In recent years it’s become common knowledge that companies using palm oil in their snack foods or publishers sourcing paper fiber from Indonesian pulp mills may be at risk of contributing to deforestation and labor rights abuses.
But it still comes as a surprise to many to learn that some of the most common fabrics used by big name fashion brands — viscose, rayon and modal — also originate as trees in Indonesia, Canada, Brazil, and South Africa. Only now has a public conversation finally started about the fact that the forest fabric industry is causing human rights violations and forest destruction in some of the world’s most critical ecosystems.
The latest effort, the Out of Fashion campaign for forest-friendly fabrics – led by the Rainforest Action Network (RAN) — is calling on the “Fashion 15” group of companies — Ralph Lauren, Prada, LVMH, Tory Burch, Michael Kors, Vince, Guess, Velvet, L Brands, Forever 21, Under Armour, Footlocker, Abercrombie and Fitch, GAIAM and Beyond Yoga — to take responsibility for their supply chains and develop strong, time bound commitments to protect forests and human rights. With proven connections from human rights violations and forest destruction all the way to our store shelves, fashion companies can no longer ignore this critical issue.
Natural forests in Indonesia, South Africa and other countries are being clear cut and replaced with monocrop acacia and eucalyptus pulpwood plantations. These plantations are then logged and processed with highly toxic chemicals to produce a substance called dissolving pulp; the pulp is then processed into thread, which is dyed and woven into fabric used for clothing worldwide.
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The production of rayon, viscose and modal fabrics is having significant social and environmental impacts, particularly in the tropical forests of Indonesia, home to the third-largest rainforest in the world and critically endangered wildlife species including orangutans and rhinoceros. Indonesia also has the highest deforestation rate in the world, driven in part by the massive expansion of pulp and paper plantations. The clear-cutting techniques used to establish these plantations also have a major impact on the climate and have helped make Indonesia the world’s third largest emitter of greenhouse gas pollution.
Plantation expansion for pulp has also been devastating to indigenous and forest-dependent communities. Just in the area owned and operated by one company, Toba Pulp Lestari, in Northern Sumatra, a nonprofit organization called KSPPM has documented over 20 distinct cases where land traditionally owned by communities has been forcibly seized without the consent of the community and then clear cut for acacia plantations.
The loss of the land these communities rely on for their farms and gardens has greatly undermined their livelihoods and self-sufficiency. These plantations also destroy the rivers and streams communities rely on for drinking water and irrigation. The rivers dry up as cover crops are destroyed and erosion runs rampant. Communities who were once cash poor but rich in natural resources are becoming increasingly destitute.
These communities have been loudly protesting against Toba Pulp Lestari for decades. Thousands of people have demonstrated outside government offices, broadcast impassioned appeals on local radio and community members have even uprooted acacia saplings from plantations on stolen land. Dozens of people have been arrested in peaceful protests to protect their land.
Toba Pulp Lestari is owned by Indonesian tycoon Sukanto Tanoto, who also owns one of the most controversial families of companies in Indonesia — Royal Golden Eagle (RGE) group. Among many others, RGE owns the pulp-processing company Sateri and APRIL, perhaps Indonesia’s most notorious forest destroyer.
Which is why groups such as RAN are working to influence these companies by pressuring consumer-facing brands to engage with their suppliers and root out the bad actors. With the Out of Fashion campaign, RAN and its allies around the world are working to achieve change from all levels of the supply chain, from Toba Pulp Lestari and Royal Golden Eagle all the way to the shelves of the most popular brands in the United States.