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Hidden deforestation in the fashion industry: how sustainable is “sustainable” fabric?

by Emma Thomson

London Fashion Week has just begun, amid calls from Extinction Rebellion for the fashion industry to take responsibility for its impact on both people and the planet, and with companies including H&M and VF Corp. committing to ensure the sustainability of their leather. There has also been growing concern about the environmental impacts of fabric made from plastics, and so there is increasingly a need to talk about the sustainability of plant-based materials, such as cellulose.

Shifting towards “sustainable” fabrics

Numerous high street brands are switching to using plant-based materials for their textile products. Spanish fashion brand Zara’s holding company, Inditex, recently announced a new commitment to ensure that all of its Zara branded clothes were made from sustainable materials by 2025, and that the company’s other brands would follow shortly after.

As the third largest clothing company in the world, by specifically committing to ensuring 100% of their viscose is sustainably sourced by 2023, Inditex is a high profile example of such commitments.  But could deforestation be hiding in these “sustainable” materials?

How sustainable is cellulose?

Inditex and other manufacturers are turning to plant-based materials such as viscose, rayon, bamboo, and lyocell fibres, made from cellulose. Cellulose fibres are natural in origin, produced by processing wood until it forms pulp, before adding inorganic chemicals and spinning in a centrifuge until fibres form (in a similar way to artificial plastic fibres).

Although using natural fibres can be sustainable, it is important to consider where these fibres actually come from. Despite their natural beginnings, these fibres are often the result of a less sustainable practice – deforestation.

To harvest the wood to produce cellulose fibres, vast swathes of forest – often in tropical regions – are cleared, for both the trees themselves and to develop pulp plantations. The US NGO, Canopy, found that over 150 million trees are logged annually for the cellulose fibres for clothing, including from endangered and primary forests. Laid end to end, these trees would reach around the world seven times.  

The move away from plastic-based materials to plant-based materials is positive, but the shift must be conducted in an environmentally conscious manner. Without this, as the demand for natural wood-based fibres for clothing increases, the associated increase in tropical deforestation will have a profound impact on climate change, while causing irreparable damage to the world’s most biodiverse ecosystems.

How can companies ensure natural fibres don’t drive deforestation?

In Global Canopy’s Forest 500 2018 assessment 54 companies were assessed based on their exposure to pulp and paper-based forest risk for purposes other than packaging. Out of the 54 companies, 48 had commitments surrounding deforestation, including Inditex. Out of these 48, 36 companies had a policy focused on forests and deforestation specifically.

Although this is the majority, this leaves one third of companies who are exposed to tropical deforestation through their production and/or usage of pulp and paper and who do not have a deforestation policy for pulp and paper.

Only five companies assessed for their policies surrounding pulp and paper had a commitment regarding the traceability of this commodity within their supply chains. Successfully implemented traceability systems help companies to ensure that their pulp has been produced in compliance with their standards. They also enable companies to trace the wood-pulp utilised in their textile fibres, and aid the effective identification and management of supply chain non-compliance.

With nine out of 10 companies who deal with pulp and paper not committing to a traceable supply chain, vast volumes of cellulose could be driving tropical deforestation.

Commitments needed

Companies must take concrete steps to develop and successfully implement policies to prevent deforestation within their pulp and paper supply chains. These must go beyond statements of intent to include clear commitments related to deforestation.

So, how does the new commitment by Inditex fit in? The final sustainable fabric and wood-based fibres policy has not yet been published, but Inditex’s current policy for pulp and paper only scores 3/5 in the Forest 500 methodology.

To score well Forest 500 companies must publicly commit to having zero deforestation in their supply chains for pulp and paper products – and in this way, hold themselves accountable for the impacts of their supply chain. This can be furthered through committing to achieve 100% certification of their plant-based fibres and wood pulp, including through the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). Ensuring that they can trace their wood-pulp fibres through their supply chain to at least the processing facility – if not the plantation – is pivotal.

Companies must also recognise the significance of social responsibility in supply chain sustainability. The Forest 500 methodology prioritises commitments on human rights, gender equality, smallholder inclusion, and the guarantee of Free, Prior and Informed Consent through a company’s supply chain.

Sustainability and Fashion Week

Sustainability is not a box which can easily be ticked through changing one element of a product – it is a complex, multifaceted process. Companies need to take a multidimensional approach to ensure that their soft commodity supply chains are both sustainable and responsible – a fundamental component of which is having robust policies regarding deforestation across the entire supply chain.

As London Fashion Week continues, find out how some of the biggest apparel powerbrokers in tropical deforestation scored in Forest 500 in 2018 (https://forest500.org/rankings/companies), and find out about the hidden deforestation in your wardrobe…

Check out some of the fashion brands assessed by Forest 500

 

Top image from Photo_Mix on Pixabay