Clothing Made From Wood Pulp Fabric Is Not As Sustainable As Consumers Might Think 

Sustainable clothing has been on the rise in recent years in an effort to combat the fashion industry’s contribution to climate change and global greenhouse gas emissions. Fabrics, such as viscose, are made from tree-pulp, and are allegedly a more sustainable option than other alternatives, however, the deforestation needed to make the fabrics is a major issue.

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Fabrics made of wood pulp have been on the rise as an eco-friendly, renewable, and biodegradable alternative to less sustainable materials. Viscose, Lycocell, acetate, and modal are some examples of tree-pulp fabrics. While these materials are better than others, some experts are claiming that they’re not as green as one may think. 

Nicole Rycroft is the founder of Canopy, a nonprofit organization committed to protecting ancient and endangered forests, according to the Guardian

“Deforestation continues to be a problem. It’s 2024 – surely we are smarter than mowing down 1,000-year-old trees to make T-shirts,” she stated. She explained that about 300 million trees are logged globally each year to make viscose. Viscose and fabrics like it are referred to as “man-made cellulosic fibers,” or MMCFs. The demand for viscose specifically is expected to double within the next eight years, according to Rycroft.

“Many brands are looking for a substitute for polyester or virgin cotton, but it’s trading one environmental disaster for another.”

“Significant amounts of viscose come from endangered forests in Brazil, Canada, and Indonesia,” Rycroft said.

“We’ve also noted old-growth forests in Australia – koala habitats – disappearing into the viscose supply-chain. And it’s coming from plantations in Indonesia on peatlands that are incredibly high-carbon,” she said. 

CanopyStyle is Canopy’s initiative that focuses on sustainability in the fashion industry. Part of that initiative is the publishing of their Hot Button Report, which keeps the public informed about what they’re doing, and current global data regarding climate change in relation to the fashion industry. 

In their recent Report, it was stated that one-sixth of the world’s biggest viscose producers are “high risk.” The report also “assesses producers’ risk of deforestation, their adoption of lower-carbon alternatives to virgin wood-pulp, and their chemical management. It is intended as a one-stop shop for CanopyStyle’s 550 fashion brand members – among them H&M, Stella McCartney and Marks & Spencer – so that they can make informed, ethical purchasing decisions,” wrote Fleur Britten, a deputy fashion editor for the Guardian

Rycroft stated that fashion brands which don’t disclose information regarding their contribution to global warming/deforestation are “the villains.” Reports show that only 12% of 250 of the world’s largest fashion brands publish updated commitment to zero deforestation, a 3% decrease from last year, according to Fashion Revolution, an organization that “campaigns passionately for a clean, safe, fair, transparent and accountable fashion industry. We believe in a global fashion industry that conserves and restores the environment and values people over growth and profit,” according to their website

Shruti Singh, the head of Fashion Revolution India, stated that the lack of information from major fashion brands is frustrating, but not surprising given there’s no strict legislation in place that would require them to report the data. 

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“[This lack of transparency and accountability has occurred because] voluntary measures only get you so far, and it hasn’t been mandated by regulations yet. [Many brands] will just wait for legislation before mapping their supply chains.”

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A recent report on deforestation from environmental nonprofit Global Canopy (unrelated to Canopy), stated that “commitments are never enough. They are not worth the paper they are written on unless they are acted on.” It also reported that of the companies that have made public deforestation commitments, 63% of them hadn’t shown any “adequate evidence of implementing them.”

Rycroft is still hopeful for the future of fashion and its relationship to deforestation: “In the last seven years, more than half of global viscose producers have shifted away from high-risk forest-sourcing towards FSC-certified forest fiber and low-carbon next-gen alternatives. Historically we’ve seen dramatic shifts – for example, with the recycled paper industry, which brought on 70 million tons of capacity within a decade. That’s the pace of transition we need to see in fashion.”

CanopyStyle lists their 550 fashion company members that are held to a committed standard for sourcing viscose without ruining ancient and endangered forests, so consumers can be more conscious about their clothing purchases. Those companies are also committed to increasing the amount of MMCFs they use with recycled fibers. 

Britten recommends buying viscose in its purest state, as it will biodegrade at the end of its life, and will be easier to recycle if it hasn’t been combined with plastic.