Oliver Balch talks to the Canopy founder about the urgent need to scale up sustainable alternatives to materials like viscose in the fashion industry
It looks like cotton, it feels like cotton, but cotton it most certainly is not. Viscose is the fashion industry’s little-understood, but ubiquitous fabric. Smooth, breathable and low-cost, this not-quite-natural, not-quite synthetic material has become a staple of modern wardrobes.
Now Nicole Rycroft, founder of the Vancouver-based forest conservation organisation, Canopy wants rid of it. Eco-activists have long decried the chemical-heavy and polluting process that goes into creating viscose – think caustic soda, ammonia, acetone and sulphuric acid.
For Rycroft there’s a bigger problem still: bar a tiny proportion of bamboo, the fabric derives almost entirely from wood pulp.
“There are 200 million trees that disappear into manmade cellulosic fabrics every year and that’s slated to double every eight years,” she points out.
For the last two decades and more, Canopy has been working to promote greater sustainability among corporations with substantial forest footprints. Rycroft’s pioneering leadership has earned her a catalogue of plaudits, the $3m Climate Breakthrough Award being the most recent.
Much of the organisation’s work has, to date, focused on improving existing production methods by promoting internal deforestation policies, pushing forest certification, developing eco-standards and so forth.
But Rycroft concedes it’s not enough. To avoid a “precipitous decline” in biodiversity, 30% of the world’s forests require urgent protection by 2030, with a further 20% needing active restoration, she notes.
Canopy’s strategy centres on supporting a pool of early-stage enterprises exploring technological alternatives to pulp
“We can't do that if we continue to log trees to make pizza boxes, and t-shirts.”
Hence, Canopy’s decision to embark on a system-shifting search to replace viscose’s dependency on trees for a sustainable alternative. The quest marks the latest iteration of Canopy Style, the campaign group’s umbrella initiative for large fashion brands.
The campaign, which counts over 440 clothing brands and most of the world’s major cellulose producers among its participants, has a triple focus: conservation, technology and finance.
The first has occupied the bulk of the campaign’s attention since its launch in 2013. Every year, for example, Canopy publishes a Hot Button Ranking to highlight the good and the bad among viscose producers when it comes to fighting deforestation.
On the technology side, work has been ticking away in the background but is now gathering pace. Canopy’s strategy here centres primarily on supporting a pool of early-stage enterprises that are exploring technological alternatives to pulp.
At present, Canopy’s role is mostly that of networker and hand-holder-in-chief. In the long-run, however, Rycroft hopes to organise a dedicated equity investment fund to help high-potential startups make the leap from proof stage (where most currently find themselves) to large-scale production.
The early running in this search for alternatives focuses primarily on recycled fabrics, she notes. Given the growing mountain of textile waste (the average American adult throws away 37 kilos of clothing every year), it marks an obvious place to start.
Recycling simply extends the chain of forest use; it doesn’t break it entirely
But recycling simply extends the chain of forest use; it doesn’t break it entirely. For that, the lead contenders are either microbial cellulose (fermented food waste for the most part) or agricultural residues. Rycroft describes the first as “cool and crazy” from a scientific viewpoint, but her sense is that the second is probably the most economically viable.
Take straw. As an alternative to wood, this redundant agricultural offshoot consumes 70% less energy and 90% less water than conventional cellulose production, she maintains.
“At present, we are burning literally hundreds of millions of tonnes of this low-carbon alternative fibre every year... Instead, farmers would be able to get a revenue stream and we get a whole second harvest from that straw.”
Although it remains early days for next-gen viscose, Rycroft spots signs of hope. Particularly heartening was April’s news of Australian microbial cellulose firm Nanollose successfully closing a $2.85m funding round.
Another bright light on the near horizon is the current construction of a 60,000-tonne textile recycling plant in Sweden. The €77m facility, built by Nasdaq-listed Renewcell, is set to come on stream next year.
More encouraging still, she says, is the momentum beginning to build among the world’s largest viscose (also known as “rayon”) manufacturers. Industry giants such as Austria’s Lenzing, India’s Aditya Birla, and China’s Tangshan Sanyou all now offer fabrics that include recycled content, albeit as a small percentage of their overall portfolios.
