Our clothes could be linked to rainforest distraction. According to Canopy, a North American environmental group, the fist step is to look at the labels on your clothes. If they are made with rayon or viscose, then yes, our clothe could be made of rainforest destruction.

 These fabrics are made of dissolving pulp, a substance derived from wood pulp through a complex and chemical-intensive process. According to Canopy, every year, more than 70 million trees are turned into cellulosic fabric for clothing through the dissolving pulp process. The big question is where these trees are coming from. Canopy’s research shows that boreal and tropical rainforest fibre routinely ends up in fabrics used in a wide range of clothing.

“From the catwalks of Milan to New York’s 7th Avenue, from your favorite boutique to the local mall, fashion increasingly has a hidden cost that doesn’t show up on the price tag. Fashion designers, clothing brands and apparel manufacturers are likely unaware that some of their stylish fabric creations are made from trees, let alone the trees of ancient and endangered forests,” says Canopy.

Dissolving pulp is so named because it is wood pulp that is dissolved in caustic soda (sodium hydroxide) and carbon disulphide. The viscous solution is then extruded into viscose staple fibre (VSF, fine strands of rayon yarn). The VSF is then woven into fabric that can be turned into garments. (Fabrics made from eucalyptus, soy or bamboo fibre also undergo the same process to eventually end up as rayon. Rayon yarn, depending on the cellulose content, is also used to make cellophane, tyre cords, upholstery fabrics and carpets.)

More than 80% of the world’s dissolving pulp is converted to rayon which is used in dresses, jackets, suits, socks, neckties and other garments. Rayon fibre can be found in blended fabrics or on its own and it is replacing cotton as a cheaper alternative.

Conservation group Rainforest Action Network (RAN) last month launched a campaign, Out Of Fashion, to highlight the threat from the clothing industry to forest destruction.

“Clothing companies are turning forests into fashion. In order to produce rayon, viscose and other textiles, companies source for fibres through the destructive and toxic production of dissolving wood pulp. Dissolving wood pulp is responsible for the destruction of rainforests, human rights abuses, land grabbing from indigenous communities, loss of habitat for endangered species and large-scale climate pollution ... it’s time for that to stop,” writes RAN campaigner Christy Tennery-Spalding.

The group criticises the process of producing dissolving pulp as “criminally inefficient”. Aside from the chemical-intensive manufacturing process, only 30% of the tree matter is actually usable for clothing; the other 70% becomes waste. The viscose process can be detrimental to the environment because of the chemicals used to dissolve wood pulp and to harden, wash and bleach rayon yarn. The untreated effluent can be harmful if dumped into rivers.

In 2012, there were 34 producers of dissolving pulp in the world, with a total production of 5.7 million tonnes. This made up 6% of the world’s fibre demand, while the share of cotton was one-third, and the rest was covered by oil-based fibres. Demand for dissolving pulp is set to go up to take over the shortfall from cotton fibre. China, with its thriving garment industry, is the world’s biggest market for the material.

However, according to RAN, there is already momentum for change within the industry: some companies have already taken steps to eliminate controversial sources from their supply chain, and some companies also have commitments to dig into their supply chains. Their initiative on this issue demonstrates that change is possible, and RAN suggest a petition so ask the clothing industry to avoid deforestation.

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