#5 The Cheeky Panda

The Cheeky Panda uses waste bamboo to make luxury toilet tissue, giving farmers extra income and creating job opportunities for local workers while offering a more sustainable, healthier toilet paper alternative.

Cheeky Panda and EcoHedge - Brand Story

Chris offered some sage advice for navigating the challenges and opportunities in growing a consumer brand, sustainably.

  • 1

    What inspired you to start your business and have sustainability take such a central role?

    Before founding Cheeky Panda, I ran a management consultancy and financial services business while Julie was at the helm of a lifestyle business. Julie's dream was to build a world-class, sustainable brand, and after brainstorming several ideas, the one that stuck with us was manufacturing tissue paper from bamboo. Julie's rationale was that bamboo, being the world's fastest-growing plant, is an excellent sustainable source. Intrigued by the soft and silky texture of bamboo, we decided to try it ourselves.

    For about six months, we used bamboo tissues in our home, refining the concept of our business. After being satisfied with the product, we decided to vet the supply chain in China as we believed an ethical business must be supported by an ethical supply chain. The abundance of bamboo, stretching for miles like a vast green sea, reassured us that we wouldn't run short of our primary resource, which regrows every year.

    Impressed by the cooperative farming methods, fair wages, and a culture of giving back to people and land in our manufacturing process, we decided in 2016 to launch Cheeky Panda, a brand committed to sustainability, ethical practices, and delivering quality products.

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  • 2

    What practices have you implemented and how has it positively impacted your business?

    Our journey with Cheeky Panda started with bamboo, the world's fastest growing plant, as our central sustainable material. However, sustainability is an ongoing endeavor, requiring constant improvements. Despite the natural advantage of bamboo, we realised there was still a carbon footprint associated with producing bamboo tissue. Thus, we initiated a life cycle carbon analysis.

    Since 2017, we've partnered with the World Land Trust on a carbon balancing project to protect Vietnamese rainforests. We track the amount and weight of our products sold and calculate the associated carbon reduction. We've saved about 30,000 tons of carbon compared to if customers bought regular tissue, an impactful achievement.

    Initially, our paper, toilet rolls, and kitchen towels were wrapped in plastic. However, in 2018, we bravely eliminated plastic from our packaging despite the risk of damaging our top-selling product, toilet tissue. Against concerns about potential damage and returns, we pressed ahead. This change proved successful, and we expanded our plastic-free approach to products like baby wipes and antiviral wipes.

    We've estimated that we've saved around 500,000 kilos of plastic thanks to customers purchasing our products. Considering an average case of toilet tissue typically contains 50 grams of plastic packaging, this is a substantial saving.

    When it comes to trees, we've saved about 400,000 trees since bamboo replaces conventional pulp in our products. That's 20 trees saved for every ton of regular pulp.

    We've evolved from a start-up into a company that doesn't just advocate for sustainability but actively measures and tracks it. Our progression is a testament to our dedication to ethical and sustainable business practices.

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  • 3

    What hurdles have you encountered and how have you managed to overcome them?

    Since the inception of Cheeky Panda in 2016, we've navigated an ever-changing business climate, facing one crisis after another. We often joke that black swan events are becoming more common than white swans. Our journey began with the currency devaluation of the pound against the dollar, which drastically affected our margins. Fortunately, we managed to balance the loss by reconfiguring our supply chain and packaging at the pilot level.

    This was just the start, as we then weathered the challenges of Brexit, followed by the COVID pandemic, and most recently, hyperinflation. These unpredictable events highlight the need for businesses to always anticipate the unexpected. The stability businesses experienced for about 10 to 15 years before these crises seems almost absent now, with frequent disruptions becoming the norm.

    We live on a planet with stretched resources, and until there is a global shift towards more sustainable practices, we'll continue to see these unpredictable, crisis-driven events. Examples include crop failures due to environmental instability, affecting commodities like olive oil in Italy and sunflower oil in Ukraine, causing flash floods and other environmental crises.

    As a business, we strive to actively contribute to these conversations and address these challenges. We do so in a way that aligns with our ethos of sustainability and environmental consciousness, all the while navigating the shifting sands of our global landscape.

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  • 4

    What do you see as the main sustainability challenges facing FMCG companies in the near future?

    The impacts of hyperinflation and supply chain disruptions have been significant, affecting everything from the materials used for product packaging to increased labor costs. We've witnessed skyrocketing prices for materials like glassware, although we were fortunate not to rely on elements like aluminium cans.

    In addition, there's been a spike in labor costs due to a lack of lorry drivers, which resulted in increased salaries. These added expenses are often passed back to businesses like ours, causing operational costs to spiral unexpectedly.

    This reinforces the point that we operate in an ever-changing environment, underlining the importance of controlling our own destiny as much as possible. To survive and thrive in these conditions, businesses need to have contingency plans in place—not just a plan B, but plans C and D as well—to accommodate for the unpredictable nature of the business landscape.

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  • 5

    What advice would you give entrepreneurs aspiring to greater sustainability ambitions for their FMCG business?

    One common pitfall in the startup community I've noticed is the tendency to dwell too long in the concept stage due to fear or hesitation about taking an idea to market. My advice is to fail fast if the idea is destined to fail. It's better to bootstrap, bring your idea to market, and iterate on it rather than raising large amounts from investors for a concept that may not work.

    Cash is king in the business world. You could have the best product, but without proper marketing or sales, it's virtually worthless. Even an average sustainable product can succeed with the right entrepreneurial spirit, marketing, and sales strategy.

    It's crucial to manage cash flow and be cautious about advisors. Whenever someone offers advice or a service, understand what's in it for them. You need to protect your interests and not be swayed by the promise of a dream that might not materialize.

    In our first three years, we had to rely on raising capital as banks were reluctant to lend us money. The capital raised allowed us to quickly build our team and expand our market. We've adopted a laddered approach—growth spurts followed by investment rounds, which has led us to a projected turnover of 15 million pounds this year.

    Taking on investors requires a balance of growing the business and creating value for them. If you remain stagnant after raising money, your investors might stop supporting you, diluting your own wealth.

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  • 6

    *BONUS* Do you have any sustainable brands that you’re a big fan of and would like to shout out to the readers?

    As an emerging brand, I particularly appreciate those tackling the issue of plastic pollution in the ocean. I believe those addressing plastic pollution, such as OceanSaver , deserve a spotlight. 

    Despite our recycling efforts, 92% of all plastic isn't recycled and often ends up incinerated instead. Therefore, initiatives aiming to eliminate plastic and curb deforestation have my wholehearted support. These actions are vital in closing the loop in our consumption cycle and ensuring a more sustainable future.

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