumers who use those products in hotels, schools or hospitals don't notice any difference. Spring won't say his products are better than others but he will say they "perform about as well" and at a lower price.

Recently, my friend Joel Makower, the executive editor of (where I'm a senior writer) wrote a column asking "Why Doesn't Green = Better?" Joel, who knows as much as anyone about the green economy, argued that not enough green products are better (i.e., cheaper, more innovative, easier to use, healthier, more convenient, etc) than their competition. Joel wrote:

Until "green" is synonymous with "better," it's destined to remain marginalized, incapable of fomenting change at the scale and speed necessary to address climate change and other pressing problems.

Marcal, it seems to me, is taking a small step towards "better." You can listen to a podcast I did with Tim Spring here: "Marcal's Secret Deep-Green Roots." Senior Writer Marc Gunther blogs at