The Battle for Your Toilet Paper Is On

Early in the pandemic, toilet paper shortages pushed weary Americans to the fringes.

Out of necessity, millions tried rolls made from recycled paper or bamboo. And what they found surprised them. These alternatives were actually soft, far from the sandpaper-ish versions they grudgingly used at their office or in a public restroom. That revelation is shaking up what had been a stable — even boring — category that racked up about $10 billion at U.S. retailers last year.

Purchase patterns for toilet paper have historically been simple and lucrative: Shoppers found a brand, like Charmin, and bought it like clockwork every few weeks for years, even decades. But all those empty shelves made shoppers reconsider a product they had rarely given a second thought. That opened them up to emerging brands — some backed by venture capital — making claims about softness similar to those that had dominated the category for half a century, while adding a benefit for this era: saving the planet.

“Supply shortages forced consumers to become more experimental,” said Jamie Rosenberg, associate director of global household and personal care for researcher Mintel Group. “Often that meant trying eco-niche products for the first time.”

In one telling example, Cloud Paper, a startup founded in 2019 that counts Jeff Bezos and Robert Downey Jr. as investors, saw its core business of supplying companies dry up early in the pandemic, but then shifted to selling its “tree-free” bamboo option directly to consumers on the web. Revenue boomed, and the company has since shipped more than two million rolls across America.

Now these alternatives need to show they can sustain that momentum as Covid fades, and the masses return to some normalcy and possibly their old ways. In-store sales of toilet paper surged at the beginning of the pandemic but have since slowed, according to data from NielsenIQ. And options deemed sustainable have retreated even faster. However, the figures don’t capture a lot of the purchases from these startups because they mostly sell online directly to consumers.