Kimberly-Clark Offsets its Sustainability Promises With Marketing of Disposable Hand Towels for the Home

In a move that not only will blight home bathrooms but makes a mockery of its claim that it is truly “the concept of sustainability in our business practices,” Kimberly-Clark is pushing a new product line of disposable hand towels.  Resting on its legacy of inventing the disposable tissue, which “help make a better life,” Kimberly-Clark and its Kleenex brand “continues its leadership and commitment to consumers with the introduction of disposable hand towels.”

I suppose Kimberly-Clark’s “alternative solution to traditional cloth bathroom hand towels,” if they are successful, will save newly married couples the hassle of exchanging oddly-colored cloth towels received as wedding gifts.  But if there’s a case study of corporate social irresponsibility, Kimberly-Clark has given us one.

The FAQ’s on Kleenex’s site are well written, waxing the corporate responsibility efforts of its parent firm.  But the marketing of Kleenex Hand Towels is more of a crude attempt at capitalizing on consumers’ mysophobia than providing responsible products for families.  Let’s start with the Kleenex’s claim that:

People dry their hands on cloth bathroom towels approximately 200 billion times per year and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines for hand washing recommends hand drying with a single-use towel to help reduce the spread of germs.


It is true that the CDC issues guidelines for hand washing—using the guidelines set by the National Center for Zoonotic, Vector-Borne, and Enteric Diseases (NCZVED), which focuses on health threats like malaria, bioterrorism, and animal-borne diseases—not on “germs” like the common cold, which of course necessitates that the sick one in the family should use his own towel.  And using a handkerchief does not spread disease—unless of course, you share your used one.  Disposable tissues are here to stay; but spreading the one-use mentality to hand towels is just encouraging more waste.  Kleenex even acknowledges the unnecessary luxury involved with this product, merely stating that its hand towels offer a “hygienic option” for its customers.

To that end, the disposable hand towels are not even made with recycled content.  Why?  “Because of the superior softness consumers expect from KLEENEX® Brand, KLEENEX® Brand Hand Towels are made with 100 percent virgin fiber.”  So the company is not even sourcing recycled wood or plant fiber—because the need for softness dictates the requirement of a clean, fresh towel, every time.

The desire to avoid germs has made our society almost a neurotic one.  Our quest for cleanliness has led to more disposable products and anti-bacterial consumer goods on store shelves.  The results?  More allergies, more eczema, and more paranoia.  Any responsible health professional will tell you that soap and water will do the trick in ridding your hands of germs.  When I asked my doctor whether disposable towels were necessary to stop the spread of germs, she just laughed.  If you don’t catch germs from a surface—you’ll snare them from the air.

At the consternation of some of 3P’s readers, I am quick to defend companies like HP, Starbucks, and yes, even Chevron (which is one of the most progressive companies for gay and lesbian employees).  Wal-Mart is making some notable strides on the sustainability front, so I am not quick to attack them.  And Kimberly-Clark is a must-study for any business student—they are masters of corporate strategy, using their internal processes and knowledge to move from consumer products to high-end medical supplies.

But Kimberly-Clark’s and Kleenex’s cynical ploy to have consumers buy disposable hand towels is a huge step in the wrong direction.  The consumption of resources and potential waste are not worth the purchase at $2.99 a box.  Your hand towels, whether they are from Dollar World or Neiman Marcus, will do just fine.

Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye is a business writer and strategic communications specialist. He has also been featured in The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. When he has time, he shares his thoughts on his own site, Contact him at You can also reach out via Twitter (@LeonKaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost). He is currently living and working in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.