Forest-friendly fashion

Fashion can be forest friendly. Image: Canopy Style.
Fashion can be forest friendly. Image: Canopy Style.
Could your fashion style be destroying forests and driving orang-utans towards extinction? Nicole Rycroft shows how cellulose fibres used in textiles are a major cause of biodiversity loss worldwide. But your choices can make all the difference ...
As many as 100 million trees a year are going into the manufacture of pulp for fabric and that number is on the rise.

"Do you have these pants in black?" is the type of question that you'd generally hear coming from the change rooms of clothing retailers. However over the coming months more of the queries that you'll hear echoing in boutiques and malls will be "Is this shirt made from Orangutan or Caribou habitat?"

My organization, Canopy, recently launched a campaign to ensure endangered forests do not end up in clothing. Rayon, viscose and modal fabrics are made from pulped trees. So Canopy is raising awareness that much of today's fast fashion and haute couture comes at a cost to the forests we love.

Fashionistas are watching to see which designers and apparel brands join EILEEN FISHER, Quiksilver, lululemon athletica and the other CanopyStyle early champions that have committed to eliminate endangered forests from their fabrics.

In addition to phasing out controversial forest-fibre, these companies are looking to shift to alternatives like recycled rayon, organic and socially sustainable cottons and, where tree fibre is used, eco-certified Forest Stewardship Council forests. They've got class.

In the national language of Indonesia, "orang" means person, "hutan" means forest. One of humanity's closest relatives, Orangutans are literally "the people of the forest".

These beautiful orange creatures with soulful eyes share 97 percent of their DNA with humans. They spend their lives in the forest canopy, travelling through the tree tops, nurturing their young and sleeping in the embrace of the branches.

They are listed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature as critically endangered and may be the first of the great apes to go extinct within our lifetimes. And one of the major causes of their demise is likely hanging in your closet ...

Follow the Thread Back to the Forest

Canopy has been following the fashion thread from boutiques and retailers across the UK and North America, to the factories of South East Asia, the pulp mills in China and Canada that crank out cellulosic fibre, all the way back to the forests of origin. What our research has uncovered is shocking.

From the expanse of our Boreal Forests of Canada to the vanishing tropical rainforests of Indonesia and the towering 1,000 year-old cedars of North America's Coastal Temperate Rainforest, the world's forests are being mowed down at an alarming rate to produce fabric.

As many as 100 million trees a year are going into the manufacture of pulp for fabric and that number is on the rise. Put end to end, those trees would circle the equator 10 times.

Orangutans, woodland caribou, tigers, bears and billions of songbirds all call these forests home. But their homes are increasingly being turned into the latest trends on the catwalk.

Rayon, viscose, modal and many trademarked fabrics start as old-growth trees. And as our demand for fast fashion and this year's designs accelerates, so too does the loss of the world's last ancient forests.

As many as 100 million trees a year are going into the manufacture of pulp for fabric and that number is on the rise.

How do Trees Become Fabric?

When we feel the soft, smooth texture of rayon on our skin and admire the cut and colour of our latest acquisition it's hard to believe this fabric started as a tree. The rough bark, the hard, unyielding structure of forests doesn't readily lend itself to the idea of the flexible, gentle fabric.

Imagine the process our ancient forests undergo to transform them from towering old-growth to soft, flowing skirts. It isn't pretty: the trees are cut down, chipped and chemically converted into a slurry of dissolving pulp.

It's a wasteful, chemically intensive and inefficient process that requires three tonnes of forest fibre to produce one tonne of dissolved pulp. This pulp slurry is then frequently shipped from the sourcing region, such as Indonesian rainforests or Canada's Pacific coast, to viscose mills in China and Indonesia.

It is then converted into filaments, and spun into fabrics. The fabric then heads to the manufacturing plant to be dyed and fashioned into the clothing that makes its way into our favourite boutiques and local shopping malls.

The dissolving pulp industry has an ambitious expansion agenda over the coming decades. Ten years ago there were two dissolving pulp mills in North America. Today, there are seven. Industry projections estimate 14 mills by 2016. It's a global growth trend.

But if we act now, we can head off that massive expansion before it becomes entrenched. Currently, forest-based fabrics comprise only five percent of the total fabric industry. Once apparel industry leaders start insisting their fibre must not be sourced from ancient and endangered forests, their suppliers will find better, more sustainable, alternatives.

The Eco-Trend is Starting

The good news is that progressive clothing brands and designers have seen the forest through the trees and are starting to take action. Canopy is now actively working with industry leaders such as EILEEN FISHER, prAna, Patagonia, lululemon athletica and Quiksilver to begin grappling with the problem.

Fourteen visionary designers, including Prophetik, Nicole Bridger, Milk, Anna de Shalla and others have also joined the campaign. And change is in the wind as other major global brands take notice, begin assessing their supply chains, and start to develop their own endangered forest policies.

The coming evolution is not just good for species and forest health - it's good for business. Ethical clothing sales have jumped dramatically in recent years and there are multiple reputational capital benefits to be gained by clothing companies that proactively position their brands on social issues.

As clothing controversies make the news - like working conditions and toxics - investors are increasingly demanding full reporting on supply chain risk. Shareholders want to know if the company they are backing is going to make headlines, lose social license and suffer from plunging stock value.

Traceability and transparency are taking on greater importance in ensuring continued company health and brand reputation as all of us - the 'customers' - are asking more and more questions about the where our clothing comes from.

The conscientious brands now working with Canopy are bringing their environmental ethics to the fore and committing to track their supply chain and remove fibre sourced from the planet's endangered forests. Given that innovation is at the core of the fashion industry and on display every season, we're confident we can work out a better way ... with your help.

Two quick things you can do:

  1. Ask questions when you shop. Ask your favourite brands and designers where their fabrics come from and if it contains endangered forest fibre. The store clerk may not know, but the more we ask the more word gets back to the clothing companies that people are seeking answers, scrutinizing brands and demanding more socially and environmentally responsible practices. Not just for high-end, niche products but for everything we wear.
  2. Support the designers, fashion and clothing brands who are already taking action. Encourage your favourite retailers, brands and designers to become part of the solution. Spread the word with the Twitter hashtag #FollowTheThread. And sign the CanopyStyle pledge

Together, we can ensure that being stylish doesn't cost the earth.

Nicole Rycroft is Canopy's Founder and Executive Director.