If you’re just finding out this news, you’re not alone. There are quite a few fashion designers, clothing brands and even apparel manufacturers that aren’t actually aware that stylish fabric can come from trees. Or that some of those fabric creations were constructed at the expense of ancient and endangered forests. Fabrics such as viscose, rayon and modal are commonly used by the fashion and apparel industry, but they’ve also been linked to deforestation in some of the world’s most perilous ecosystems; including South Africa, Canada, USA, Brazil and most conspicuously, Indonesia. But proving the fashion-forest link has been somewhat tricky. Large-scale deforestation –the most transparent part of the issue – has been on the increase in the past decade. For example, Global Forest Watch estimates that Indonesia alone has lost 15 million hectares of forest over a 12 year period, threatening indigenous communities, animals and the ecosystem as a whole. However, the threat that hides in plain sight and continues to be a highly influential in demand commodity is dissolving pulp.
This ingredient is extracted from wood chips put through a complex and highly toxic chemical process. What makes this so frustrating for watch groups to track is the fact that the use of highly toxic chemicals, in large amounts, strips down the DNA in the wood used to make the pulp. So they can’t identify where the trees used to make the pulp came from. Were the trees from an ethical production scheme, or the outcome of illegal lumbering of endangered forest areas? Dissolving pulp can be found in a myriad of everyday products you find in households, from cosmetics to books. And if you spot the words, viscose, modal, tencel, lyocell, or rayon on your clothes’ tags, trees are in your clothes too. With the most common type of pulp in the market today being rayon grade pulp; a core component of viscose staple fibre (VSF) textile often blended with polyester for that high-end texture at a cheaper price tag than cotton.
Why you really shouldn’t like dissolving pulp…
- According to Canopy – an environmental organisation that works with the forest industry’s biggest customers and their suppliers to develop business solutions that protect these last frontier forests – the demand for this ingredient has led to more than 70 million trees annually being chopped down to be made into clothes. In addition, the demand is projected to double by 2050.
- What’s even more peeving, is that 70% ends up as waste. That’s right, all that destruction and only 30% is actually useable in the clothes manufacturing process.
- Wood-based rayon ranks much lower than polyester, conventional cotton and linen on the sustainability list according to the Materials Sustainability Index, an open-source analysis of materials’ environmental impact. In truth, you’re better off working with Tencel or Moda than Rayon.
It may all look like facts and figures to the rest of us, but in Indonesia – on the island of Sumatra to be exact – the effects of wood pulping are largely felt. Their overall deforestation through clear-cutting techniques for palm oil, paper and pulp for viscose clothing has earned the country the title of third largest greenhouse gases (GHG) emitters in the world, after China and USA. Wood pulping giants Toba Pulp Lestari have been major contributors to the massive deforestation in the country. Loss of cover crop – aka trees – leads to erosion and the destruction of streams and rivers in the area; water sources that locals relied on for irrigation and as drinking water.
What’s being done?
Organisations such as Canopy are working with leading fashion brands to ensure fabrics that harm endangered forests don’t make it into next season’s collections. Since its launch in 2013, the organisation has brought in support from more than 65 industry leaders, including Stella McCartney and several rayon and viscose producers. In fact, McCartney herself has pledged that all her accessories is Forestry Stewardship Council-certified and that by 2017, she’ll only use cellulose fibres that meet “strict sustainability standards”.
The Rainforest Action Network (RAN) also launched a campaign called “Out of Fashion” because they realised that the awareness on dissolving pulp was low within the fashion community. Therefore the campaign sets out to educate designers and fashion brands about how this ingredient directly leads to deforestation as well as, make a commitment to protect the forest by taking responsibility for their supply chains. The campaign has called on the “Fashion 15” group of companies that include: Guess, Abercrombie, Forever 21, Velvet and Limited Brands (Victoria Secret, The Limited and Express) Under Armour, Foot Locker, Gaiam, Beyond Yoga, Prada Group, Vince, Tory Burch, Michael Kors, Ralph Lauren and LVMH. However, Under Armour, Foot Locker, Guess, Michael Kors, and Forever 21 have proved to be fashion laggards while Abercrombie & Fitch has become the biggest offender, with almost 300 items in stock that use tree-fabrics.
RAN believes that this isn’t a call to ban the popular product rayon, but instead to ensure that they know the supply-chain that went into making the dissolving pulp they’re using. The organisation believes it can be made from waste materials such as agricultural by-products instead of the harmful cut-clearing process that goes on today.
Some would argue that the best alternative is fabric made from bamboo. After all, it’s fast growing, and doesn’t rely on fertilisers or irrigation to grow its normal four feet a day.
Nevertheless, there are concerns that it would deplete natural bamboo habitats for pandas et al or people will get the idea to clear forests to set up bamboo plantations (insert face-palm). Then there is the fact that the bamboo is processed in the same way rayon is. The same toxic viscose process that dissolves cellulose material in a strong solvent (such as carbon disulphide – also known for endangering textile workers and polluting water and air via wastewater and air emissions respectively) to create a solution that will eventually be processed into fibre.
Instead, brands such as Patagonia push for Tencel as a rayon alternative. This is because while it is also a regenerated cellulose fibre, it’s processed with a nontoxic spinning solvent in a closed-loop system. The raw material to create the wood pulp is harvested from eucalyptus tree farms, since eucalyptus has the least amount of waste yet yields the best quality fibre. Of course, there are some factories that will try to treat the fibre with toxic chemicals such as formaldehyde to avoid fuzz and build-up but the commitment of the brands to check supply chains comes in here to ensure that the fabric is as toxin-free as possible.
With the knowledge that many supply chains are still opaque, it falls to designers to ensure that they don’t work with companies that work with dissolving pulp from controversial sources. Because many designers on this continent do source materials from the international market, it is imperative that they develop policies that help them track where their fabrics come from, setting standards that ensure their clothes serve a need without degrading the environment and purge the unscrupulous companies from their production lists. As consumers, we can start by being more vigilant on the clothes we do purchase. Take the time to check if the clothes you’re about to buy have viscose or rayon. If they do, quickly checking if your brand of choice is on the naughty or nice list for forest protection. If a brand doesn’t get the demand for a product they’ll get the clear message to clean up their act and cease putting deforestation in our clothes. It takes a few minutes to look at the clothes tag, but can make all the difference.