Panic buying of toilet paper. Seriously?

My Balinese friends were astonished that so many westerners rushed out to stock up on toilet paper when they realized there might be shortages of some items in the supermarkets.

Toilet paper

‘Why would anyone think toilet paper is so important?’ they asked me. ‘You can’t eat it, you know!’

I must say, I felt mystified by this panic buying too. Having lived in Bali for 20 years, where toilet paper is exceedingly rare outside of tourist areas, it’s certainly not high on my list of life’s necessities.

In fact, as Indi Samarajiva explains in his article, How to clean your butt without toilet paper, it’s not a hygienic practice at all. In most Asian countries, people wash themselves after going to the toilet. They find the concept of using toilet paper disgusting because it leaves you unclean. But it’s so much a part of the western lifestyle that in times of uncertainty, it seems it’s the first thing people rush to buy.

Why toilet paper?

Psychologists around the world are still baffled why people would want to hoard toilet paper. No one predicted this happening in the event of a pandemic. Essential foods, certainly. But toilet paper? No one saw that coming.

One theory I’ve heard is that toilet paper is an inexpensive way of acquiring something soft and comforting in a time of danger. Another is that it’s bulky, so feels protective. One psychologist suggested that it feels desirable because it’s hygienic, at a time when we are all being urged to be more aware of hygiene.

These theories all seem quite reasonable. But I believe the truth is very much simpler. With so much fear in the world about the coronavirus, the last thing some people want is to have to confront the horrifying prospect of touching their own poo. A good supply of toilet paper makes that fear recede, at least for a while, and makes them feel less fearful about the virus too.

It’s not as bad as you might think

I have first-hand experience of this type of fear, so I’m pretty sure I’m on the money with this explanation. It’s something I had to overcome when travelling in India in my thirties, using squat toilets with only a pot of somewhat murky water and a ladle provided for washing.

The first time I had to do this, I froze. For several long minutes, I couldn’t bring myself to come into contact with my own poo. If my mother’s stories are to be believed, I had a very pally relationship with faeces as a small child. An often-repeated story she told was about how I once proudly filled my hollow alphabet bricks with the fresh contents of my potty. But three decades of using toilet paper had disconnected me from my gleeful experimental toddler self.

After I washed myself, I couldn’t believe I’d found it so hard. Like most fears when you overcome them, there was nothing to it. I got plenty more practice at this during the rest of the time I was in India and the years I lived in Bali.

Now I really do prefer the water-cleaning method. It’s not very practical when using a western toilet unless it has a Japanese-style mechanism to automatically wash your undercarriage or there’s a bidet nearby. But it really does leave you feeling cleaner. And it brings more bodily awareness too. As any Balinese person will tell you, your right hand is for eating and your left hand is for cleaning your bum. They never confuse the two.

Bear in mind too, that 27,000 trees per day are gobbled up by global toilet paper production. It’s a phenomenal waste of our planet’s resources.

No need to stockpile

The crazy thing about stockpiling loo rolls, at least in the UK, is that there would be plenty to go around if people only bought what they need. Many supermarket shelves here have now been restocked and this aspect of our lives, at least, seems to be returning to normal.

In Bali, my friends tell me there has been no stockpiling in at all in most parts of the country due to the fact that no one can afford to buy more than they need for a few days at a time. So if you ever feel tempted to hoard piles of the soft white stuff in future, just ask yourself, is it really the most essential thing for your survival? You’re likely to discover there are far more important things.

Copyright © Clear Space Living Ltd, 2020

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About Karen Kingston

Karen Kingston is a leading expert in clutter clearing, space clearing, feng shui, and healthy homes. Her two international bestselling books have combined sales of over three million copies in 26 languages and have established themselves as "must-read" classics in their fields. Her best-known title, Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui, is now in its fifth edition. She is best known for her perspective-changing insights and practical solutions that enable more conscious navigation of 21st-century living.
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9 Responses to Panic buying of toilet paper. Seriously?

  1. I too, came to the conclusion that finding a balance in what we buy/keep is the way to go. I live on an island in Alaska and our issue is that due to weather, sometimes our food & supply ships bypass us because of weather. Our shops are not truly empty but lacking in produce and dairy, and sometimes other supplies too. But we are a close community and if someone is in trouble others come to the fore to help.

