You, me and forests
I spent the first half of my life surrounded by forests; they were an integral part of my being, they were those magical places through which I used to stroll in order to go for a wild swim in a lake. They were those vibrant, musical places where I could experience the sheer joy of discovering wild mushrooms and other life. Although I fully understand that in this increasingly urbanised world my experiences are pretty hard to relate to and yet I have no doubt that at least one gift granted by forests can be appreciated by us all – the ability to breathe.
In fact, forests are critical to the survival of every living thing on Earth. Forests clean the air, regulate the weather, absorb greenhouse gas emissions, and stabilize the climate – both global and local. Not to mention, that forests provide habitat for 80% of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity and livelihoods for 1.6 billion people. Sadly, these days deforestation is the second largest contributor to climate change, with up to one fifth of all carbon emissions worldwide coming from the destruction of forests. Furthermore, more than half of this deforestation is illegal.
Fabrics made from trees
Almost everyone is familiar with a fabric used in clothing called viscose, also known as rayon. Fewer people are familiar with modal and lyocell (Tencel®). However, what most people don’t realise is that these fibres are made almost entirely from trees. They are called man-made cellulosic fibres, because they are created from cellulose, a component mainly derived from wood which has an average cellulose content of 40%.
Rayon, viscose, modal, bamboo and lyocell are neither a truly synthetic fibre, in the sense of synthetics coming from petroleum, nor are they natural fibre, in the sense of being produced directly from plants or animals (in the way that wool is). They are manufactured from wood pulp using varying mechanical and chemical processes (depending on the particular textile), and are classed as semi-synthetics. They require chemicals to manufacture them, but the raw material used is natural (wood pulp), making the final product biodegradable. Their characteristics and properties are more similar to those of natural cellulosic fibres, such as cotton, linen and hemp, than those of petroleum-based synthetic fibres, such as nylon or polyester.
Developed in the 1890s, rayon was the first generation of these cellulosic fibres known for its high luster quality. Modal and bamboo are the second generation and are revered for their softness. Lyocell is third generation technology, with advantages including the environmental friendliness of its closed-loop chemical processing, combined with its softness, drape and resistance to the growth of odour-causing bacteria.
When it comes to tree-based fibres, viscose/rayon raises the most serious concerns about its environmental impact and role in deforestation. Although less polluting than synthetic fabrics, viscose is a toxic fabric with a severe health impact on workers as well as extensive air and water pollution. Modal and bamboo are slightly less toxic. Lyocell (Tencel®) is a closed-loop semi-synthetic, which captures and reuses the chemicals involved. This means lyocell (Tencel®) is much less harmful than viscose.
Without proper chemical management and treatment, these toxic chemicals find their way into the air and waterways surrounding viscose factories, affecting the delicate natural balance of ecosystems and water bodies, and, even at very low concentrations, harming the health of factory workers and local communities. But better production methods do exist and, if companies are willing, fabrics can be produced in a closed-loop system, limiting emissions to water and air.
Deforestation for fashion in numbers
There has been a growing demand for biodegradable, environmentally friendly and skin-friendly fabric clothing. The shift towards replacing cotton and petrochemical fibres has also been fuelling the growth of wood-based cellulosic fibres. Today, wood-based cellulose fibres make up 7% of all fibres used and are the third most commonly used fibres worldwide. To achieve this level of production, each year 70 million trees are cut down worldwide and this figure is expected to double in the coming 20 years. Additionally, tragically, the typical process for dissolving pulp for viscose/rayon wastes about 70% of the tree. More than half of these fibres are used to create clothing, with the remainder used for industrial and home textiles. 71% of wood-based fibres are viscose, 20% modal and 9% lyocell.
Deforestation for fashion in Indonesia
The issue I would like to draw your attention to is the fashion industry’s connection to deforestation in Indonesia. Depressingly, there is no publically available data on how many trees end up being made into textiles. However, it is known that Indonesia is at the very top of the list of countries cutting down their trees for textile fibre production. The country also has the second highest rate of deforestation globally. The report from the World Resource Institute and Global Forest Watch found that during several periods (2000-2002 and 2009-2012) forest loss, not for palm oil, but for pulp and paper production, was the biggest source of deforestation in the country. There is no data on how much of this pulp (not to mention the wood logs) ends up as textile fibres, yet the impact is undeniably worth noting and not minor.
Suggestions for the future
Support new cellulosic fabrics made from:
- agricultural residues (from microbial cellulose, from orange peels, from methane waste, from seaweed, from sour milk, from cow dung, from leftover wheat straw).
- ingredients carrying lighter ecological footprints (sugar cane, reeds, esparto grass, jute, sisal).
Emissions into air and water must be taken into account
- Current certifications, labels and schemes evaluating environmental and social impact (Higg Index, Ecolabel, and others) shockingly do not take air and water pollution during pulp and fibre production stages into account.
Transition into closed-loop systems
- recycle cotton and cellulosic fabric waste into new fibres.
- start using available processes avoiding pollution into air, soil and water (Spinova). You might also want to sign the WeMove.eu petition pressuring high street fashion brands to transition to clean technologies.
Clothes you choose to wear – vote for the world you want to live in
- Choosing second hand, renting, swapping and buying quality vs quantity does make a difference.
- When buying new wood-based fabric clothing make sure it is FSC certified.
- See clothing in our curated plastic-free environmentally friendly and ethical shop.
- Support ape conservation by Jane Goddall Institute and Leonardo Di Caprio Foundation by purchasing their absolutely brilliant limited edition clothing line.
All man-made cellulosic fibres have a notable advantage of biodegradability when compared with today’s most popular synthetic/plastic fibres, which make up 2/3 of all fibres used. Thus cellulosic fibres do surely have a potential for growth. However, in order for them to be truly sustainable we must make sure that they use waste products as input and do not emit toxic pollution onto our one precious Earth. We all have to do our bit in ensuring we have thriving forests for many years to come.
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