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Fashion Fabrics Made From Wood Are Set To Double In Volume: What Does This Mean For Forests And Emissions?

In the fast-growing next-gen materials market, cellulose fibers extracted from wood, old textiles, and even bacteria are performing akin to cotton, silk, and polyester. This offers an exciting opportunity to alleviate environmental problems caused by incumbent fibers, and at the core of this movement are man-made cellulosic fibers (MMCFs).

MMCFs include viscose, lyocell, modal, and acetate. Around 98% of these fibers are made from wood (usually eucalyptus), 1% is from bamboo, and less than 1% are from cellulose-rich waste (but Evrnu, Renewcell, Infinited Fiber, and others are working hard to raise that percentage). While the innovators forge this path, the MMCF market is set to grow from 6 to 10 million tonnes within 15 years, with recycled MMCFs (rMMCFs) likely to reach only a fraction of this volume.

So what types of MMCFs will hoover up this growth opportunity? Right now 40-45% will come from “conventional/unknown sources/processes”, which is shorthand for possibly toxic production methods and using ancient/endangered forest wood. And here exists a critical paradox: while next-gen MMCFs offer huge potential to replace damaging incumbent materials, stakeholders risk emboldening a market that is not ready to deliver on its low-impact promises, and may cause more harm before it realizes its potential for good.

I landed on this conclusion at last week’s Challenge the Fabric summit in Paris, held by the Ekman Group and the Swedish Fashion Council. Only with insights from forestry industry representatives and wood pulp manufacturers was it clear that the industry faces a significant raw material and fiber processing challenge. To date, these stakeholders have operated mosty behind the scenes because their wood and pulp is not branded: it is simply a raw material that feeds into spinners and mills, whose brands then appear on the resulting textiles. So why talk to pulp manufacturers and the forestry industry, and what role do they play in steering sustainability in MMCFs?

Present at the summit were Arauco, Sappi, and Södra–all dissolving (textile) pulp producers that fall within the 55-60% of MMCFs that are certified by FSC and PEFC. These certification standards aim to maintain the integrity of the certified material throughout the supply chain from forest to final product, preventing deforestation, preserving biodiversity, and safeguarding Indigenous People’s rights. But despite strict compliance with these standards, Sappi representative Bernhard Riegler explained during a panel discussion that there is significant resistance to these wood-based fibers, despite their favorable sustainability credentials. In managed forests such as Sappi’s, “the cycle of regeneration, growing, thinning and harvesting is actively managed to enhance biodiversity, resilience, and maintain functional ecological condition” according to their sustainability literature, and such forests contribute optimally to the global sequestration of around 2 billion tonnes of carbon emissions annually.

Trees are “emotive” living things, explained Riegler, and our deep connection with them can elicit horror at the thought of cutting them down, even when the alternative might be to use plastics made from petrochemicals, which pollute the planet and kill wildlife. It’s true that deforestation accounts for 11% of global carbon emissions, but ‘deforestation’ includes human and ‘natural’ causes, like wildfires; And the primary cause of deforestation is the clearing of land for agriculture and livestock. Approximately half of the world’s habitable land is used for agriculture, so it’s the growing of food (both plant and animal) that is the primary driver of deforestation, not the cutting down of forestry industry trees: a fact clearly and tangibly explained in Mike Berners-Lee’s book There is No Planet B.

Therefore, the assumption that cutting down trees is universally bad, in all contexts, needs to be tackled, believes Riegler. But without forestry industry voices explaining the environmental benefits of responsibly managed forests, that piece of the sustainable textiles puzzle is missing. Another missing fragment I latched onto from Riegler’s broader insights was that in the communities in South Africa surrounding Sappi’s forests, each worker supports the livelihoods of sixteen people, on average. This is in contrast to other nations in the global north, for example, where he says a 1 to 4 ratio is more likely. This alone is an indicator of the social sustainability potential of managed forests and a recognition of the importance of this industry, along with the–as yet “unmeasured”–social sustainability impacts. On the face of it, it seems that sourcing Sappi textile pulp could be a sure-fire (and straightforward) way of investing directly in communities, compared to the minefield that is arms-length philanthropic initiatives.

An additional slice of essential context at the summit came from Shameek Ghosh, CEO of TrusTrace: a SaaS-based materials traceability solution for the textile supply and value chains. Ghosh revealed that only FSC and PEFC-certified stakeholders are traced on the platform, meaning that a black hole exists where the data related to conventional MMCFs should be. We have no idea how toxic and damaging (almost) half of the MMCF market is—only how much of the market share it accounts for.

TrusTrace has 8000 suppliers and 27000 factories on its platform, amassing data across tiers 1 to 4 of the supply and value chains. For Tiers 1-3 the data is collected at the stakeholder level, and for Tier 4, homogenous data from sources such as the Higg Index is used due to broadly standardized processes at the raw material “top of funnel” level, according to Ghosh.

On the subject of data and certifications, the CEO says: “We believe that data is the certification [and] certification in itself is an abstraction.” He maligns the propensity of fashion companies to “communicate first, then try to get the numbers to fit afterward.” “Solving problems in the supply chain is the leap forward the industry needs,” he says, in an age when “brands are under scrutiny from regulators and consumers” and “fashion is the poster boy for achieving sustainability.”

Topical for the attendees of Challenge The Fabric, was the new French legislation on environmental labeling of waste-generating products intended for consumer use, on top of the recently announced EU Green Deal Textiles Strategy and CMA Green Claims Code. Ghosh shared that TrusTrace has received “more than 70 requests from the top 300 brands in the world in recent months regarding regulations and material traceability”, pointing to a rise in fear of regulation.

For now, the transparent, environmentally and socially sustainable sourcing of MMCFs relies on quantifiable data from the likes of TrusTrace, GreenStory, and the Textile Exchange, among others. The focal takeaway regarding this fast-growing market is that not all MMCFs are created equal, and Challenge The Fabric certainly lived up to its name. An ongoing dialogue with the forestry and pulp industry is necessary to optimize and shed light on the calculable environmental and social benefits of MMCFs, to expand the market whilst safeguarding Earth and humanity.