Marcal's Secret Deep-Green Roots

Marcal's Secret Deep-Green Roots

Tim Spring, the CEO of Marcal, a company that makes all its products from 100 percent recycled stock talks about how a firm that was green 'before Greenpeace bought their first rubber boat' is adapting to increasing customer and retailer acceptance of green issues.

Marc Gunther: This is Marc Gunther for I'm joined today by Tim Spring. Tim is the CEO of Marcal, he became CEO last year. Marcal is a maker of paper products -- paper towels, tissues, toilet paper, napkins, the whole shebang -- and the story here is that all of Marcal's products come from 100 percent recycled stock. So, Tim, begin please by just telling us a little bit about the history of Marcal and how you got involved.

Tim Spring Tim Spring

Tim Spring: I joined Marcal about a year ago, and I discovered this small little company has been completely committed to recycled fiber since 1950, so I was very excited when I learned that because I see, you know, how much we as Americans are starting to commit to, you know, green options, and I thought this was a great little company to try to re-present to America.

MG: And so Marcal was coming out of bankruptcy. They were using green products. Had they been talking about the products as green? Did they position themselves as an environmentally progressive company?

TS: They had not, which is fascinating. Metaphorically, it almost went the way of the electric car, you know, as it sorta entered bankruptcy. Nobody looked under the hood and realized, you know, this is a very green company with deep roots in being green. As I like to say, this company was committed to saving trees for over two decades before Greenpeace bought their first little rubber boat. You know, it's deep and it's deeply rooted.

They didn't talk about it and we discovered it and we decided this is a message that should get out. A funny story there is when we started to talk to our own users about it -- there's a lot of loyal users -- some of them didn't even know about our deep roots, and they went through the seven stages of denial, you know, but eventually came around and realized, "Hey, they've been doing something good all along."

MG: Now where are you located and what is your source of supply for recycled stock?

TS: We're located in Elmwood Park, New Jersey, which is about 20 miles northwest of downtown Manhattan, and as I like to say, every time I look at that skyline now, I see a big urban forest. The blue bins in the office buildings and the residential bins you bring out to the curb is what we convert into paper towels and napkins.

MG: Now traditionally, the green brands -- and I'm thinking about things like the Prius or Seventh Generation, one of your competitors, organic foods -- these have all sold at a significant price premium to the conventional brands. What about Marcal? Your brand is called Small Steps now. How are you positioning it and how are you selling it?

TS: I think Small Steps is kind of very unique in the world of green. I believe it to be the first product that's ever -- 100 percent green, first and foremost, offers the performance characteristics that are comparable to the other brands.

But the big breakthrough, it's not asking for a premium. It's not asking for the same price as the other guys. It's actually about 10 percent less, and I don't know of another green product that has ever done that, and we've done that because I think that's the universal truth. People want to have products that work, right?

marcal products

They want to make a small contribution to green if they could and they wanted to -- they want to save money for their families. And I think the green movement is about the economics of green and I think consumers recognize, "Boy, if we can do -- make it a little cheaper, I'll buy a little bit more. I'll tell my friends, etc." And that applies to paper towels, and I believe it applies to, you know, gas-efficient vehicles. If we can find ways to make these products cheaper and economically viable, that's how they're gonna become a much more dominant part of our lives.

MG: Do you have a concern, Tim, though, that by coming out of the closet, so to speak, and marketing all of your products as being made of recycled paper that there's a potential that consumers will think they will have to sacrifice in terms of quality or performance? Particularly in the paper category, I think, you know, people think when they buy recycled paper at Staples it's gonna be slightly brownish in hue, although in fact that's not true at all.

TS: Yeah, actually it's interesting. I think that's an artifact of some of the early green products that came out kinda in the late '90s and early this decade where, you know, they were green but they didn't really work that well. In household cleaners, for example, a lot of it was, you know, lemon juice and water, you know. It was natural, but they didn't really work as well.

So there is an expectation that green products are not quite as good. As I mentioned, Small Steps, you know, it gets the spill up. It -- it performs very well and at the end of the day, it's only through direct experience can you make that conclusion.

MG: And how are you -- what's your marketing plan? How are you gonna get people to sorta look again at the Marcal brand and sample it?

TS: Well, there's two things and I need your listeners to help. One is, you know, we're advertising. We're on TV. We're in the magazines. We'll be in Backpacker. We're in People magazine. So we're in big and small. We're expanding our distribution.

Where your listeners can help is this is a coalition, you know, so we're in about half the stores in America, but if we're not in your store, if, you know, our product or even another green option is not there, I'd just encourage the listeners to talk to their store managers.

And they can do that with the confidence of the 150 to 200 bucks they bring to that store every week and say, you know, "Hey, I heard about that Small Steps. When are you guys are gonna stock it?" Because I think it's through that behavior we as Americans can start to make, you know, real change, both in the paper category or, you know, a variety of consumer products.

MG: Last question, Tim. Your product is made from 100 percent recycled stock, so you do not cut down virgin trees. How does that compare to the industry as a whole?

TS: A shocking statistic associated with the paper categories we talked about. All the efforts Americans have in terms of, you know, saving paper and diligently putting it in the blue bins in the office, etc. -- the shocking truth is that 98 percent of the products that are currently bought today come from clear-cutting forests, some of them with trees as old as 200 years old, and just 2 percent of the paper products in America come from recovered fiber. That is vastly lower than Europe or even Canada, which is not that far away. The numbers are north of 25 percent.

MG: And that's because of a limited supply of recycled input.

TS: Certainly not. You know, that's come up. You know, gee, maybe there's not enough recovered fiber. Look out your window or next time you stop by a fast food restaurant -- there's so much paper in America that unfortunately ends up in landfills, you know, perfectly good product that could be converted into something, you know, with a second life, you know, and useful life. I think the number is 50 percent ends up in landfills, which is a complete waste of valuable resource.

MG: Great. Well, Tim, thank you so much for taking the time. Tim Spring, CEO of Marcal. They make the Small Steps paper products. Thanks for being with us.

TS: Thank you, Marc. Senior Writer Marc Gunther blogs at