While toilet paper seems like a product that should have been around for as long as there has been commerce, it actually is a fairly modern invention. Before 1857, the most common “toilet paper” in the United States actually consisted of pages from the Sears Roebuck catalog. That finally changed when one brave innovator, entrepreneur Joseph Gayetty, got the idea that a better alternative could be created.
And so he developed and marketed a line of manila sheets infused with aloe in a neat, discreet box meant to live in a customer’s bathroom or outhouse. But, in truth, outhouse owners were probably sticking with the Sears catalog, because the earliest iteration of toilet paper was considered a luxury good. Each box contained about 1,000 sheets of toilet paper for the cost of one dollar. If that sounds like a pretty good price, keep in mind that in 1857, a dollar was worth roughly $28.86 in modern money. Buying toilet paper in the latter half of the 19th century is quite literally an example of flushing money down the toilet.
Toilet paper made its next great leap forward in 1890, when Clarence and E. Irvin Scott decided to think out of the box – and onto a roll. Their invention of rolled-up toilet paper made it much easier to package large amounts. They also had the idea to target businesses – hotels, specifically, instead of attempting to sell direct to consumers, because in 1890, it was considered impolite to admit that one used the bathroom at all.
But as the 20th century dawned and an increasing number of homes were built with indoor plumbing, toilet paper got very popular, as flushing catalog pages was a quick way to destroy one’s pipes. In the U.S. today, toilet paper is a $31 billion per year industry – and growing, as the average American runs through three rolls per week.
Although toilet paper has had an iron grip on the American consumer (and much of the rest of the world), the product has not until very recently been all that focused on innovation. Arguably the biggest change happened in the 1930s, when up-and-coming manufacturer Charmin began building its marketing around how soft the product was instead of around its functional capabilities. Since then, most of the changes have been to the size of the toilet paper rolls or the designs embossed on them. Consumers mostly purchase it on the basis of what is available, convenient and inexpensive.
But in a world where many products once considered workaday utilities are getting DTC artisanal upgrades, perhaps it should not be surprising that even toilet paper has drawn the interest of innovators. And those innovators have found that consumers will not only buy a farm-to-bathroom roll of toilet paper, they will pay a premium price for it. Not $28 a roll, perhaps, but they will still spend a fair amount for something that has a very short span of use.
With tongue-in-cheek names that exude a proper sense of humor about the project they are undertaking – No. 2, Who Gives A Crap, Tushy, Bippy and Peach are all favored brands in the space – their purpose is entirely serious.
“We believe in moments for ourselves. To give every part of us – and our bathrooms – something better,” Peach CEO Aaron Doades notes on the brand’s website.
The Team at Who Gives A Crap is selling toilet paper for a higher purpose, notes its founding team – they donate half of their profits to building toilets and better waste management systems across the developing world.
They also like bathroom humor, so toilet paper was the ideal place for them to set up shop.
“Lots of room for toilet jokes, which we love,” the founding team noted. “But really, we love toilet paper because for us, it's our way of making a difference. We started Who Gives A Crap when we learned that 2.3 billion people across the world don't have access to a toilet.”
Although they all have different reasons for coming to the market, they all share a commitment to making toilet paper more sustainable and less of a deforestation nightmare. That is accomplished generally in one of two ways: The first is to use recycled paper rather than pulp from virgin trees, which requires less energy and water than felling trees. The second is to use bamboo, a plant that grows much faster than a pine or spruce tree.
And while there are a few companies moving toward recycled pulp toilet paper, the up-and-coming brands aren’t just promising cleaner toilet paper, but also softer, more durable and higher-quality rolls.
And those rolls incidentally come at a cost. While at the lower end of the spectrum, consumers can pay $1 a roll for DTC artisanal toilet paper, prices can range up to $5 a roll. But the brands also offer subscription models to lower the price, and monthly delivery options so no consumer ever has to run out again. “There’s no reason you should be carrying enormous rolls of toilet paper from the store to your house,” says Doades of Peach.
Disrupting toilet paper for the next generation of digital merchants isn’t just about fixing the product, but about fixing the entire experience.