Being a sustainable Australian company that uses recycled paper to make toilet paper is not enough, and Maria Chilewicz, Head of Brand Management at Who Gives A Crap, tells WARC Asia Editor Rica Facundo why it is equally important to meet consumers’ need for quality and value while connecting with them emotionally.

This article is part of a Spotlight series on sustainability in Australia. Read more

WARC: Who Gives A Crap started in 2012 and has recently launched a second sustainability product line in personal care. How has the company’s sustainability goals and approach evolved now that it’s starting to scale up?

Maria Chilewicz: When Simon, Jehan and Danny launched Who Gives a Crap in 2012, they saw the opportunity to develop an eco-friendly product that we all use every single day to help bring an end to the sanitation crisis and to engage people in a conversation about one of the most off-track development goals that we have in the world. By offering an eco-friendly alternative to toilet paper made from virgin trees – 100% recycled or bamboo toilet paper – we’re looking to put an end to the deforestation issue. Every day, over one million trees are cut down to produce traditional toilet paper, just to be flushed down the toilet.

When we launched our sister brand Good Time, we wanted to use another essential product to drive positive social and environmental change. Good Time offers plastic-free body and hair care products, while donating 50% of profits to support clean water initiatives.

In total, we have donated over $11m but we have a long way to go.

While our products have sustainability at their core, we continue our sustainability journey as a business. Just recently, we’ve convinced one of the biggest landlords in Australia to install solar panels spelling the word CRAP and launched our first EV fleet in Australia.

Being good for the planet is one important product claim but are there others that are equally important for selling to your customers, especially now with the cost of living significantly increasing? What’s your advice to brands trying to balance this?

Being a sustainable brand is not enough and so it is not enough to only have eco/sustainability claims. Consumers are looking for brands to meet their base category needs on quality and value. We are looking for quality cues that will reassure our customers that our toilet paper is in line with expectations on softness and strength.

But we also know that brands need to connect emotionally with their consumers. For us, that’s the delightful experiences throughout the customer journey – from beautifully designed wrappers to a unique and lighthearted tone of voice. We engage people by talking about a serious issue and a boring product in a humorous way.

Just like any other lifestyle brand, we’re creating excitement by launching limited editions with strong visual storytelling. We recently launched Happy TP, toilet paper that is proven to lift your spirits and to bring joy into everyday moments. Our loyal customers are always on the lookout for our newest limited edition.

Lastly, customers are more and more aware of their purchasing power and choose brands that are aligned with their values and that actually do good.

Your brand is trying to encourage consumers to switch over to 100% recyclable toilet paper. What are some tactics you find effective in encouraging this behaviour change and why?

The ones that tie back to the core of our brand are proven to be most effective. For us, it is the power combination of delightful and colourful designs, our tone of voice, which leads with humour, and our social and environmental impact. Used together, they offer a compelling reason to switch.

Our tone of voice and unique humour really resonate with a lot of people and are a nice antidote to the doom and gloom. While the toilet paper category seems to lean heavier on cuteness to communicate softness, as well as serious eco messaging, we do the opposite by tapping into humour to address the topic at hand and therefore defy category conventions.

Toilet paper is usually something you’d hide in the back of your cupboard but we wanted to flip that on its head and get our product front and centre in our customer’s bathrooms. It’s been amazing to see that vision translate to small towers of toilet paper that are proudly displayed in bathrooms around the world.

But it’s also an awareness piece. By raising awareness about the fact that over one million trees are cut down every day, just to be flushed down the toilet, we help people understand that an easy switch to eco-friendly toilet paper can have a huge impact for them, their family and the planet.

The brand recently launched its first TVC without the usual “environmental codes” of sustainability campaigns such as heavy use of greenery. Was this intentional? If so, how can brands take a more unconventional approach in communicating sustainability messages?

Yes, this was intentional because we are not a traditional eco brand. We wanted to be so much more. While people are feeling overwhelmed by the climate doom and gloom, facing a new climate issue every day, we wanted to bring some light and cheekiness to a heavy topic.

Instead of drumming the same eco beat as most eco brands, we wanted to stay true to our tone of voice. The campaign focuses on the real heroes that already walk amongst us or behind us. We wanted to demonstrate the impact that bums and the way they wipe have on the environment. Simply by switching to Who Gives A Crap’s eco-friendly toilet paper made from 100% recycled or bamboo fibres, people can save trees and help build toilets for billions of people. So naturally that led us to the bathroom. But we wanted to make sure to represent as many bums and bathrooms as possible.

As a brand, it’s important to build your own brand personality that differentiates you from other brands. The tone of voice is only one small but incredibly important part. Make sure that you think outside the box. But anything you do ties back to your brand and what you stand for – authenticity and transparency are key. There is so much potential for eco brands to explore what eco really means and go beyond the green outdoor scenes.

Research shows that Australians tend to trust local brands over international ones in their green claims. Why do you think this is so and what are some common misconceptions around the “made in Australia” claim?

There is a huge misconception that Australian-made always means high quality standards and better for the environment. While this can absolutely be the case, it’s important to look at the full picture, taking local capability, carbon emissions, costs and quality into consideration.

When we first launched our brand, we wanted to produce locally but no domestic manufacturing partners were capable or willing to make our products to our exacting standards and without plastic packaging. A box of 48 delightfully wrapped rolls was not a project that local producers wanted to take on, so we had to get creative and that led us to China for initial sourcing partners to bring our vision to life.

Fast forward 10 years and our manufacturing base has globalised and still includes China. Our partners in China help with our unique sustainability challenges. China is a key global source of high quality raw materials, which means that our post-consumer recycled paper and bamboo are sourced locally near our manufacturers. This produces less carbon emissions than other supply chain models that ship their raw materials in from other places. Plus, we ship our China production via sea freight to multiple port locations near our warehouses. This produces less carbon emissions than companies who truck their goods long distances from one central manufacturing location. Driving around a large country from a single production site isn’t always better than manufacturing and shipping offshore.

Overall, we are committed to manufacturing our goods in the best locations to deliver customer value, quality, sustainability and delight, whilst always ensuring the people and communities who make our products are working in safe, ethical and respectful environments. Some of our manufacturing sites are within our sales markets, like the US, UK and EU, and some continue to be located in Asia. As we grow, we'll continue to be on the lookout for ways to manufacture our products in a way that’s sustainable and delightful for you, for us and for the planet.

It’s difficult to become a sustainability business, especially in a landscape of greenwashing and greenhushing. What are the tough choices you had to make and what advice would you give to other brands who are on this journey, especially on when and how to communicate its effort?

First of all, take sustainability seriously. While sustainability is a journey, it should be embedded into the core of what you do as a business. When sustainability is embedded in executive-level roles, environmental values will be integrated into top level company-wide strategies and decision making. Educate and collaborate along the way to get people excited.

Secondly, transparency is key. Consumers will see through greenwashing and will lose trust in your brand very quickly. Be transparent about where you are in your sustainability journey and celebrate the small wins. Also, start reporting on your environmental impact to be able to share progress.

Lastly, lead by example. If you really want to stand out, think about how the industry should change, how you can do better and lead by example. Other businesses will follow.