I went shopping with a friend at Christmas who was searching for a gift for her 15 year old niece. Neither of us think of shopping as a recreational activity (I’d rather be surfing or at a matinee!), but there we were in a mall in the midst of the pre-Christmas rush, trying our best to imagine what would delight a teenage girl.
As my friend flipped through racks of colourful blouses and trendy skirts, I felt like the Grinch - stealing her gift choices away. Knowing the hidden costs behind that appealing 40% off price tag makes keeping quiet almost impossible.
When the label says rayon, viscose or modal my mind jumps to the endangered forests felled to produce that fibre. That’s because my organization, Canopy, recently launched a campaign to steer leading clothing brands away from using endangered forests to make fabrics.
Our questions are: “Is that skirt made from the beautiful tropical rainforests of Indonesia, Canada’s boreal forest or coastal temperate rainforests? Is that gorgeous shirt coming from vital habitat for the critically endangered orangutans and Sumatran tigers, or the home of threatened herds of caribou and millions of North American songbirds?” All too often, the answer is yes.
But it doesn’t have to be.
Canopy has been working for over 10 years to improve logging industry practices and protect ancient forests by changing the purchasing practices of some of the forest industry’s largest customers. Best known for greening the Harry Potter book series globally, we have worked successfully with large book publishers, newspapers, magazines, printers and leading global brands, helping these businesses avoid fibre from endangered forests, increase their use of recycled fibre and kick-start the development of innovative environmental papers.
We’ve harnessed the power of the marketplace to help transform forestry on the ground. Several of our influential 700-plus partner companies have intervened directly with suppliers, supporting innovative forward-thinking forest conservation solutions, such as the Great Bear Rainforest Agreements in B.C. and the protection of Quebec’s boreal gem, the Broadback Forest.
But the more we changed the purchasing habits of major forest product customers and the more virgin fibre use declined, the greater the effort by the forest industry to diversify into new product lines. Dissolving pulp, used to manufacture cellulose fibre for clothing, is the latest trend in the forestry sector and the growth projections for this product are alarming.
The world’s forests are being mowed down at a staggering rate to produce fabric. Up to 100 million trees a year go 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.
Our Latest Focus: Fashion
Luckily, innovation is at the heart of our work. Canopy’s latest campaign “Canopy Style: Fashion Loved by Forest” was launched this fall, setting out to revolutionize the purchasing practices of major clothing brands and leading designers to help save forests.
With Canopy’s support, progressive clothing brands and designers have seen the forest through the trees and are starting to take action. We are now actively working with early champions such as EILEEN FISHER, Quiksilver, prAna, Patagonia and lululemon athletica to begin grappling with the problem and developing solutions. Fourteen progressive designers, including Prophetik, Nicole Bridger, Milk, Anna de Shalla and others have also joined the campaign.
These clothing sector leaders have committed to track their supply chain, remove fibre sourced from ancient and endangered forests and work with Canopy to explore and develop solutions including recycled viscose and the potential for using agricultural residue fibers such as flax. And change is in the wind as other major global brands take notice, begin assessing their own supply chains, and start to develop endangered forest policies.
The fall of ancient forests for fabric
The fact that ancient forests are falling to produce fabric has come as a shock to many designers and their customers. 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 boreal, to viscose mills in China and Indonesia where it is converted into filaments, and then 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. If we act now, however, we can head off that massive growth 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 not be sourced from ancient and endangered forests, their suppliers will be mobilized to find better alternatives.
Good for forests, good for business
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, investors are increasingly requiring 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, shift away from fibre sourced from the planet’s endangered forests and start brokering eco-solutions. 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.
What you can do
Ask questions when you shop. Ask your favourite brands and designers where their fabric comes from and if it contains endangered forest fibre. Ask the sales assistant when you try on your next pair of black pants. They 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 requiring more socially and environmentally responsible practices.
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 hashtag #FollowTheThread. And sign the CanopyStyle pledge at www.canopystyle.org
Together, we can ensure that being stylish doesn’t cost the earth.
Nicole Rycroft is the Founder and Executive Director of Canopy, an Ashoka Fellow and an Alan Thomas Fellow