How Rainforest Destruction Hides in Our Clothes

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CC BY 2.0. Piled logs in Indonesia. Photo: Josh Estey for AusAID

Rayon is an extremely popular fabric, and is used by most major clothing brands. It’s made by a complex chemical process, but at the beginning it starts with wood chips, which are turned into a product called dissolving pulp. Like all products that come from trees, this wood may be obtained by sustainable forestry practices. But in some cases, deforestation is woven into its very fibers.

The rainforests of Indonesia have been experiencing large-scale deforestation over the course of the past decade. According to Global Forest Watch, the country lost over 15 million hectares (60,000 square miles) of tree cover between 2001 and 2013. 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.

Over the past five to ten years, the demand for paper products has diminished as technology allows offices and communications to go digital. “So, the paper companies are looking for alternative markets,” said Ruth Nogueron, a researcher for World Resources Institute’s forest program. “Because setting up a pulp and paper mill is a big investment and you need to have a long-term financial strategy. The emergence of markets for new pulp products like textiles has been growing over the past couple of years.” According to one industry report, demand for dissolving pulp is growing, and wood-based fabrics are gaining market share against cotton and synthetic textiles.

Sumatra, Indonesia
Rainforest in Sumatra. Ismail Rahmat Batubara/CC BY 2.0

/CC BY 2.0

Brihannala Morgan, a senior forest campaigner for the Rainforest Action Network, said that local people in Sumatra have been fighting back. “These communities have been fighting this mill for the last 20 plus years,” she said. Forest communities depend on the rainforests for their livelihoods, and have traditional usage rights. However, the land legally belongs to the government, which may give out logging concessions that conflict with the communities’ rights.

“It’s not legal or right in anyway that we would think of here,” said Morgan. “These are communities that find out that they need to have legal rights to their land when a company actually comes in with a bulldozer.”

The pulping process may make it easier to cover up unsustainable practices, and a lack of transparency in the product chain may hide even more serious crimes. According to a joint UN and Interpol report on illegal wildlife trade released in June, pulping may also be used to “launder” illegally logged trees.

“Pulp in general is a very complex product, it has to go through a lot of processing,” explained Nogueron of the World Resources Institute. “You can have a lot of trees chipped and mixed in the same pot to extract the pulp. It’s hard to trace the origin and the type of trees that are used.”

The Rainforest Action Network is launching a new campaign, called "Out of Fashion," to educate designers and clothing brands about the deforestation that may be associated with dissolving pulp, and to encourage them to use only sustainable suppliers. “Many companies are likely not going to be aware of these issues at all,” said Morgan. “It’s kind of amazing how little most of these companies actually know about where their fabric comes from.”

The first step for apparel makers is to establish a traceable supply chain. “The most important thing is that the buyer needs to know their supplier, and needs to know where that product comes from,” said Nogueron. Knowing the origins of the raw materials will put companies in a better position to assess the environmental and social impact of their products. Both Nogueron and Morgan suggested that companies seek out sources with third party verifications for the sustainability of their materials.

Rayon yarn. Flickr user anneheathen/CC BY 2.0

/CC BY 2.0

One could make the case that rayon isn’t a sustainable fabric at all. According to the Materials Sustainability Index, an open-source analysis of materials' environmental impact, wood-based rayon ranks below conventional cotton, polyester and linen. Other wood-based fabrics, like Modal and Tencel, also rank as more sustainable. Only about 30 percent of the wood can be successfully converted to pulp, the rest is considered waste. Then, there’s the issue of the chemicals and energy needed to convert the wood to fiber.

Kristene Smith, the author of Guide to Green Fabrics, said that this chemicalization is why the fabric is considered less sustainable (she doesn’t include it in her guide). However, she does think that ensuring pulp comes from responsibly harvested wood is a good idea for brands and designers.

“The deforestation issue is huge, and as people shed more light on it, I think there will be pressure down the pipe,” said Smith. “If designers would work to get more sustainable sources for their wood pulp and advertise that, they would probably have a leg up with consumers.”

The Rainforest Action Network isn’t trying to get designers or consumers to boycott rayon. “What we want to see is a change in the industry itself,” said Morgan. The organization’s end goal is to see any fabrics made out of dissolving pulp made from waste materials, like agricultural by-products. “We would love to see a world where we don’t destroy any forests for fabric.”