The Toilet Paper Rush

“I thought that all this bathroom hysteria was fake news until I walked tonight into a ravaged Safeway, and then a depleted Trader Joe’s.” – A comment on “15 Ways To Wipe When The Toilet Paper Is Gone” published in 2016, March 15 2020.

As Corona Virus is getting unprecedentedly serious all over the world, many essential supplies have run out in stores and supermarkets. Hand sanitizers, masks, disinfectant wipes, the number of out-of-stock products online and offline have only been growing faster. Of course, the public needs sanitizing more than ever during a global pandemic. One non-sanitizing product, however, has also been selling out as soon as the coronavirus hits each continent. Toilet Paper.

No longer a daily household necessity, toilet paper has become a sign of victory for those who were able to empty the shelves. Among the memes made about stocking supplies for the coronavirus, toilet paper appears more frequently than any actual sanitizing products. Countless memes have been made with a person sitting in dozens of packs of toilet papers as if she or he was sitting on the iron throne.

According to the latest Nielsen data, Americans have spent more than $1.4 billion on toilet paper from Feb. 28 to March 21. The toilet paper category in the United States was up 123% from the same week last year. Toilet paper companies are working 24 hours a day, seven days a week (CNBC). The workload is higher, or at least equivalent to mask and sanitizer companies. Yet the supply is still far lower than the demand: people are still not getting enough toilet papers. Toilet paper alternative producers have started campaigning their products; furthermore, people on the internet are sharing DIY ideas for toilet paper alternatives, such as bidets and cleaning clothes.

What is behind all this toilet paper rush? Nitika Garg, associate professor from the University of New South Wales explained that this is an example of FOMO (fear of missing out) syndrome. People are anxious when they know that they might miss out on something. FOMO will trigger people to join the herd of toilet paper buyers. When they receive information about others panic buying toilet papers, they might think that’s the best thing to do and they must do the same as soon as possible.

The toilet paper rush first started in Japan in February because the country experienced a major toilet paper shortage in 2011 after the Tohoku earthquake. Despite the Japanese government’s reassurance of the country’s toilet paper production capacity, Japanese people continued panic buying toilet papers until today. The trend is said to spread to Canada, Australia, and the United States afterward.

Many side effects come with the toilet paper rush. Toilet paper companies are concerned about their employee’s health. Workers are working extra hours even during the pandemic, and if they become sick factories have to shut down and consumers would face even worse toilet paper shortage. The toilet paper rush could also hurt toilet paper manufacturers in the long run since consumers wouldn’t be buying toilet papers for months.

On the other hand, the toilet paper rush seems to be a non-stoppable cycle. Memes and images of empty shelves and large toilet paper stocks at home easily go viral, and they create the illusion that one wouldn’t be able to get any toilet papers if they don’t panic buy right now. Widespread of these images on social media arouses fear and anxiety among people and stimulates their panic shopping behavior, and these people would upload more images after they finish buying.

The vicious cycle of toilet paper buying needs to be stopped for the good of both workers and consumers. Learning from the Japanese government, the United States government could call on the panicking consumers to only purchase the amount needed, similar to the “stay at home” message. Another way is to limit the number of toilet paper purchases per person in store: this was done in Australia a week ago since there were several cases of customers injured fighting for toilet papers. Hopefully, the consumers would resume rational after a quota is given.

Policies regarding irresponsible toilet paper memes and images are needed as well. As discussed in the previous paragraph, social media should prioritize rational messages and encourage rational buying behaviors, rather than panic buying posts with high numbers of views. As we laugh at and repost images of piled toilet papers, workers are risking their lives to the fatal coronavirus.

-Maggie

 

7 thoughts on “The Toilet Paper Rush

  1. Hi Maggie,
    Thank you for this article. I had no idea that the toilet paper panic buying behaviors we see today originated with a 2011 earthquake in Japan, or that people in Australia have gotten hurt trying to buy toilet paper. Times like these really tap into the public’s paranoia and survival instinct, causing them to hoard items to prepare for the worst. The thing is, toilet paper is not a necessity for survival, which makes the high demand for it right now that much weirder. It is also an issue when people who intend to buy a normal amount of toilet paper find none anywhere, and then it finally becomes available again, so they buy more than they would have, and then it runs out again in a vicious cycle. We are in a real-life example of the tragedy of the commons. However, stores in my area have implemented limits on how much toilet paper, hand sanitizer, etc. can be purchased per shopper, which has helped with the shortages. I think that memes about hoarding toilet paper help to expose how ridiculous the behavior is, and people who attempt to promote and resell toilet paper and hand sanitizer tend to receive biting feedback on social media. It is important to limit the consumption of a common resource like toilet paper, but I think memes should stay, as they allow people to find humor in this strange time.

