Is Your Clothing Destroying The Rainforest? Here’s How To Find Out

Image: Fibres from Forests, Credit: Stella McCartney

What does fashion have to do with forests? Beatrice Murray-Nag speaks to Nicole Rycroft, founder and executive director of environmental not-for-profit Canopy, to find out how tree-based fibre production is putting our rainforests and their communities in danger, and why we should be using our purchase power to protect these ancient ecosystems.

The fashion industry has a lot to answer for. Beyond accounting for 10% of global carbon emissions and over 39 million tonnes of textile waste per year, it turns out it’s plaguing our rainforests too.

Much of the clothing we have hanging in our closets contains fabric made from the deforestation and degradation of some of the planet’s most Ancient and Endangered Forests, including the forests of Brazil, Indonesia, Canada, Australia. Every year, over 150 million trees are cut down for fibre production, and that’s expected to double within the next decade.

Nicole Rycroft founded Canopy to help solve this problem, making sure that those using resources from our forest ecosystems are doing so responsibly. Over the years, her NGO has been working with 320 of the world’s largest designers and fashion brands to reshape the forest-to-fibre supply chain, supporting the development of innovative new material solutions in the process. She shares her wisdom on on the fibres to avoid to slow down textile-related deforestation, and just how seriously the production of certain materials has been affecting both ecosystems and indigenous communities along this truly global supply chain.

Top down aerial view of deforestation and logging in a tropical rainforest, Credit: Shutterstock

Which key fibres are directly endangering the world’s rainforests and their communities?

For those in the industry, the family of fabrics made from forests are called Man-Made Cellulosic Fibres (MMCF). But for those of us who are mainly looking at the labels in our clothes, these tree-based fabrics go by the names of viscose, rayon, lyocell, modal, cupro and trademarked products like Tencel. Acetates are also made from tree cellulose. And don’t get me started on packaging; more than 3 billion trees are logged every year to make boxes, packing and wrapping paper. As we all know, fashion is a big part of that supply chain as well.

What are the ecological and humanitarian consequences of cutting down Ancient and Endangered Forests for fibre production?

Keeping Ancient and Endangered Forests standing is critical to life on Earth! Forests are estimated to be 30% of the climate solution because they are carbon storing powerhouses. They’re also home to 80% of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity. The precipitous collapse of plants and wildlife is directly attributable to habitat loss due to the clearing of Ancient and Endangered Forests. Millions of indigenous people depend on them for their livelihoods and cultural well-being, and, lastly, forests perform essential functions that make life on earth viable. Clean water, fresh air, rain cycles, a stable climate – these are all gifts given freely by forests that we can’t afford to overlook.

Image: TENCEL™ denim, Credit: TENCEL™
Viscose polyamide material, Credit: Shutterstock

Does this mean plant-based fibres such as Tencel are in fact not sustainable?

Beyond the impacts that logging forests has on our climate, biodiversity and indigenous communities, the conventional production of viscose is a wasteful and chemically intensive process using corrosive solvents. Tencel is manufactured using a lyocell process that is less chemically intensive and has a high level of water recycling and solvent recovery. Moreover, Tencel’s manufacturer, Lenzing, is verified as being at low risk for sourcing from Ancient and Endangered Forests in the CanopyStyle Audit and has a green shirt ranking in Canopy’s 2019 Hot Button Ranking of global viscose producers. Lyocell is better than most conventional viscose and cellulosic fabrics but Next Gen alternatives are more sustainable.

Is it best to avoid other cellulosic fibres altogether, or is there such a thing as ‘sustainable’ viscose?

We firmly believe – and science backs us up on this – that Next Generation viscose and textiles are the way of the future! Next Gen viscose is made from a high percentage of recycled textile content using clean technology. When trees are used to make fabrics, you need two and a half to three tonnes of wood to produce every tonne of fabric, so fabrics made from waste textiles that would have otherwise ended up in landfill, or agricultural residues like straw, or microbial cellulose grown on food waste are much better across every health and environmental indicator.

All 6.5 million tonnes of viscose being produced this year could be made using only 25% of the world’s wasted and discarded cotton and viscose fabrics, thereby saving forest habitat, alleviating stress on municipal landfills, and reducing carbon emissions, energy and water use, as well as taking the pressure off frontline communities.

Have you seen the growth of the fast fashion industry correlate to an increase in the number of trees cut down for fabric production?

