There’s something remarkably soft about walking through an old-growth temperate rainforest in the Pacific Northwest. Moss covers forest floors and giant fallen tree trunks like a plush blanket. Nutrient-rich soil, filled deep with decaying organic matter, feels like padding under each step. Even the wet bark of a red cedar feels like it could crumble inside hands if broken off and gently crushed.
As a hiker staring up 50 meters at a towering western hemlock in awe, one may wonder how industrial logging has pillaged these treasures so intensely. In the Pacific Northwest, 80 to 90 percent of primary forest has been clearcut or altered in some way.
Many of us unknowingly contribute to its downfall.
Like a forensic scene, a camera could dive into the average hikers’ attire in Olympic National Park or Cathedral Grove and find evidence of old-growth trees woven into clothes.
That same softness found in ancient trees has contributed to the elusive ingredient in two products we consume by the buttload—toilet paper and textiles.
We wrote about toilet paper conservation issues and alternatives (including a bidet review, which could win the prize for the best solution). Now, we bring up another primary forest clear-cut culprit—clothes.
“Here’s how trees are turned into fashion: A dissolving pulp mill situated near a forest or tree plantation takes a tree, adds chemicals, and produces what’s called dissolving pulp. The pulp goes to the viscose producer, who makes it into a staple fiber, which is then sent to a dyer or spinner. Next, it’s made into a textile, which is sold to fashion brands. It finally lands as a ruffled blouse or sheath dress in your favorite store,” Fast Company summed up.
Mills creating rayon-viscose emit a toxic soup throughout production, wasting up to 70 percent of the source trees, according to Canopy—a nonprofit dedicated to slowing down deforestation.
“More than 150 million trees are logged every year and turned into cellulosic fabric—if placed end to end those trees would circle the earth seven times,” Canopy’s website declares. “Between 2013 and 2020, it is expected that the number of trees being logged every year and turned into fabric such as viscose will have doubled.”
Everything from our dresses and pants to tablecloths and towels could contain remnants of endangered forests from the Amazon, Indonesia and North America. These precious forests are home to a list of endangered species, including orangutans, elephants, tigers and bears.
Saving ancient trees
In the coastal temperate rainforest, most viscose-rayon products come from Canada’s Great Bear Rainforest, 250 miles of trees along British Columbia’s northern coastline. It’s the only place where Kermode, or spirit, bears exist.
In a world where the last 1,000-year-old trees are still for sale, it’s fortunate brands and nonprofits are working together to change the tide.
As fashion brands learn about the issue, many companies are voluntarily committing to old-growth-free fabrics.
Canopy has been leading the wave. The Vancouver-based company “secures large-scale forest conservation and transforms unsustainable forest product supply chains by engaging business executives as champions for conservation and sustainability.”
Keeping these forests intact is critical for species’ habitat, water quality, preserving indigenous culture, maintaining Earth’s diversity, effective ecosystem services and supporting millions of dollars in tourism.
Scientists also warn that losing the last untouched forests in the world is imperative for mitigating climate change impacts.
“The most critical of all forest types is primary forest… that have achieved great age with mature canopy trees and complex understories, making them the greatest repositories of biodiversity on the planet. Primary forest contains 300 billion tons of carbon yet they are still being logged, sometimes under the guise of harvest being ‘sustainable,'” according to Drawdown: The most comprehensive plan ever proposed to reverse global warming.
“Carbon emissions from deforested and associated land-use change are estimated to be 10 to 15 percent of the world’s total,” the book states. “Preventing loss of forest is always better than trying to bring forest back… because a restored forest never fully recovers its original biodiversity, structure, and complexity and because it takes decades to sequester the amount of carbon lost in one fell swoop of deforestation.”
Organizations like Canopy have taken significant steps to educate and, at times, put pressure on companies to avoid materials from endangered forests. As consumers, we can support those efforts through our buying habits.
Avoiding viscose-rayon and buying organic cotton or bamboo threads offer some alternatives. Until recently, that’s been hard to do if you want the perfect leggings though. Luckily, choices are growing. With Canopy’s commitment to eliminating trees from the fashion supply chain, major players are making the ethical decisions for consumers. Stella McCartney, lululemon athletica and TOMs have committed to ancient forest-free threads. Even fast-fashion brands like H&M and Zara have signed up. On Earth Day, the tree-saving nonprofit announced a partnership with Vivienne Westwood—releasing a video that “juxtaposes logging and pulping trees to make viscose with the dream of a world that values forests too much to tear them down.” Smaller fashion brands have been planting trees when we purchase their fabrics, like tentree, with a vision to plant 1 billion trees by 2030, and Tree Tribe, adding the trees they plant on a world map for all to see.
Still, the gold standard for sustainability is avoiding unnecessary purchases. A great way to do that is: buying classic and quality and fixing instead of tossing. Back in the day, I worked in a mall, followed the sales and went shopping almost every Friday. I bought BCBG dresses, French Connection tops and Joe’s jeans. The upside was I became a broke college student shortly after, learned more about sustainability and held on to those clothes for more than a decade. I washed on delicate (or handwashing the super delicate), hung up to dry and the clothes lasted (mostly). Fixing clothes is something our grandmothers all did but is catching on again in the sustainability movement. It’s like Carrie Bradshaw said in Sex and the City, “I admit it’s tempting to wish for the perfect boss, or the perfect parent, or the perfect outfit, but the best anyone of us can do is not quit. Play the hand we’ve been given, and accessorize the outfit we’ve got.”
Second-hand shopping means searching for gems and feeling good about bringing them home. Especially because most of our hand-me-downs now sit decomposing in a trash hill somewhere. In 2012, 84 percent of unwanted clothes in the U.S. went into either a landfill or an incinerator, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. When thrifting, finding quality construction matters. Yes, it’s essential to be selective in what you bring back from the past. But typically things like well-fitting jeans, little black dresses, timeless rainboots and other classics will last in style and structure, if you take care of them. And once you get to know which local shops have what you like, you can often visit and find the surprise deals.