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  2. Hi Maggie,
    This post is a very good analysis of the toilet paper “shortages” going on right now. Like Sierra, I was unaware that this phenomenon started because of what happened in 2011 or that people had actually been injured. I think the toilet paper issue is similar to people rushing the grocery store for canned goods as if at some point the government will physically stop you from going to the grocery store. Although a “shelter in place” order might sound scary to some, there is nothing stopping anyone from obtaining food whenever they might need it. While I understand that some people have less access to food than others, I do not think that those with less access are the ones rushing the stores.
    – Currie

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  3. Hi Maggie,
    Thank you for providing a background to toilet paper panic—I didn’t realize it started in 2011. In response to your suggestion for what the U.S. government could do to soothe the panic of Americans, I’m not if a mere statement would be effective. I have this cynicism specifically because of American individualism; while individualism has its benefits in some cases, it can also lead to Americans prioritizing themselves over others and feeling as if their rights are being taken away when the government gives them suggestions. We see this in cases like a Kentucky man who tested positive for COVID-19 refusing to quarantine until police stepped in and throngs of Americans partying on beaches for spring break despite the pandemic. Hope’s most recent blog posts wrote about such cases of self-importance. With toilet paper, I think that many Americans, out of fear and individualism, are only thinking about their own households and not the households of others, even the households of essential workers. However, perhaps this sense of individualism isn’t just limited to the United States; there are reports of multiple healthcare workers being mugged in the United Kingdom after many businesses gave NHS workers discounts for their long shifts fighting COVID-19 (the robbers apparently wanted the discounts for themselves too). I suppose crises like this pandemic always enhance the best or exacerbate the worst of people—for every story of evil, there is another of good, of people helping each other in times of need.

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  4. Hey Maggie,
    I thought this piece really revealed the extent of how this current crisis is impacting every level of our society. While some people treat these shortages overall as memes and jokes there are many more people that will suffer from those same shortages. While it may be funny to laugh about toilet paper, it is not a joke when it comes to certain medicines or food or sanitizing products that people need to survive/prevent getting sick. So much of this current crisis has revealed the human problems behind our societal systems. There is an inherent individual response to fear shortages and in those situations, we have seen how radical individual action harms the collective and may even perpetuate the broader problem. This crisis should definitely be used to reevaluate the line between government/societal responses vs. individual responses.
    – Satya

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  5. Hi Maggie,

    Thanks for this interesting take on the recent toilet paper shortage. I definitely feel like groupthink plays an important role in situations like these. Even if you don’t think you’ll need a ridiculous amount of toilet paper, if everyone else is buying up massive supplies of it, you’re likely to jump in on the trend.

    I do think you’re right that it’s important to recognize the ways in which people that work in domains like the toilet paper industry are probably feeling overworked right now. Much of the media attention has focused on how various industries are shutting down in relation to the recent crisis, which kinda obscures the ways in which other people don’t have the luxury of taking days off during times like this, and are providing essential services for people.

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  6. Hi Maggie,
    Like the quote you included, I was also shocked when I went to Sam’s Club a few weeks ago and saw how so many shelves were completely empty.
    Thank you for providing background info about Japan’s experience with toilet paper hoarding and for bringing up the fact that toilet paper and other goods are made by real people, which sometimes as consumers we don’t think about. Especially in the US and other wealthy societies, we see things in a store or Amazon and put them in our cart without really thinking about where they are coming from. And just like Brandon pointed out, people in the production industry of necessary goods like toilet paper don’t get to have the forced staycation many people get to have.

    Thank you again for this perspective!
    -Deniz

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  7. I agree that the toilet paper situation is getting out of hand and puts workers in danger. However, how far can we go in terms of regulating memes? I think that might violate freedom of speech. Perhaps we could promote a more responsible dialogue, but stopping people from making jokes about the shortage is probably impossible.

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