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About five years ago, an environmental organization called Canopy discovered a link between endangered ancient forests and the rayon found in popular clothing sold at shopping malls in Vancouver, B.C.
Canopy discovered that the base material used to produce rayon — a soft kind of fabric often used as an alternative to silk — is derived from the pulp wood of ancient ecosystems in Indonesia, Canada's Boreal and temperate rainforests, and the Amazon. That chemical conversion process wastes 70 per cent of the tree, says the Vancouver-based advocacy group, which has since led the charge against forest degradation for the sake of fashion.
On Monday, its efforts paid off and the largest apparel conglomerate in the United States, VF Corporation, vowed to work with Canopy to safeguard biological diversity by making fashion more forest-friendly. The initiative, called CanopyStyle, aims to stop using ancient and endangered forests in producing tree-derived fabrics like rayon by the end of 2017.
"When a player this big sends this clear a signal around their intentions... suppliers take notice," said Nicole Rycroft, Canopy’s executive director. “When we started reaching out to brands, to be honest there were some brands [that were] not aware rayon came from trees."
The US$12-billion VF Corporation, which controls clothing brands like Vans, The North Face, Timberland, Wrangler and Lee, publicly released its new “Forest Derived Materials Policy” on Feb. 27, which covers clothing, paper and packaging practices. The document “provides guidance” to the company’s associates and suppliers, and aims to make products “with recycled fiber whenever possible.”
“We’re really focused on climate change and making sure we reduce our impact,” Letitia Webster, VF’s vice-president of global corporate sustainability, told National Observer. “One of the big issues that we wanted to begin to curtail was the destruction of important forests.
"We’re doing it because it’s the right thing to do... it’s just part of our value proposition of who we are as a company.”
The company's suppliers were notified in an internal rollout the policy was released, said Webster, adding that the San Francisco-based environmental organization Rainforest Action Network will be helping the company work with its suppliers to track its implementation.
“This is now the new way of business,” she explained, noting the company has also committed to sourcing 100 per cent renewable energy by 2025.
The policy also includes the promotion of paper and fiber certified by the international non-profit Forest Stewardship Council, which assesses sustainably managed forestry companies.
According to Canopy, more than 120 million trees are used each year to produce unsustainable, inefficient fabrics like rayon. The environmental group says it’s now working with close to 100 fashion brands, retailers and designers on the initiative to ban the practice for good. Its partners include H&M and Sprint.
The vast majority of cellulosic fabric is manufactured in China, said Rycroft, but Canada is one of the top-sourcing regions.
Natural Resources Canada told National Observer in a statement that Canada exported 426,000 tonnes of dissolving pulp, valued at $361 million, in 2016. The federal department also said that the top five destinations, by value, were India ($89 million), Indonesia ($56 million), Thailand ($53 million), China ($49 million) and the United States ($41 million)
"Natural Resources Canada is presently looking into the amount of wood fiber used in Canada to produce dissolving pulp. Further information will follow as soon as possible," the department said in the same statement.
Canada has 348 million hectares of forest lands, representing about nine per cent of the world’s forest, and 0.2 per cent of Canada’s boreal forests are harvested each year, according to figures posted publicly on the department’s website.
Editor's note: This story was updated at 11 p.m. ET on Feb. 28, 2017 with a statement from Natural Resources Canada.