None of us are going to be crawling back into the cave any time soon
Yet, Rycroft is not waiting for change to happen organically. If the unique biodiversity of the world’s forests stands a chance of long-term survival, the fashion industry needs to shift its game – and fast.
For all her campaigning zeal, however, Rycroft is also a hard-nosed realist. The idea of the world starting to dress in second-hand horsehair shirts won’t wash (neither literally nor metaphorically). As she puts it: “None of us are going to be crawling back into the cave any time soon.”
All the same, she remains upbeat about the appetite for change within the industry.
On the one hand, brands are increasingly aware of the growing demand among shoppers for clothes that are sustainable as well as stylish.
On the other, they face very real resource constraints. It’s not just viscose producers who want pulp: packaging, paper, construction and home furnishing companies do, too.
“Every year, there are 3 billion trees used for packaging alone ... there’s simply no way to meet the ecological kind of stabilization needs that we have and continue to rely on forest ecosystems to provide it all.” (See Can we move away from plastics without pushing nature to the brink?)
The reality of these twin drivers for change are finally beginning to land, Rycroft insists. In recent years, Canopy Style has been pushing clothing brands and viscose producers to commit to purchasing new-generation alternatives.
Letters of intent to purchase next generation viscose show more than 360,000 tons of demand to date. They include from high-street brands such as Zara, Asos, Marks & Spencer and H&M.
The viability of an innovation in the lab is one thing. Churning out millions of tonnes of fabric is quite another
The latter has already followed up with action, signing a multi-year commitment to buy a proportion of Renewcell’s output (its “Circulose” fibres appeared in the Swedish brand’s Conscious Exclusive collection, released last year). Last October, Chinese rayon producer Tangshan Sanyou struck a similar purchasing deal with the textile recycler.
Such commitments are important, but to make an impact on the fashion industry at large there will need to be a massive scale-up in production of new-generation viscose alternatives.
That will take investment dollars, both in ongoing research and – more importantly – production capacity. Proving the viability of a breakthrough innovation in the lab is one thing. Churning out millions of tonnes of fabric is quite another.
The bridge between the two is one many new-gen innovators “just don’t make it over”, Rycroft notes. Hence the idea for the above-mentioned investment fund – an idea that Rycroft is now better placed to action following the $3m cheque from the Climate Breakthrough Award.
To illustrate the value of such a “one-stop shop” between investors and innovators, she gives the example of Columbia Pulp. Inventor of a wheat-based pulp (destined for packaging rather than clothing), the U.S.-based startup had to knock on “hundreds of doors” in its attempt to finance a commercial-scale mill.
The search was eventually successful but getting over the line took the best part of four years, notes Rycroft: “We’re cognizant that we just don’t have four years for all of these game-changing technologies to actually find their financing, [so] we’re really working to mobilise investment moving faster into the space.”
Much more needs to be done to make sustainable viscose a widescale reality. Ending government subsidies for “dinosaur industries” like industrial forestry and oil would help, she says. So would lower prices, a chicken-and-egg dilemma for all start-out technologies.
To stay motivated, Rycroft looks back to Canopy’s early days, when corporate responsibility meant fundraising for the local boys’ soccer club. “Or, if they were really progressive, the girls’ soccer club.” The day will soon come, she hopes, when wood-based clothes seem every bit as outdated.
Oliver Balch is an independent journalist and writer, specialising on business’s role in society. He has been a regular contributor to The Ethical Corporation since 2004, and writes the Brand Watch column in Reuters Sustainable Business' monthly magazine, The Sustainable Business Review. He also writes for the Guardian among other UK and international media. OIiver recently completed a PhD at Cambridge University, focusing on corporate ethics in foreign investment.
This article is part of The Ethical Corporation summer 2021 in-depth briefing on natural capital. Click on the cover to download your digital copy for free.
viscose rayon Sustainable fashion clothes recycling Nicole Rycroft deforestation Canopy Style Nanollose Renewcell H&M