Virginia designer Lauren Liess posted a photo on Instagram of her farm table set for a lovely family dinner. There were purple clematis from her garden, vintage lucite and brass candlesticks, platters of antipasto and a roll of Viva paper towels.
The hashtag: #yesweusepapertowelsfornapkins.
Liess reflects a growing trend that has style mavens and paper manufacturers shaking their heads: Many consumers, in particular younger ones, aren’t buying paper napkins. A growing number are using paper towels at the table instead.
In a February survey, only 56 percent of consumers said they had purchased paper napkins in the past six months, while 86 percent purchased paper towels. The survey, by marketing intelligence agency Mintel, indicated that economizing consumers saw paper napkins as replaceable by other products, whether paper towels or cloth.
Like many millennials, Liess does not regularly put paper napkins on her shopping list.
Liess, 33, says that after her post she was called out for not being ecofriendly. And so, although she had used cloth napkins on occasion, she decided it was time to upgrade her family dinner-table settings. She bought several dozen flax-color linen napkins and now uses them almost exclusively. No ironing — she just takes them out of the washer and spreads them out to dry and then folds them, so they have a casual vibe. She keeps them in a drawer and one of her older children (she has four, ages 10 months to 8 years) uses them to set the table every night. “It makes sense that [when] you transition from college life, it’s not really on your radar to buy napkins at the store. But of course, you always need paper towels,” Liess says.
Cloth napkins were the staple in American homes until the 1950s, when paper napkins, which required no laundering or ironing, took off. “This was mainly for convenience,” says Dan Nirenberg, marketing director for napkins for Georgia-Pacific, which produces the Vanity Fair and Mardi Gras brands, as well as private label napkins for large retailers. “Back then, paper was an affordable luxury, and having disposable napkins saved time.”
Many households took up using paper, regularly buying packages of napkins at the grocery store. Of course, cloth napkins were still used to set a table for guests or during the holidays. Designer paper napkins also raised the style quotient. Even today, some hosts and hostesses are dead-set against serving guests a paper napkin at a table setting.
“I have never used a paper napkin in my life,” says Susanna Salk, a designer in Connecticut and author of the new book“It’s the Little Things: Creating Big Moments in Your Home Through the Stylish Small Stuff.” “There is nothing positive about them. It’s a convenience, but there is something sad about seeing a table set with paper napkins.” She says you don’t have to be fancy; for family use you can pick up a dozen pretty napkins at HomeGoods and you don’t have to iron them. “When you come together for a meal, whether a milk-and-cookie snack or Thanksgiving dinner, it should look beautiful. But that doesn’t have to mean precious and fancy.”
Martha Stewart told me recently, “No paper. I am totally against paper unless you are having a bagel for breakfast on the run. I use cloth napkins or beautiful old dish towels that are ironed. I have a huge collection of fine linens, too.”
Some millennials aren’t using napkins at all. “I think napkins have been a bit of a fatality of the trend towards more informal entertaining,” Nancy Mitchell, a senior writer at Apartment Therapy, wrote in an email. “Dinner parties are a lot less common than they used to be, and when people do have them they focus more on the food itself than on setting the table. So even people who are really environmentally conscious wind up buying paper napkins (or using paper towels) because people just don’t own napkins anymore.”
The use of paper napkins has been declining for 20 years. According to Georgia-Pacific statistics, six out of 10 households purchased paper napkins on a regular basis 15 years ago; today it’s slightly more than four out of 10. Nirenberg says that one of the major reasons is that millennials, who are into simplifying their lives, are using paper towels for many purposes, and leaving napkins off the list because “it’s one less thing to buy.”
“Millennials eat more on the go, they eat more meals away from home and less around a table.” he says. And if they’re eating at the kitchen island, there’s usually a paper towel roll at the ready.
“We are trying to figure out how to develop napkin holders that appeal to a younger generation,” he says. “If you put them in a holder, you are more likely to grab them.”
Mariella Cruzado, 35, a D.C. designer and stylist with Splendor Styling, says she often sees friends reaching for paper towels when they need napkins. “I understand that for some, cloth may be too elegant for daily use, but I personally always use cloth napkins and a napkin ring,” says Cruzado, who grew up in Peru with the same custom. “Sometimes it happens that my husband is watching football with some friends and they order pizza and hot wings. And of course, they reach for the paper towels.”
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