Cheeky Panda: Meet the couple building a sustainable toilet roll brand

For many, the frenzy of toilet roll panic buying at the start of the pandemic is a fleeting memory. 

However, one company saw lockdown catapult it into the mainstream.

Wrapped in paper packaging, the bamboo toilet paper brand Cheeky Panda has quietly become an alternative for environmentally-conscious consumers.

Cheeky Panda, run by husband and wife Julie and Chris, manufacturers sustainable, low carbon toilet paper

Husband and wife Julie and Chris Forbes launched the company in 2016 and are adamant the pandemic bounce is not short-lived. 

They even have an ambitious goal to have an Initial Public Offering within two years. 

Here, as part of our new B Corp Beat series – focusing the spotlight on ‘green’ British companies – we find out more…

‘We’re doing what Apple does… toilet paper is our iPhone’ 

Julie is the mastermind behind the brand, which has expanded its product range from toilet paper to include make-up wipes, straws and nappies.

She recognised that bamboo had the potential to be a sustainable alternative to traditional toilet paper which uses gallons of water to manufacture. 

Bamboo has become a popular alternative because it grows quickly and, in the correct conditions, does not need any chemicals, fertiliser, pesticides or irrigation system.

It is said to grow 30 times faster than trees, absorb 35 per cent more carbon and produces 30 per cent more oxygen.

This means switching to low carbon bamboo tissue is a simple yet effective way to lower CO2 emissions.

What is a B Corp?

In our new B Corp Beat series, we are interviewing British businesses which meet these strict standards. 

They are described as businesses that are said to meet the ‘highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose.’

One the website, it says: ‘B Corp Certification doesn’t just evaluate a product or service; it assesses the overall positive impact of the company that stands behind it. And increasingly that’s what people care most about.’

B Corp was started in 2006 and gives scores to companies in order for them to be verified. 

These five areas are: governance, workers, community, environment and customers.

Chris soon left his high-flying role at an executive search company working with financial services firms and hedge funds following an inspiring trip to China. 

The lightbulb moment, he recalls, was on the drive from the airport to the manufacturer.

‘We flew into the middle of China and had a five hour drive from the airport to the factory where the bamboo is made. 

‘The whole drive was just bamboo plantations, so I thought there’s no way we’re going to run out of this in a hurry,’ Chris says.

But rather than rushing off and buying containers of the product to sit in a warehouse, the couple opted for a crowdfunding campaign to gauge interest: ‘That was successful and the rest is history.’

Since April 2017 the brand has received over £7million in investment from 4,000 investors, including a £3.4million funding round that ended last weekend. 

Customer involvement does not just stop with its crowdfunding: ‘A lot of our product development has been driven by customers. 

‘If we can get the quality to a high standard and do it in an ethical way we’re always up for trying new things.’

With Cheeky Panda now offering around 20 different products in shops like Waitrose and Boots as well as online, Chris boldly likens the company to a large tech company.

‘We’ve proven ourselves not to be a one trick pony. We’re kind of doing what Apple and Sony do really well – having a lot of different products under the same brand. 

‘Once your consumers recognise those products, they adopt other products very quickly. That’s been a very successful strategy for us,’ he says. 

Their iPhone equivalent is their toilet paper, which Forbes says makes up half of their revenue.

Cheeky Panda launched as an eco-alternative to toilet roll but has since expanded to include wipes, nappies and straws

Cheeky Panda launched as an eco-alternative to toilet roll but has since expanded to include wipes, nappies and straws 

Sales quadrupled during the pandemic

Cheeky Panda has forged a strong environmental brand to stand out in what is an incredibly saturated market.

It beefed up its credentials with a B Corp certification in 2019 and is FSC approved. 

‘Our products are wrapped in paper. If you look at us on a shelf we just stand out,’ Chris says. 

‘We do something very similar to what Fairtrade Coffee always does: we use the packaging space in the back to explain the story. These environmental messages resonate with customers.’

But as more and more consumers switch to online shopping how can they stand out? The pandemic no doubt helped. 

Faced with the prospect of lockdown, consumers started to panic buy toilet rolls leaving some of the leading brands with serious shortages.

Cheeky Panda started last year with an average of £300,000 sales a month and peaked at around £1.3million by May.

It has sold more than 12million products in 25 markets across Europe, the US, China and the Middle East. 

Sales have grown exponentially in the past three years, from £100,000 in 2017 to £5.7millon in 2020.

The overall hygiene market is valued at more than $200billion and more consumers are said to be opting for sustainable products. 

Chris is adamant this growth is not a flash in the pan as it eyes a listing in London by 2023, by which time it expected to be valued at £500million. It is currently valued at £75million. 

‘When we look at where we were last year, the company has continued on its growth curve. 

‘It wasn’t just a one off spike for us, it just brought on more adoption quicker because it put our product in the hands of millions of customers and thankfully a large number of them have stayed with us and we’ve continued to grow from that point.’

Cheeky Panda is now setting its sights on a market debut in the next couple of years, although this was not the original plan.

‘When we originally started the business, our thing was to build a nice green business and do a trade sale,’ Chris says. 

‘But then we found out how the consumers felt about the brand and the size of the opportunity we were sitting on, and thought we should think about going to market.’

Cheeky Panda would be a natural target for a large consumer goods company like Unilever or Procter & Gamble but there have been no formal offers so far, and the couple say they would be unlikely to accept anyway.

‘Do we want to be another brand swallowed by another big brand? Or do we want try and go it alone, innovate and inspire a generation of green entrepreneurs? I personally feel very strongly about it,’ says Forbes. 

‘The guys at [smoothie brand] Innocent inspired us and we want to inspire others… If we can get businesses that, at their very core, are green on the FTSE, then I think we’re going to have a nice green economy.’

Cheeky Panda has been plotting its roadmap to market since 2018 and could become the first crowdfunded business to pursue an IPO in London.

When it comes time to list, Chris is adamant the company will not be going the same way as Deliveroo, which offered founder Will Shu greater voting rights compared with minority investors.

‘We don’t see the reason why ourselves or our early angel investors and the crowd should be sacrificed. 

‘If you’ve got an ethical business you shouldn’t be giving rights to people who have come right at the end after everyone else.’