“It has taken a deadly virus for the toilet roll to get its 15 minutes of fame.” That’s one tiny upside of Covid-19 for Marcus Hellberg, from Södra, a major European wood pulp producer, whose product is a key ingredient of the humble toilet tissue – an item that has weirdly become one of the world’s most coveted products.
Amid coronavirus panic-buying the product has flown off the shelves (“even the apricot stuff that nobody wants,” said one baffled person I spoke to for this piece). Supermarkets and grocery stores have struggled to keep up with the mass stockpiling and, behind the scenes, an entire supply chain is working overtime to keep up.
CommerceIQ, a company which helps brands sell on Amazon, reports toilet paper sales are up 207 per cent year-on-year, while supermarkets are too nervous to even talk about how sales figures are going through the roof, for fear of stoking panic-buying yet further.
Toilet paper is a reasonably modern invention – the Romans used a sponge on a stick, while for some time mussel shells were a popular choice. The early version of the modern stuff came into being in the late 19th Century, when the increasingly popular flush toilets required a solution that didn’t damage pipes.
Originally it was marketed as a medicinal product, very rough to use and, for some years, embarrassing to buy. It was common to employ vague phrases to shopkeepers, such as “one, please” to skirt around the delicate issue. In 1930, a German company called Hakle even made a virtue of the awkwardness with the marketing line: “Ask for a roll of Hakle and you won’t have to say toilet paper!”
No such embarrassment exists now, as people are seen brawling in supermarkets for the last remaining packets.
These days, our toilet paper is made from long-fibre wood (like spruce or pine from Scandinavia or Canada) and short fibre wood (like Eucalyptus, mainly from South America). Demand is usually stable across the globe. There are no seasonal events that cause people to buy more or less, so usually there is perfect equilibrium between production and consumption. Until now.
As it stands, there are over 100m Andrex toilet rolls (the UK’s most popular toilet roll brand) spread across the two mills and distribution centre of the manufacturer Kimberley-Clark. And yet even the company’s vice president and managing director is running low. “A couple of days ago my wife came in cheering after she found a packet she’d put at one stage in our guest room that she’d forgotten about,” says Ori Ben Shai, who says freebies are not a perk of the job. “We are going out to stores to buy it the same as everyone else.”
He’s trying to shop responsibly, “because I experience what’s happening on the other side and I know what it means.”
“What it means” for Kimberley-Clark is “hundreds of people working day and night to increase production and supply and get more out there, faster”. They usually produce 3.5m rolls a day, but they’ve added an additional 1m to feed current demand. The bottleneck is not the amount they can produce but how fast they can physically load onto the trucks from their distribution centre in a day. “It is a fully automated centre; it’s huge and very impressive, but in times like this automation is not helping, because there is a limit to what the machine can do. You almost want to duplicate the machine so it can double the work it’s doing, but obviously we can’t do that overnight, so there are limitations.”
Elsewhere in the UK, Essity represents 30 percent of the toilet paper market, including the second-biggest brand, Cushelle. As of last week, they had 81m rolls stored in a warehouse. On a typical day from their Manchester factory they would see 832,000 rolls go out to retailers, though at the moment that is closer to 1m. In short, there is plenty of toilet roll to go around, but their spokesperson laments that “it takes time to get them from our factories, to the stores, and for the store employees to put them out on the shelves. If consumers can stop panic-buying then shelves will return to normal.”
“What we’re experiencing now is a hoarding effect,” says Hellberg. “Anyone hoarding now is not likely to hoard again in a couple of weeks so the effect is totally temporary.” There is no reason, from their point of view, to dramatically increase the production at the top of the supply chain – the huge wood pulp plantations, which remain one of the largest industrial sectors in the world.
A bigger issue being grappled with, by the paper and wood pulp industry, is the underlying fear that coronavirus is likely to initiate a global recession, whereby paper demand in the printing and writing sectors disappears and doesn’t come back for some time. But, as Hellberg wryly notes, “if the printing and writing sector goes down, we’ll have more pulp available for tissue”.
Whatever the economic outlook, he has these words of calm: “Rest assured that everyone’s butts will be well-wiped.”