So I was intrigued when I heard that Kimberly-Clark, owner of Scott® paper products, was exploring removing the cardboard cores from toilet paper rolls. At the time, I was the head of sustainability for Walmart, responsible for a large portion of those cores.
I jumped on a plane and flew to the Scott factory in Wisconsin to see if it was actually possible. The simple idea of removing the core turned out to be not so simple. The cardboard toilet paper core has become an essential part of the high-speed manufacturing process. It provides stability as the paper is spun onto longer rolls and is cut down to the proper size. The cardboard core supports the roll through a dizzying journey involving trucks, conveyor belts, distribution centers and the store backrooms that make up our modern industrial system, so that when you get the toilet paper home, it fits in your bathroom fixture.
As we walked out of the meeting room onto the floor of the Scott paper factory, I was excited. This all seemed possible – a simple step that would save thousands of trees with no change for the customer. I spent the first part of my career in factories, and I love watching the thousands of carefully orchestrated mechanical steps moving at industrial speed – materials winding around spindles like the movie projectors of the 1970s, precision mechanical arms that slice and pick up rolls in just the right way, crisscrossing conveyors of empty shipping boxes and high-speed printers that meet up with the overwrapped 12-packs of toilet paper at just the right moment. It’s a delicate dance and a marvel to witness, one that started far simpler and has steadily grown with automation and small innovations into today’s industrial model.
The Scott factory – loud, fast moving and beautiful – resembles many leading industrial facilities. But even after all of the cardboard cores are removed, even after factories become more energy efficient and reduce their toxic footprint, they’re still part of a flawed industrial system. And as I got back on the plane to return to Bentonville, Arkansas, I began to think about how far we still have to go.
No matter how much better we make the industrial system, it’s still predicated on making more things every year. More humans on the planet will require more toilet paper, but that same model of industrial efficiency is being applied across the industrial world and described as sustainable. Scott’s coreless toilet paper did not ultimately change the market in the way I had hoped when I first visited the factory. But even when these changes are wildly successful, it’s important to keep in mind the bigger picture. There is nothing sustainable about more efficiently produced bikes, jackets and blenders unless we figure out how to address the fundamental growth of the consumption-based model. Eighty percent of the items in our home are used less than once a month. An efficiently produced bread maker that sits in storage for most of its life is still a waste.
After 10 years at Walmart, where I sold a lot of items that are gathering dust today, I left to create a start-up called yerdle, a California benefit corporation aimed at making better use of the things we already own. Millions of items sit idle in our closets and garages even as our neighbors shop for new ones. Yerdle’s mission is to keep those items in play, ultimately reducing the things we all need to buy by 25 percent. Once signed into yerdle, you can find everything from camping gear to kids’ toys. Yerdle then connects you to the giver, and the item finds a new life.
A year later, yerdle has 20,000 members sharing thousands of items. Unlike most businesses built on item transactions, yerdle focuses on the social dimension – the experience of giving something you aren’t using to someone who is looking for exactly what you have. The experience is the gift.
Our industrial model has brought incredible innovation and helped nearly a billion people enter the middle class. But just like the emergence of indoor plumbing in the 1930s created the need for modern toilet paper, our context continues to change. Fifty years ago you would rent or borrow a power drill for that special project, whereas today many garages across the country contain at least one. We live in an abundance of goods that sit unused in our ever-larger homes and monthly storage facilities across town. Just as mass production of the last 100 years provided access to goods, mobile technologies now allow us to make better use of the items we already own. The experience of sharing what we have isn’t simply more efficient; it can be beautiful.
I received a turntable recently from a neighbor named Lawrence. I could have bought a turntable. But the one I got from Lawrence is magic. I see it every time I sit in my living room, and I recall the meet-up and his generosity with a sense of gratitude. This turntable is not just a turntable; it’s a symbol for the type of life I want to live. I look forward to the day I can pass it along again.