Deforestation is clearing the world’s forests on a massive scale. According to NASA, if the current rate of deforestation continues, it will take less than 100 years to destroy the earth's rainforests.
Against this backdrop, it takes innovative entrepreneurs to find solutions between consumer needs, and the needs of the environment – and there may be no taller a challenge than decreasing the 27,000 trees lost every day to toilet paper production.
Luckily, Essex entrepreneurs Chris Forbes and Julie Chen have a solution. Chris and Julie are the masterminds behind The Cheeky Panda, an award-winning Essex start-up which is turning bamboo, the world’s fastest growing plant, into toilet tissue.
Chris told BQ: “Julie came up with the concept of turning bamboo into tissue about a year before we started the business.
“We pondered the idea and whether or not it would work. My view was that we needed to get our eyes on it before we could seriously think about making a business from it.
“With this in mind we went on a trip to China to meet her parents and also to investigate the bamboo side of things.
“It was always going to be a good idea but we had to ensure the quality of the manufacturing process, there and we had a solid enough supply chain and it was being ethically sourced.
“If it ticked these boxes, we knew we could make it happen.
“When we got there, we saw so much opportunity with bamboo and began learning about how renewable and sustainable it was. It was a no brainer.”
When the duo returned home they knew they were onto something special and started looking at how they could bring it to market.
“We were both running businesses,” Chris continued, “Julie had been running an online shoe firm which saw her importing a lot of goods from overseas and selling in the UK. I’d been running a consultancy business which worked primarily with FTSE100 organisations.
“When we came back in January we created the company and decided to call it The Cheeky Panda. To test the market, we launched a crowdfunding campaign which proved a huge success. The campaign ended in April and we raised £12,000 which was enough to cover the cost of a container.
“We turned to crowdfunding for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it was a good way to test the market, it helped us see what appetite for the product was out there. Secondly it was quite a low risk strategy from our point of view.
“Instead of pulling out capital, we were able to raise funds through the crowd. It was also great for publicity. We gained quite a bit of local media coverage which then turned into national coverage.”
The success of the crowdfunding campaign was the final push they needed to bring the product to market and with their first container load of tissue imported, they began getting their produce ready.
“By the time we’d finished all of our designs, had everything ready and had tested the market, we didn’t get around to selling the products until August. We completed a series of pre-orders with organic stores and online distributors and it grew from there.”
The Cheeky Panda is now stocked in 30 stores across London as well as a number of ecommerce retailers including Ethical Superstore and Amazon, their most successful outlet.
“We’ve had people reordering larger quantities month-on-month, we’re now selling around £5,000 a month on Amazon alone which has grown by around 30% every month,” Chris added.
It's not only the consumer side of the business which is taking off either. Julie and Chris have also seen the B2B side of the business grow as businesses across the globe look to boost their green credentials by investing in becoming more sustainable.
"We break our market down into two halves. We have the retail side of things and we have the janitorial side of things, which is the buildings that everyone works in. We’re signing up to some of the largest janitorial companies in the UK and that is a huge boost.
"One of the largest companies we're working with is Bunzl. When it comes to the banks, accountancy firms and law firms which have high sustainability and low carbon agendas, they are always there.
"Bunzl is using us as a flagship innovation product and its helping open so many doors for us."
As well as proving a huge hit at home, the pair have also been fielding calls from overseas.
Just a month after their launch, they received a call from ethical retail chain The Big Green Smile which saw them not only stock their products in the UK but also in the Netherlands.
“We landed our first international deal within one month of trading after securing a deal with The Big Green Smile in the Netherlands,” Chris said.
“Looking forward we are hoping to continue expanding overseas. We’ve already had interest from the US, China and across Europe which hopefully we can turn into more sales.
“Our next step is to try and get one or two supermarkets on board and we’re also hoping to expand into some of the UK’s largest hotels, venues and corporations. We’ll then be looking to roll the concept out internationally.
“We’re a new product so it’s not like we have lots of competition. We have an excellent platform to build on and we’re excited about showing people that you can develop high quality and affordable green products into a successful business!”