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An H&M store in New York City.
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What Is ‘Rainforest-Free’ Clothing, and Why Should You Care?

There’s a pretty high chance the shirt on your back is made from ancient, endangered trees.

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On a night before Valentine’s Day, the Victoria’s Secret in Manhattan’s Herald Square was dressed up in pink Cupid’s arrows. Visitors from around the world were shopping for holiday lingerie. A young Japanese tourist named Ayano checked out a pair of black pajama bottoms printed with tiny white hearts whose label read “40% modal.” She was shocked to learn, when I told her, that the pants she was considering were made out trees.

And not just any trees, most likely, but ones that had lived for hundreds of years in ancient and now-endangered forests. It’s these trees that L Brands, which owns Victoria’s Secret (as well as Henri Bendel, Bath & Body Works, Pink, and La Senza), hopes to save by going what’s been called “rainforest-free.” The $10.7 billion conglomerate is among the most recent clothing companies to pledge to rid their supply chains of fabrics made from old-growth trees.

Like Ayano, most consumers have no idea that rayon, modal, and viscose — those silky, smooth fabrics that give clothing its drape — are cellulose-based. To create them, logged wood is mixed with chemicals and ground up at a facility called a dissolving pulp mill. The pulp is then treated with more chemicals and forced through an extruder called a spinneret, which shoots out fibers that can be spun into fabric.

It’s a wasteful process; 65 percent of the tree ends up byproduct. That’s bad, but it might not be as big a problem if all the world’s rayon came from sustainable forests. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.

Destroyed forest in Indonesia
Deforestation in Indonesia.
Photo: Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images

This year, 120 million trees will be transformed into the shirts on our backs. As many as 40 percent of them will be harvested from sensitive, old-growth ecosystems. Huge swaths of the Amazon, the Indonesian rainforest, and Canada’s boreal and temperate rainforests are clear-cut to fill clothing store racks.

In their place, mills often plant fast-growing acacia and eucalyptus trees, creating monocrops to feed their need for cellulose. As a result, endangered species, as well as indigenous communities that make their homes in the forests, have suffered, biodiversity has decreased, and carbon-sequestering habitats have been lost.

But companies like L Brands are trying to help disentangle the fashion industry from the world’s ancient woods. The movement is propelled by activist organizations, including Canopy and Rainforest Action Network (RAN), which seek to preserve ecosystems that host endangered species and indigenous communities. It’s the fastest-growing environmental initiative in the apparel industry, insiders say, and 2017 is a benchmark for the effort: Ninety-six major fashion brands have promised to clean up their supply chains by year’s end.

With that effort, activists say, 80 percent of all cellulose-based fabrics will be rainforest-free. That’s a huge win for the environment and native people, and it couldn’t have happened without a complex strategy of sticks and carrots that convinced major players in fashion that rainforest-based clothing must go.

“We’re more of a ‘carrot’ organization,” says Canopy executive director Nicole Rycroft. “But sometimes we sharpen the point of the carrot.” Rycroft, an Australian physiotherapist, founded British Columbia’s Canopy in 1999. She was camped on a rainy mountaintop, trying to stop logging by literally standing in its way, when she thought “There must be a better method.”

“It was a catalytic moment,” Rycroft says, and it brought her back inside. She turned to the publishing industries’ corner offices, harnessing their purchasing power to drive toward an end to old-growth logging. She started with one franchise: the Harry Potter series. Researching supply chains, leveraging authors including J.K. Rowling herself, praising and sometimes protesting, Rycroft managed to get publishers to make the Harry Potter the greenest series ever. Printed in countries around the world on Ancient Forest Friendly–certified paper, it helped transform the book industry.

A model wears sunglasses and an off-white top by Stella McCartney
A look from Stella McCartney, a rainforest-free company.
Photo: Stella McCartney

But, still, trees came down. That’s when she realized that, with rayon production increasing by as much as 14 percent yearly, fashion was the next great threat to forests. “The industry is $3 trillion and counting,” says Rycroft. “That’s massive purchasing power. And the rayon supply chain is touching almost every forest ecosystem around the world.”

So in 2013, Rycroft launched CanopyStyle and started reaching out to brands. She sent watchdogs to investigate operations like Toba Pulp Lestari Mill, which clear-cut community-owned lands in Indonesia, damaging the livelihoods of locals who tap trees for lucrative incense and threatening the habitat of endangered orangutans, sun bears, and hornbill storks. They shared stories of intimidation, violence, and criminalization of community members who opposed the mill.

The revelation that their fabrics were derived from such businesses was “shocking” to apparel companies, says Claire Bergkamp, head of sustainability and ethical trade at Stella McCartney. “We were quite blown away.”

It’s understandable that even eco-conscious outfits like Stella McCartney were in the dark about the source of its rayon. “It’s a very complex supply chain,” says Rycroft. From mill to spinner to weaver and dyer, “by the time you get to the brand, there’s absolutely no transparency.”

But at Stella McCartney, where recycled, organic, and non-animal fabrics are standard materials, they “jumped at the opportunity,” says Bergkamp, to green the brand’s cellulose-based fabrics, too. Like Eileen Fisher, H&M, and Zara that signed the CanopyStyle pledge before it, Stella McCartney publicly committed to dropping rayon producers that pulp ancient forests in 2014. The company agreed to use its considerable clout toward conservation efforts and to push its suppliers to find alternatives to forested materials.

CanopyStyle worked in part because Rycroft realized she could squeeze “the incredible pinch point” in the consolidation of rayon production. As it turns out, 75 percent of the world’s supply is produced by just 10 companies. That’s a manageable group to transform: Today, nine of those 10 have pledged to go rainforest-free.

