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 has written for TriplePundit since 2010. He has lived across the U.S., as well as in South Korea, Abu Dhabi and Uruguay. Some of Leon's work can also be found in The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. You can follow him on Twitter (@LeonKaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost).

5 responses

  1. Just some thoughts. Not defending the one-and-done towel idea at all – which does seem pretty wasteful, but your unnamed doctor who says if you don't catch germs from a surface, you'll just get them from the air is part of the problem, not the solution. I get alerts on (among many weird topics) hospitals trying to stem new anti-biotic resistant pathogens each day, and the programs that work are the ones that approach the problem from many angles, but with a real focus on surfaces – everything from operating room trays to bedrails, doctor's ties and even ER curtains. Doctors are the last persons to consult on this topic. Only 18% wash their hands between patient visits according to the latest test somewhere in Canada I saw fly by in the past month. They are, in fact, often worse than orderlies when it comes to protecting health – this from a “complaince officer” at a hospital I heard comment at a forum a few years ago. (Did you know there are compliance agents at better hospitals that are hired to see who is following infection control rules when they don't know the hospital staffers/physicians are being observed? Cool, huh?) Some germs are airborne, some are spread through cross-contamination – some go either way. Most are becoming resistant to chemistry of the early 1900's used now for a century. New, less toxic methods of control are coming on the market daily – these smarter approaches and education are the answer, not a lah-di-dah attitude. Also, removal of all the food sources and microscopic cells with better cleaning methods has been proven at the University of North Carolina to be helpful in reducing absenteeism, antibiotic use and doctor visits. One in five desks children use at school can be positively cultured for Norovirus according to a Boston Children's Hospital study. In the past, desks had the crayon chipped off them once a year. Now, enlightened schools are treating them with less-toxic, longer-lasting surface “protectants,” silver-ion and hydrogen peroxide controls. The protectants don't even use toxicity to kill, they set up a molecular bed of charged “spikes” in a polymer that impales cell walls and gives them a little static zap as they settle to the surface. EPA registers their effectiveness, USDA says they (at least one I am more familiar with) are food-contact safe after drying and rinsing, so I assume they are doing their job.

    Companies, evil as they are (and I agree, sometimes they can have a pretty negative effect when they get large), have to develop these things – you and I can't do it in our garages, at least very often, and an informed public has to understand the issues and seek the better solutions so there is incentive to produce. Food for thought, for what it's worth department.

  2. Thanks for the response–my issue is not with having paper towels at public facilities such as hospitals–but the idea of using paper towels in the home is wasteful and absurd. Obviously hand washing needs to be addressed–including doctors–but seizing on consumers' fears of germs by selling more products that really are not needed is irresponsible.

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