There are a number of drivers behind the increase in deforestation and forest degradation linked to viscose sourcing. It’s not exclusively attributable to the growth of fast-fashion as viscose textiles are used by all levels of the fashion industry, from luxury designers to high-street retailers. But the growth in demand for fabrics – be it for fashion or interior design and home textiles – is significantly increasing the stress on forests around the world. With this supply chain slated to double within the next decade, we have a unique opportunity to build a fence at the top of the cliff rather than a hospital at the bottom. We can redirect this supply chain to be fundamentally more sustainable by making fabrics from Next Generation alternatives such as waste textile or agricultural residues rather than building a mill in the middle of the Amazon.

Image: Wood pulp mill for fibre production in Sumatra, Indonesia, Credit: Canopy

How is tree-based fibre production is affecting communities on the ground in Indonesia?

Communities in Indonesia have struggled for decades as large logging companies have logged their traditional lands and converted them into eucalyptus and acacia plantations. Violence, intimidation and criminalisation of community members who oppose the companies is common. Farmers have been jailed for months for defending their crops from bulldozers, and intimidation visits in the middle of the night are also often reported. Additional to physical threats, eucalyptus plantations are water hogs. There are widespread reports of disruption to the normal water flow for community crops due to deforestation and eucalyptus plantations. 

Several icons of the fashion world have stepped forward to help protect the remarkable Leuser Ecosystem – the last place on Earth where orangutans, rhinos, tigers and elephants coexist. It was the focus of Stella McCartney’s fantastic #ThereSheGrows awareness campaign in February 2019. And now, hundreds of fashion brands are working with Canopy to help secure the protection of this magical two and a half million-hectare rainforest and support the local government and communities’ transition to a conservation-based economy.

How else is Canopy working with the fashion industry to preserve our forests?

All of the fashion brands signed on to the CanopyStyle campaign, save for a few that just signed up recently, are going to have implemented their policies by the end of 2020 to no longer source viscose from Ancient and Endangered Forests. Many are both trialling and investigating Next Generation fabric sourcing, while also working behind the scenes to advocate for forest conservation. If you can’t see your favourite brand or retailer on the list, ask them about their commitment to keeping Ancient and Endangered Forests out of your closet. It is within all of our reach to ask for transparency and positive change. 

Image: Village kids in Tangkahan, Indonesia, Credit: Canopy

How we can we as consumers use our purchase power to preserve our rainforests and their communities?

If rayon or viscose is listed on the tag and it’s a CanopyStyle brand, then you know its low risk of being sourced from an Ancient and Endangered Forest. If it’s not a CanopyStyle brand partner, then there is no guarantee it’s not coming from a high carbon rainforest or endangered species habitat. And of course, it’s always good to support organic cotton and other leading standards.

If the garment you are looking at says it’s made from recycled materials, that’s a great thing. It’s exciting to see several designers and brands starting to offer clothing made with Next Generation fibre alternatives, so keep your eye out for these over the coming months. Those are the materials of the future and we need to be supporting brands and designers that are bringing these new sustainable fabrics to market, because they’re going to be a game changer to the impacts of fashion on forests!

Beyond buying new, there are many ways to use our individual purchasing power to help conserve the world’s rainforests. There has been a large uptick in second-hand clothes shopping, which allows shoppers to find unique and sometimes brilliantly-priced items. That’s where I get 98% of my clothing! It has the benefit of keeping pre-worn clothing out of municipal landfills and avoids the need for forests to be logged and new cotton to be grown. There’s also the emergence of clothing rental companies – which is an interesting model that can significantly reduce clothing waste.

What changes need to happen at scale on the viscose/lyocell supply chains to make them reliable, sustainable options for fashion in the future? 

We need to get 50% of the trees currently used to make clothing (and paper and packaging) out of the supply chain. The fashion sector needs to replace nearly half the forest fibre they use with Next Generation alternatives (and a modest amount of second hand, repair economy and rental options). That’s the only way that we’re going to be able to protect 30-50% of the world’s forests by 2030 to meet global climate and biodiversity targets. The pulp that makes viscose fabrics and paper and pizza boxes can just as easily be made from discarded textiles, recycled paper, or agricultural residue, like leftover wheat straw or food waste. The solutions exist and we have a plan to scale them up within the decade. Next Gen Solutions are truly innovative, create great products and are helping us build smarter, more sustainable and more just supply chains. What they need now is investment, and brands to pull them to market. Being stylish doesn’t have to cost the earth.