And there’s more change afoot. Rycroft reports that Indonesia’s Toba Pulp Lestari has folded to pressure from fashion brands and returned nearly 13,000 acres of land to the local community. Four rayon producers have taken the next steps, submitting to third-party verification (conducted by the Rainforest Alliance) to confirm responsible sourcing globally.

Women in pink dresses protesting again companies that use rainforest-derived rayon
Protesters demonstrating against the “Fashion Fifteen.”
Photo: RAN

In late February, VF, the nation’s largest apparel conglomerate encompassing nearly 30 brands — The North Face, Timberland, Wrangler, Lee, and Vans among them — announced it was joining L Brands and others with its own rainforest-free plan. Precursors like H&M and Stella McCartney have switched completely to fabrics milled from forests certified as sustainable by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). And, together with producers, these brands are beginning to develop next-generation fiber solutions: recycled fabrics, and ones made from responsibly harvested bamboo or straw leftover from grain production.

Though such materials aren’t available yet at commercial scale, Rycroft’s past experience tells her that it’s possible. “There weren’t environmental papers available before Harry Potter,” she says. “Now there are 40 of them. That’s where having a really strong, focused market support is helpful.”

Of course, not every fashion brand is as planet-friendly as Stella McCartney. Some need to be pushed. That’s where the Rainforest Action Network comes in. Through street activism, letter-writing, and petitioning campaigns, this “stick organization” creates a public relations nightmare for companies that use rainforest fabrics. RAN has been targeting what they call the “Fashion Fifteen”: the 15 biggest companies that haven’t yet taken action on rainforest destruction in their supply chain.

“These are brands that have been reached out to multiple times, and they are either non-responsive or not moving,” says Brihannala Morgan, the San Francisco-based non-profit’s senior forest campaigner.

RAN spent a year “hounding” Ralph Lauren with help from consumers recruited online through its Out of Fashion campaign. In Facebook comments, tweets, and 100,000 emails, activists asked Ralph Lauren to come to the negotiating table. RAN got more creative, too, zapping the company on the red carpet at the Council of Fashion Designers of America awards with a banner spoofing the RL logo that read “When Deforestation is Part of Your Lifestyle.” All the cajoling paid off. In January 2017, just before L Brands made its announcement, Ralph Lauren publicly committed to product lines free of rainforest destruction and human rights abuses.

Next up is Abercrombie & Fitch. RAN hopes to convince the teen-focused brand that “if you’re trying to appeal to young, socially conscious consumers, you should follow the lead of H&M and Zara,” says Morgan. The group entered Abercrombie’s charity fun run as Team Rainforest, and they’ve been popping up at stores to talk to young consumers. “We all need to become more educated on the destruction happening in the name of fashion and pressure these companies to change the very nature of the industry.”

For consumers, that can be hard. There is no certification for rainforest-free clothing yet, so there’s no label that someone like Ayano can look at in a store to tell her that the modal-based clothing she is purchasing is ethically sourced. RAN’s approach relies on getting the word out to the public through press releases, social media campaigns, and push emails. And the CanopyStyle website lists fashion brands that have promised to go rainforest-free. But as Stella McCartney’s Claire Bergkamp says, “The only certification that’s viable in the pulp area is FSC, and that’s not something consumers would understand. It’s a moment of trying to think about how to communicate this, and the first step is talking with consumers about what viscose is.”

This year, Nicole Rycroft is working on a campaign that enlists brands for exactly that — to raise consumer awareness. Stella McCartney has already laid that groundwork in an online campaign featuring model Carmen Kass. On video, Kass romps through a miniature village in flowing black viscose as she explains the issues behind the fabric and the proactive ways Stella McCartney is addressing them. At one point, she lies amid papier mâché lions, tigers, and chimps and talks about habitat destruction. “Where will they go if we turn their homes into clothes?”

Mandy Gull has the same question. She is the deputy chief of the Cree First Nation of Waswanipi, the southernmost of nine Cree Nations that occupy Quebec’s remaining boreal woods. Here, in a vibrant biome of pines, spruces, and larches, 1,800 tribe members hunt, fish, forage, and trap, all within traditional “trap lines” that stake out the boundaries of each family’s land use.

Ninety percent of the Waswanipi Cree trap lines have already been disrupted by logging for lumber and paper. And the roads left behind by forestry, says Gull, “open up traditional territories to predation and human presence and additional activities. Whenever forestry occurs, mining comes soon after.”

In 2015, the Cree Nations convinced the government to conserve three-quarters of the 3.2 million-acre Broadback Forest, Quebec’s last old-growth stand. Now, the remaining 10 percent of the Waswanipi’s trap lines are threatened by a proposed dissolving pulp mill, and Gull and her community have been advocating for government protection of the rest of the Broadback, where they live.

The move, she says, will also preserve habitat for the endangered woodland caribou and keep climate-warming carbon sequestered in the woods. In their efforts, the Waswanipi have gotten “tons of support” from an ally that just as soon could have been an adversary: the very fashion brands that rely on dissolving pulp mills for fabrics. After 80 fashion buyers met with Gull at a Canopy summit in New York City this past fall, clothing companies sent letters to the Premier of Quebec telling him that they won’t be purchasing products from the Quebec forest.

In a competitive industry, that’s a rare group effort with lasting benefits for planet Earth. As Cecilia Strömblad Brännsten, H&M sustainability business expert, says, “We realize that the whole industry needs to collaborate to make the change happen. As some of the biggest fashion retailers in the world, we have a really big power. So together we can make a really big difference.”

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