‘We had to send first batch of bamboo loo roll back to China’

Julie Chen and Chris Forbes, the husband and wife co-founders of bamboo loo roll company Cheeky Panda (Cheeky Panda )
Julie Chen and Chris Forbes, the husband and wife co-founders of bamboo loo roll company Cheeky Panda (Cheeky Panda )

Who can forget the Great Loo Roll Panic of 2020? Supermarket shelves devoid of toilet paper due to pandemic stock-piling saw Andrex and its rivals face rationing for the first time since the Second World War.

Julie Chen and Chris Forbes, the husband and wife co-founders of bamboo loo roll company Cheeky Panda, were already shipping about five containers a month full of their eco-friendly toilet paper to the UK from China before the loo roll drama unravelled.

“We’d been knocking on doors of the supermarkets for ages, but no one wanted to know, as our product was so new. Then, during the pandemic all the supermarkets came back to us, asking if we had any stock.” Cheeky Panda quickly scaled up, shipping 200 containers per month (or 12 million rolls).

“Once the initial surge subsided, we were pleasantly surprised to find that many customers who had acquiredour products during the pandemic chose to remain loyal to the brand,” says Chen, 42. “By 2022, revenues had grown to £1 million a month.”

But success was far from guaranteed when the duo decided to quit their jobs — Forbes was managing a headhunting agency, Chen an online shoe business — in 2017 because of “a strong desire to pursue something more meaningful”.

Chen had come across bamboo toilet paper in China, and it took her back to her undergraduate studies in Japan “when I had an idea for a lifestyle brand with a panda and bamboo products, drawing inspiration from my study of Disney and Nike brands, to create a panda character promoting sustainable products”.

She parked the idea until December 2015, when the pair got engaged and Chen took Forbes, who is Scottish, to meet her parents in China.

“Whilst there, I went online to find a bamboo factory, and we decided to visit — in China, factory owners are always welcoming to people who want to view their products, but we didn’t realise the factory was a six-hour drive from Chongqing, to the middle of mountains.”

They were fascinated by the manufacturing process. “It was eye-opening to learn that the part of the bamboo used for [loo roll] is not part of a panda’s diet, it grows rapidly like a weed, and once harvested, it regrows within one year, making it highly renewable.”

The pair were told that only 10% of the bamboo was used for tissue production, with the rest left unharvested to rot — “yet the more you harvest bamboo, the more it regenerates — the opposite of what happens with trees.” In 2015, the pair crowdfunded £12,500 to acquire their first container of loo roll, paying £700 for a freelancer’s branding and logo design (still on today’s packaging).

The first batch was almost, er, money down the drain: “the [paper] formula used in China rendered the products less flushable than the UK requirements — we had to send back the whole first container to our manufacturing partner in China.” The second batch worked well though; Cheeky Panda loo roll launched on Amazon in 2016.

Chen and Forbes, 47, went to trade shows in panda costumes, and revenues hit £1000 a month a year later.

Their first major stockist was health food chain As Nature Intended (later acquired by Planet Organic), and by 2018 Cheeky Panda was in Whole Foods, Boots and Ocado. Further crowdfunding has taken total backing to £10 million.

Rivals have watched: “we’ve observed a major brand launching bamboo toilet paper, but their claims fall short of real change — only containing 10% bamboo and still heavily reliant on conventional wood materials, failing to address deforestation. Our products are 100% FSC certified bamboo.”

Supply chain inflation last year took the cost to ship one container from $2000 to $20,000. “We had to put up our prices by 20% [today 24 loo rolls cost around £22] which still didn’t cover our costs, but with a strong balance sheet we could sustain the loss. It was a trying time,” Chen says. “But shipping costs have now returned to normal.”

The range now also includes wipes and kitchen roll, straws and tissues; Cheeky Panda is targeting £15 million turnover this year. The pair are hoping for an IPO in the next three years — “but the most important thing for us having got through growing pains and pandemic, is that we have a stable business, we can grow sustainably with loyal customers who are happy with our products.”