  2. Interesting fact from history: we used to use the left hand in Britain, in past centuries, hence the very derogatory and now hopefully relegated expression ‘cack-handed’, used to describe a left-handed person. The Industrial Revolution, bringing cheaper forms of cloth and/or paper, changed all that…

  3. Thank you, dear Karen, for yet another beautiful newsletter and for sharing your thoughts about what we need to be doing and thinking about. We have so much to do, especially when this crazy, consumer driven world, which has been so poor spiritually, is now being forced to look within and not without. Our beautiful Earth Mother needs to be able to recharge her batteries to enable her to continue to sustain us. What a great lesson for all of us and also what a great opportunity. Hope we don’t blow it.

    Also, we need to remind ourselves each passing moment that good health is our natural state and not ill health. The world has to stop worshipping disease. We should all be singing one song now. Isn’t that what the word “universe” means?

  4. I love the challenge to conventional wisdom. Pragmatic thinking requires some letting go of habits. Thanks for something to ponder, Karen. Didn’t anyone read the book, The Martian, about how to raise potatoes without soil?

  5. People here in the US were hoarding toilet paper before the closing of many things. Some people are trying to sell it online with HUGE price increases. This is very sad that people are trying to profit from this unfortunate situation.

  6. I read an article yesterday that actually helped me to understand the toilet paper shortage from an economics point of view. Turns out that since everyone is at home all the time now, they actually ARE using considerably more toilet paper (as much as 40% more) at home than they were before. This is causing a shortage in the retail space. Meanwhile, the commercial toilet paper manufacturers have a surplus, because no one is using their product, because no one is going to work, school, or restaurants where this product is used (they even use different paper mills than the retail manufacturers do… apparently commercial and retail are two completely different toilet paper markets!)

    Apparently retail toilet paper manufacturers already produce product around the clock even when things are “normal,” so now they are having to find ways to somehow increase production to keep up with increased demand. What I think the commercial manufacturers should do is to try and find a way to make smaller, softer rolls and sell them in the retail space, but it probably takes a long time to retool a factory in such a way!

  7. There’s even more interesting things to put vision on in terms of hoarding behaviour in times of coronavirus: it seems that in Italy, nobody had the urge to overly buy things – nor food or anything else. Here in Germany as well as in the US and Canada the same items were hoarded: toilet paper, noodles, rice, tomato sauce in all varieties, sugar, flour, yeast. In France people bought excessive amounts of condoms, red wine and chocolate.

    In the 80s (and possibly still going on) scientists researched intercultural differences also based on how much insecurities different cultures could bear (or not). Not surprisingly Germany ended up way up high on the scale of insecurity avoidant while Italy was much lower on that scale. To me it seems that Italians (along with many other Mediterranean cultures) are not only accustomed to living in a much less organized and controlled environment but living in a somewhat organic way (as opposed to a strictly regulated and controlled way like we do in Germany) is a very part of their culture and the fear of losing control just doesn’t thrive well on that kind of substratum.

  8. Karen, I agree that water cleaning (with cloth and soap please), gives a very satisfying result, but using one’s left hand directly for dealing with the business end of things, is simply not hygienic, nor necessary in our western world. And toilet paper helps to remove the ‘worst’ of it before finishing off with water, so let’s not completely pooh-pooh it 😁

    The hoarding of toilet paper (i.e. obsession as opposed to sensible provisioning) is an interesting phenomenon, but, at least in the country I live in, people are also hoarding basics more directly linked to survival, such as long-life milk, sugar, flour, tinned goods, and bottled water. Not great nutrionally, but these can all be consumed at some date in the future, so it’s not really wasteful (providing they can still stomach yet another meal of tinned meatballs in spaghetti sauce well enough in six months time!).

    I don’t think life in Bali can be compared to the western world, and while I really do get the point of your article, others may not, and some judicial stocking up of the cupboards is perfectly OK. It will all balance out in the weeks to come as people see that deliveries are continuing, and they (we can but wish) relearn to cook from scratch.

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