Sustainable hankies nothing to sneeze at

Regula and Chris Appenzeller show off one of their eco-friendly tissues. - Tracy Holmes photo
Regula and Chris Appenzeller show off one of their eco-friendly tissues.
— image credit: Tracy Holmes photo

Chris and Regula Appenzeller have a nose for making a difference.

And a venture into offering those with the sniffles – or other issues that call for tissues – an alternative to disposable wipes is starting to pay off for the Ocean Park couple.

The Appenzellers launched their "eco-chic alternative" business, Hank&Cheef, four years ago, not long after Regula happened across one of the cloth Muppets hankies she'd used as a child. Cloth hankies have long been the norm in European households, she said, and hers – rooted in Switzerland – was no different.

The memento got her thinking about how society has come to rely on disposable products, and what could be done to turn the tide towards sustainability.

"I thought, 'why is this not done anymore?'" she said.

Four months later, Hank&Cheef was born.

And while they've since built a faithful clientele, the Appenzellers' perhaps biggest break came last month, when the hankies were featured on the Marilyn Denis Show – an entertainment and lifestyle talk show that features "Canadian and international celebrities and experts, established and emerging alike."

"Eco expert" Candace Batista highlighted the hankies during a Beat the Flu the Eco Way segment.

In the live broadcast Dec. 7, Batista – who had emailed the Appenzellers out of the blue to ask for a sample of their product – described the colourful squares as "awesome little hankies."

"Aren't they adorable?" she says, to which Denis quips, "They're nice until they get dirty."

The hankies were among 10 eco-friendly products showcased in the segment.

The clip created "just amazing" awareness of Hank&Cheef, said Regula, citing "a definite surge in online activity" that followed the broadcast.

The Appenzellers say they have fielded interest in their product from big-box chain stores. But a desire to keep their hankies locally produced has kept them out of that market. It takes three to four weeks to produce one batch of 5,000 hankies. (Five stock designs sell in sets of three 8½ squares for $15.75; a sixth 12-by-12-inch design is available singly; custom orders are also available.) The pace, volume and price can't compare with far lower production costs offered in Asia.

"It means we can't come down to the price (chain stores) are looking for," Chris said.

And while the decision also means they can't quite quit their day jobs yet – Regula is a part-time communications specialist for the Arthritis Society; Chris is a machinist – positive customer feedback regarding the choice further fuels the Appenzellers' determination to stick with it.

In addition to being locally produced, the cloths are made using water-based dyes and packaged in recyclable materials.

While they are designed, printed and sewn locally – Regula creates the designs; printing is done in Burnaby – because the fabric is sourced from Turkey, the Competition Bureau of Canada prohibits the Appenzellers from claiming the hankies are made in Canada.

But that hasn't quelled their determination to make a difference. According to the couple, switching to just one of the cloth alternatives can help save 170,000 "virgin trees." The typical household spends $30,000 on disposable tissues over the course of an average lifetime, they added.

"It's a habit to constantly reach for a disposable tissue," Regula said. "We noticed this when we had our daughter."

The hankies are now a regular fixture in six-year-old Kaija's school bag.

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