Success: Customers prompt sugarcane toilet paper

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Toilet paper made from sugarcane offers buyers a greener alternative.

Geoff Arden is looking at licensing overseas firms to sell his products. Photo / Greg Bowker
Geoff Arden is looking at licensing overseas firms to sell his products. Photo / Greg Bowker

Geoff Arden says the one thing he's learnt in business is never to say "no".

If you say "no" to a customer you have to wonder why, he says, because there may be a real gap in the market you only discover after turning away eight or nine customers.

Arden heads New Zealand Hygiene, a 21-year-old company that supplies laundry services, sanitary bins, toilet paper and the like to businesses in Auckland and Wellington.

About five years ago, when his customers started asking about toilet tissue made from recycled paper, he knew to take notice.

"All my customers are really smart. People think they don't have smart customers but any good business has smart customers. If you don't have smart customers I don't think you've got a good business."

Arden began researching recycled paper, thinking it would give his customers the sustainable product they were after, but the more research he did, the more he didn't like what he found.

He says the world price for recycled paper is more expensive than virgin toilet paper because the carbon footprint is huge.

"Recycled paper isn't sustainable," he argues. "Paper into cardboard is sustainable and that's the way it should go."

He also objects to using a tree that has taken 25 years to grow, as toilet paper. The solution was toilet paper manufactured from bagasse, a pulp made from the stalks of sugarcane.

The bagasse industry takes the cane residue left by sugar manufacturers and mixes it with a small amount of wood pulp to make a soft but strong tissue paper.

"This product is actually cheaper than buying normal trees. Not by much because there is a lot of manufacturing, but essentially it is free trees," says Arden. " ... every roll I sell I'm selling 60 per cent of a tree that would be cut down if you didn't use it."

With manufacturing done in an ISO environmentally certified factory in southern China, Arden used his NZ Hygiene customers to experiment with getting the formula for the paper right.

As a way of marketing the new products Arden launched a consumer line, Greencane Ecopaper, starting out with toilet paper before expanding into kitchen towels and facial tissues.

Part of the aim of the consumer range is to build brand recognition among business customers, he says.

"We just want to give people choice and we want to promote this through [to corporate decision makers]."

Despite going up against some big multinationals on the supermarket shelves (Greencane is stocked by New World and Pak'n Save supermarkets in Auckland, as well as organic stores) Arden says his products are a comparable price.

"We're not cheap, because we can't be cheap, but I don't believe we're expensive."

Arden says you shouldn't have to pay more for "green" products.

"To me it is lazy green business. You've got to work at your costs. You've got to say to yourself: how do I make this work?

"I don't believe you should just pass on to the customers your problem."

With international inquiries coming in all the time, Arden says New Zealand is the pilot for overseas expansion.

Bagasse-based toilet paper is available in parts of Asia but it isn't common elsewhere in the world. Rather than expand the business into other countries, Arden is looking at licensing overseas companies to sell the products.

In exchange for payment for the intellectual property, an existing business could distribute a more sustainable product, he says.

"What I'm not looking to do is make a lot of money."

Arden does admit to making plenty of mistakes but he has never stopped listening to his customers.

When the toilet paper was first launched he began by promoting it at eco lifestyle shows in a reusable clear plastic bag to show off the product inside.

The package listed a number of ways in which the zip-lock bag could be reused once the four toilet rolls were finished - everything from keeping bits of kids' puzzles together to holding dirty football boots.

But the environmentally aware showgoers were so appalled by the plastic packaging that Arden quickly hid it from view.

He and his wife Helen spent weeks repacking thousands of toilet rolls into new packs, a paper bag with a clear, plant-based cellophane panel.

"I like it when things go wrong because I'd rather they go wrong now, or I'd rather I learnt this lesson now when it was just a small lesson."

- NZ Herald

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