Insight

The climate and nature risks hidden in viscose fabric

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An estimated 200 million trees are logged every year for cellulose-based fabrics, including trees from peatland forests cleared for plantations.

By Chloe Rollscane, Helen Burley and Delphine Williot

Viscose is a cellulose-based fibre, widely used in the fashion industry. It can be sustainably sourced, but the eighth annual Forest 500 ranking shows that some brands and manufacturers are not taking adequate steps to ensure the sustainability of the raw material they use. This leaves them exposed to deforestation, climate, and human rights risks.

Viscose – also known as rayon – is manufactured from cellulose, mainly derived from wood pulp. It is often regarded as a sustainable alternative to cotton. Yet more than 200 million trees are logged every year and turned into cellulosic fabric – with some of those trees sourced from ancient and endangered forests and some from plantations that have replaced forests.

Where a plantation is on a peatland, this can have a climate impact, with carbon from the peat released into the atmosphere. Studies have found that pulpwood plantations on drained peat release on average 100 tonnes/hectare/year of CO2. That means every hectare produces CO2 emissions equivalent to 98 return flights between London and New York.

Watch the recording of the webinar, From Canopy to Catwalk: Discussing deforestation in viscose supply chains. In this webinar, panellists explore how companies can address the risks of deforestation within their supply chains and how legislation, innovation and the multiple data tools available can help solve the problem.

The viscose supply chain

Plantations for pulp production for cellulose are found across countries with significant forest cover, including Indonesia, India, Canada, the United States and Sweden. In Indonesia, home to 23% of the world’s carbon-rich tropical peatlands, data from Trase shows that some of the highest deforestation risk in peatlands from 2015 to 2019 was linked to the pulp exports of the Royal Golden Eagle group, which supplies some of the biggest viscose manufacturers.

Despite setting a commitment in 2015 to achieve zero deforestation in its pulp supply chains, Royal Golden Eagle was linked to more than 2,000 hectares of peatland deforestation in Indonesia in 2019, and scores poorly in the latest Forest 500 assessment for implementation and reporting. A subsidiary, Asia Pacific Rayon (APR), has plans to double capacity for the production of viscose over the next three years.

The majority of Royal Golden Eagle’s exports go to China, where subsidiary Sateri owns six viscose mills. Sateri and APR are major global suppliers of viscose, producing 21.6% of the global market share and ending up in our closets through opaque and complex supply chains.

Measuring how companies address deforestation risk

There is growing awareness of deforestation risks in supply chains, with monitoring and transparency indices highlighting which companies are making progress and which still have work to do.

The latest Forest 500 ranking identifies 41 companies, including fashion, homeware and supermarket retailers (with fashion ranges), who are among the 350 companies with the greatest exposure to deforestation. Of these, 20 (13 fashion retailers, 7 supermarkets) have a clear commitment to ending deforestation in their viscose supply chains, with action from high street and luxury names including Marks & Spencer, Inditex (owner of Zara and Pull & Bear), Kering (owner of Gucci, Puma and Saint Laurent) and H&M.

TJX Companies (TK Maxx), Chilean retail company Cencosud and Chinese sportswear brand Li Ning Company are among the companies that have not published a commitment to address deforestation in viscose supply chains.

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Fashion Revolution’s Fashion Transparency Index ranks 250 of the world’s biggest fashion brands and retailers on their public disclosure of human rights and environmental policies and practices, including their supply chains, identifying where companies have commitments on deforestation.

It finds that 44% of brands disclose a time-bound and measurable sustainable materials strategy, roadmap or target, but just 37% of brands publish progress on achieving their sustainable materials targets, and even fewer (30%) disclose what tool or process they use to define what is considered a ‘sustainable’ material.

Just one in 10 of the brands assessed publish a time-bound, measurable commitment to zero deforestation. Just 8% report their progress against this, with the majority focusing on FSC packaging rather than on viscose and its link to deforestation.

Urgent action needed

While brands still have work to do, given the urgent need to address climate emissions and species loss, there are signs of progress. Canopy works with 471 fashion brands, retailers, designers, and viscose producers – representing 88% of global viscose production – to follow the thread to its origin and find alternative sources of viscose fibre. It estimates that around half of viscose production now comes from producers that qualify for a “green shirt” rating in the annual Hot Button Ranking, meaning they are addressing the risks of sourcing from ancient and endangered forests in their supply chain.

Twelve of the world’s viscose producers are now testing Next Generation alternative fibres with Canopy Planet, exploring the use of forest-based pulp cellulose with lower-footprint alternatives. Next Gen Solutions include using fibre made from sewing factory scraps, post-consumer clothing that would normally go to landfill, agricultural residues such as straw, or even microbial cellulose grown on food waste.

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Going forward

With momentum growing for action to achieve climate goals, and increasing awareness of the importance of protecting biodiversity, there is a growing appetite for change in fashion.

Proposals for new measures at the European Union level and the delayed due diligence measures on environmental and social harms could help propel companies to address these issues in supply chains. In the meantime, there are opportunities for companies, and the banks and investors that finance them to act.

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Forests should not, and need not be destroyed for fashion. Consumers do not want the clothes they wear to be driving deforestation and the related climate and nature impacts. Alternatives are out there. It is time for companies to step up. They need to take steps to ensure the viscose they source is free from deforestation and be transparent about the action they take.

viscose graphic list

Banner image credit: Hilton, Leuser