You’ve seen and heard many stories about toilet paper shortages. The stories seem real because shelves are empty. The reason shelves are empty is not due to any real scarcity (factories make more than enough for everyone), but instead to several very different things. Hoarding, the first, has dominated the news feeds. The second reason is known by only a few: the Associated Press says because toilet paper packages take up lots of shelf space and have low profit margins, retailers replenish their stocks according to “just in time” ordering algorithms that keep inventory low by ordering fewer items more frequently. Their calculations are based upon past averages, which do not adjust to disruptions that don’t “fit” the model, which is one of A.I.’s Achilles’ heels. Supply chain expert Daniel Stanton says empty shelves will lead to a surplus, because who needs to buy toilet paper when they’ve got a year’s worth sitting in their garage?” The third reason we can’t find toilet paper is most people aren’t using toilet paper at work, at school, in restaurants, etc, increasing home usage by some unknown factor. It’s easy to imagine some will be drawing cartoons and others will be writing about the phenomenon.
The fourth reason is in this article I wrote last year:
We’re Number One!
Thanks to decades of marketing, including 21 years of Mr Whipple squeezing the Charmin, the United States leads the world in toilet paper usage. Americans, who make up 4% of the world’s population, use 20% of the world’s toilet paper. Fortune says the $31 billion “tree-to-toilet” pipeline is dominated by P&G, Kimberly-Clark, and Georgia-Pacific, whose products graded “F” in ecological assessments. They got their story from the National Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group concerned with deforestation and the destruction of ecosystems. In a recent report, the NRDC urged the U.S. toilet paper industry to switch to recycled content and alternate fiber sources to halt the devastation of Canadian forests. Industry sources say virgin softwoods are needed to produce the softness and luxury favored by Americans. According to Fortune, “the U.S. uses 9 billion pounds of toilet paper a year, or nearly 30 pounds per person, which averages to about three rolls a week per person.”
The Federalist’s Kyle Sammin had fun when he wrote “Fortune magazine’s toilet paper numbers are full of crap.”
Sammin, suspecting that Fortune failed to fact-check their figures, found they passed along unchecked the numbers published by the NRDC in their study. A closer look at the report produced by research vendor Statistica showed their footnotes cited a baseline assumption of 90 grams per roll.
MIT’s website says the average roll weighs 227 grams.
MIT weight-per-roll numbers convert to 56 rolls per year per person, or about one a week. This is only one-third of the usage numbers claimed in the press release and by most publications citing it. At work here is the phenomenon we see all too often – organizations using accidentally- or deliberately- skewed data to make their point, with no effort made to check the authenticity of the “facts.”
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