About 30% of the rayon and viscose used in clothing comes from endangered and ancient forests[sc:1]. As of 2010, Canada, Indonesia and Brazil — all countries with endangered and ancient forests — provided around two thirds of China’s dissolving pulp imports for viscose, 75% of which was then manufactured into viscose fabrics. Forest-based fabrics represent 5% of the $1.2tn global apparel industry, and that number is going to grow further. Given that demand for dissolving pulp is increasing at a rate of 9% annually, it becomes very urgent to address the so far unrecognised impact of the textiles industry to our environment[sc:1]. It is estimated that more than 70 million trees are logged every year and turned into cellulosic fabric with projections estimating that dissolving-pulp production is going to double by 2050[sc:2].
Both rayon and viscose are extremely popular fabrics and used by major clothing brands. They are, however, made by a complex chemical process which starts with wood chips that are then turned into dissolving pulp. Dissolved pulp can be spun into textile fibres such as viscose or Lyocell[sc:3]. Not only does the process of getting dissolved pulp rely on toxic chemicals, but it is also highly inefficient. Only 30% of the tree matter is useable for clothing, the other 70% becomes waste[sc:4].
While as with every forest-based product, sustainable practices can be implemented to ensure there are no negative environmental impacts, the increasing rates of deforestation indicate that those may not always be followed. A prime example are the rainforests of Indonesia where according to Global Forest Watch, over 15 million hectares of tree cover disappeared in less than ten years. On the island of Sumatra, one of the major contributors to deforestation is the expansion of wood pulping giant Toba Pulp Lestari, whose products are used to make both paper goods and textiles[sc:5].
While data is not always readily available, the clothing industry’s impact on carbon emissions is being increasingly recognised. Indonesia, for instance, is one of the world’s greatest carbon emitters primarily due to deforestation – and a lot of the trees that are cut down are used by the textiles industry. With Americans only sending 10.5 million tons of clothing to landfills every year, there is a constant and increasing demand for textiles which will create additional pressures on our forests[sc:6]. To address this, a number of non-profit organisations, such as Canopy or the Rainforest Action Network, are working hard to raise awareness about the impacts of the textiles industry on forests and convince major brands to switch to sustainable practices.
According to Rainforest Action Network, Abercrombie & Fitch stocks almost 300 items that are made with fabrics from trees. But many others are doing the same including Guess, Forever 21, Foot Locker, Tory Burch, Michael Kors, Ralph Lauren, Dior, Donna Karen, Fendi, Givenchy, Marc Jacobs and Louis Vuitton[sc:7]. There is however some good news too: H&M and Zara are looking to lead the front in cutting deforestation from their global supply chains and have pledged to completely eliminate old-growth forest destruction from their products[sc:8]. This is a step in the right direction that will hopefully inspire other clothing brands to follow suit. In the meantime, the work of organisations like Canopy and the Rainforest Action Network is critical to raising awareness about the increasingly damaging environmental footprint of the clothing industry.