It's definitely not easy for a multi-billion-dollar paper company to go green. Kimberly-Clark and sustainability may seem like contradictory terms, and the corporation, best known for its Kleenex brand, certainly courts controversy at times with what some perceive as environmentally questionable products. But with past achievements like making its facilities more eco-friendly as well as sustainability goals for the future, Kimberly-Clark is evidently trying to balance the effects of products like single-use hand towels made of 100 percent virgin tree fiber.

Sustainably sourced wood fibers

Kimberly-Clark is the largest tissue product company in the world, manufacturing disposable personal care products including toilet paper, tissue, diapers and sanitary napkins as well as air and liquid filters, safety equipment and health care supplies. Because a large percentage of its products are paper-based, the sourcing of its raw fibers is a major environmental concern.

Prior to 2009, the company was under pressure from Greenpeace and other environmental organizations to end its reliance on non-sustainable timber. Kimberly-Clark had been sourcing timber from Canada's ancient old-growth boreal forests and other sensitive woodland habitats. After a five-year Greenpeace campaign, Kimberly Clark agreed to sustainably source all of its paper products, setting a goal to use 40 percent recycled or Forest Stewardship Council-certified timber by 2011.

By the end of 2009, Kimberly-Clark surpassed this goal with 42.6 percent recycled and FSC-certified fibers in its North American products. The company now requires its wood fiber suppliers to gain independent certification for their woodlands or fiber procurement activities, and audits them to ensure sustainable performance.

Scott NaturalKimberly-Clark now offers a brand of 'hybrid' toilet tissue and paper towel products called Scott Naturals that contain a blend of virgin material and at least 20 percent recycled material in products or packaging. Its Professional's Scott brand towel and tissue products have earned the Green Seal certification for its 100 percent recycled fiber washroom products.

Global sustainability program

Kimberly-Clark has included sustainability goals in its Global Business Plan, including a 'Vision 2010' environmental program designed to help the company improve its performance in energy, water and waste reduction targets. The company has named unique goals for its various businesses including its Consumer Tissue business, its Personal Care business, its Health Care business and its Professional line of products.

The company has increased energy efficiency at manufacturing sites and in finished product distribution, lowering its greenhouse gas emissions from manufacturing by more than seven percent between 2005 and 2009. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has awarded Kimberly-Clark with its ENERGY STAR Partner of the Year Award in both 2009 and 2010 for efforts such as rigorous tracking of energy usage, energy-efficient equipment and fixtures and programs that increase energy-smart awareness.

Kimberly-Clark reduced its production of non-hazardous solid waste by 3.8 percent in 2009 over 2008 levels, and sent less than 20 percent of that waste to the landfill. By 2015, Kimberly-Clark intends to eliminate landfill disposal of manufacturing waste altogether. In 2009, the company also reduced its total freshwater use at its facilities by more than 13.6 million cubic meters compared to 2008, and aims to achieve 25 percent total reduction by 2015.

Other goals for 2015, announced in June 2011, include transitioning to 100% FSC-certified fiber, a 5 percent absolute reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and a 20 percent reduction in packaging environmental impact. Kimberly-Clark notes that 98 percent of all Kleenex tissue cartons sold in North America are made of 100 percent recycled fiber.

Partnering with charitable organizations such as CARE International and the World Resources Institute, Kimberly-Clark donated $400,000 to environmental causes in 2009 to help offset its consumption of forest resources and water.

Kleenex Hand TowelsKleenex hand towel controversy

In 2010, Kimberly-Clark's Kleenex brand debuted a new line of disposable hand towels. While Kimberly-Clark produces a number of similar paper products for commercial use, Kleenex Hand Towels are marketed to consumers. Says the company in an online FAQ, “Because of the superior softness consumers expect from KLEENEX® Brand, KLEENEX® Brand Hand Towels are made with 100 percent virgin fiber.”

Kimberly-Clark cites hand-washing guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which recommends hand drying with a single-use towel rather than a reusable cloth hand towel to reduce the spread of germs, as the primary reason to offer this product. Critics protest that these guidelines are intended for public restrooms, not private homes, noting that Kimberly-Clark has even written a 'Hand Drying Song' to teach children about the superiority of Kleenex paper hand towels.

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Photos: Scott, Kleenex