This article first appeared in our summer ’18 issue of MyGreenPod Magazine, The Natural Revolution, distributed with the Guardian on 03 Aug 2018. Click here to subscribe to our digital edition and get each issue delivered straight to your inbox
Before the first two-ply toilet paper rolled out of the mill in 1942, Brits were content with using leaves, wool, linen and, after the birth of the printing press, pages of disused books and pamphlets. Today it’s hard to imagine a world (or even a bathroom) without paper toilet roll, but there’s a wiser way to wipe.
The Cheeky Panda turns bamboo that would otherwise go to waste into luxury tissues. Compared with trees, bamboo grows 20 to 30 times faster, produces 35% more oxygen and absorbs 30% more carbon. It’s also 100% biodegradable, meaning it breaks down easily in sewers and macerators.
While recycled loo rolls require de-inking agents or harsh chemicals in the manufacturing process, bamboo has many skin-friendly qualities: it’s antibacterial, antifungal, odour resistant and naturally soft and durable. In fact The Cheeky Panda classic range is three-ply, which makes it slightly stronger than the two-ply loo roll in most mainstream classic paper toilet paper ranges.
Soft, strong and effective – plus these tissue products have no carbon footprint. It’s not surprising that The Cheeky Panda is one of the UK’s fastest-growing start-ups, and has been endorsed by a growing fan club that includes Joanna Lumley and Dame Judi Dench.
The co-founders, Chris Forbes and Julie Chen, are a husband and wife team. ‘We were both already business people’, Chris tells us. ‘Julie said, ‘Do you know that you can turn bamboo into tissue paper?’ and I was like, ‘That sounds interesting’. She said ‘I’ve got an idea for it, it’s called The Cheeky Panda’. But I needed eyes on it, to see for myself whether the bamboo was ethically sourced and whether the business could scale.’
The quality of the tissue was another thing Chris wanted to investigate; a sustainable product launched with the best intentions won’t take off if it doesn’t work. Chris and Julie discovered that because bamboo fibres are rounder and smoother, the tissue has a silky, soft feel and doesn’t create that horrible dusty lint.
‘When we found out we could make a sustainable tissue that was also the same quality or better than leading-brand toilet paper, we thought why aren’t we using this? This is bonkers, right?’, Chris says.
Lots of UK consumers seem to agree; after launching in 2016, The Cheeky Panda is now turning over £2m, which works out to about 20,000 active monthly buyers. While this is only a fraction of the £2bn turned over in the UK tissue market – and the £20bn and £10bn turned over annually by the companies behind the biggest toilet paper brands – Chris and Julie have surprised the experts with their fast growth and success.
‘Most people still haven’t heard of us or tried the products yet’, Chris tells us. ‘At the moment we’re still building relationships with suppliers and educating the market about why bamboo is a more sustainable and healthier alternative. When you have a new product you have to spend a lot of time on education, and that’s the hard part.’
The most obvious question is about the carbon footprint of shipping all that bamboo over from China. ‘It’s the same issue for all tissue’, Chris explains. ‘The pulp we use for paper toilet roll comes from Canada, Scandinavia and South America. Bamboo also produces 35% more oxygen and absorbs 30% more carbon in the growth phases, so compared with regular tissue our cradle to grave carbon is 65% less.’
The remaining carbon is offset through investment in a carbon balancing programme in a Vietnam rainforest. This means every time someone buys The Cheeky Panda tissue, some money goes towards the protection of the rainforest.
Chris admits that, as newcomers to the industry, he and Julie have had ‘a steep learning curve’. At the same time, having fresh eyes has huge benefits for anyone looking to disrupt an entire sector.
The Cheeky Panda is already looking ahead, with plans to introduce a plastic-free ‘subscribe and save’ range and natural bamboo wipes. ‘It’s not easy’, Chris says, ‘but keep watching this space as we pioneer green innovations – and hopefully inspire others along the way.’
The first paper toilet rolls were manufactured to stop people being exposed to the toxic inks on printed sheets of paper. Today’s mainstream paper toilet roll can contain all sorts of chemicals – ranging from synthetic fragrances to lotions and dyes. Loo roll as we know it was invented as a way to protect health; it’s time for another new solution – and The Cheeky Panda might just be it.
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