Kimberly-Clark (NYSE: KMB), the maker of Huggies diapers and Kleenex tissue, aims to step up its sustainability actions in a serious way. The Irving, Texas-based company recently announced at the Rio+20 UN conference that plans to halve its use of wood fiber sourced from natural forests by 2025.
Suhas Apte, vice president of Global Sustainability at Kimberly-Clark, recently gave GreenBiz’s Jennifer Inez Ward a breakdown on how this initiative will play out for the corporation.
GreenBiz: Why is Kimberly-Clark taking this action?
Suhas Apte: Kimberly-Clark is choosing to focus on reducing the company’s forest fiber footprint because as global demand for the world’s natural forest resources increases, identifying and using alternate fiber sources will be essential to the conservation and sustainability of those forests.
Deforestation and forest degradation continue to be a serious global issue and Kimberly-Clark is doing its part through sustainable fiber sourcing to be part of the solution to this issue. Forests and trees are essential to life – they clean the air, help reduce global warming by storing significant quantities of carbon, purify water, control erosion, and support wildlife.
In addition, more than 1.6 billion people worldwide depend directly on natural forests for their livelihood, food, clothing, and shelter. Almost half of the earth’s original forest cover is gone, much of it removed within the past three decades, and with world population projected to reach 9 billion by 2050, pressure on these important resources continues to grow.
Taking pressure off of natural forests is a key measure to helping the world’s remaining forests and curbing deforestation.
That pressure is evident in the volatile price fluctuations within the world fiber market, resulting in often unpredictable cost increases for businesses and a potential disruption of sourcing in the future. Therefore, Kimberly-Clark is pledging to innovate creatively for the future by being more flexible in its fiber usage.
GreenBiz: What’s the cost of switching?
Apte: It’s difficult to give a solid figure at this point. The pressure on natural forests is increasing and that pressure is evident in the volatile price fluctuations within the world fiber market, resulting in often unpredictable costs for us. By innovating creatively for the future and by being more flexible in our fiber usage, we are hoping to remain cost neutral.
GreenBiz: Are these actions something that others in your industry can replicate?
Apte: Yes, we believe that some of our efforts and initiatives will prove to be industry-leading.
GreenBiz: What will the process for achieving this look like?
Apte: The truthful answer is that we don’t know what the entire process will look like yet. We’ve made significant strides in our innovation, but we know that in order to meet this goal, we’ll have to keep working diligently and cooperatively with our partners and others in the industry to achieve our goals.
GreenBiz: Where are these alternative fibers coming from (are they from other crops, or are they from the byproducts of biofuels, etc.)?
Apte: To be clear, our strategy for reducing our forest fiber footprint includes the use of “alternate fibers”, but may also include the increased use of certified, rapidly-growing plantation tree fiber and other yet to be determined innovation/approaches. Neither virgin tree fiber nor traditional recycled fibers are included in the term “alternate fibers.” Two characteristics of some of the alternate fibers we use are rapid renewability – meaning they are able to regenerate themselves in less than 10 years, such as bamboo and agricultural byproducts – meaning they are “leftovers” from growing crops, such as the wheat straw leftover from harvesting grain.
Bamboo and agricultural byproducts such as what straw are two examples of materials we will be using to replace forest-derived fibers.
GreenBiz: How does this action play into your overall sustainability strategy?
Apte: This is a key component to our sustainability strategy. At Kimberly-Clark, our business success entails providing people with the essentials for a better life while conserving the natural resources on which we all depend to create a better future. Our Sustainability 2015 strategy and five-year goals focus on three pillars: People, Planet, Products. This strategy is advancing the progress we’ve already made in areas such as waste and energy reductions, third-party-certified fiber sourcing and workplace safety.
In addition to our Sustainability 2015 goals, we have identified four focus areas in which we believe we can take an industry-leading role. These areas include forest conservation, access to water and sanitation in communities, responsible solutions for postconsumer waste, and providing access to essentials for a better life through our global social giving programs developed in partnership with our brands’ health and hygiene products. These are areas where tremendous need exists today, and we can make a positive impact.