What Do Rainforests Have To Do With Fashion?

Rainforests are being destroyed for manufactured textiles used in fashion. I've asked senior campaigner on the Rainforest Action Network's Rainforest Free Pulp and Paper campaignBrihannala Morgan, some basic questions about the problem. Read through to learn about some of the issues involved in protecting the people, forests, and wildlife. 


What’s happening to the rainforests and what in the world does it have to do with fashion?

It’s a little known fact that some of the fabrics we wear everyday come from the world’s most endangered forests. Everyday fabrics like rayon, viscose, Tencel, and modal are all made from trees. The process is complicated  forests in Indonesia, Canada, and elsewhere are cut down and replaced with monoculture acacia and eucalyptus plantations. These trees are then dissolved, using a very toxic process, into something called dissolving pulp which is then spun into thread, woven into fabrics, and manufactured into clothes for some of the world’s most popular brands. Here’s a very simple graphic that describes the process:

Why do they need so much pulp?

Rayon, viscose, and modal fabrics are popular, and affordable! The more demand for these fabrics, the more pulp needs to be generated. 

Who is this affecting? Do people live in the rainforests?

This is affecting indigenous and frontline communities all over the world, including Indonesia, South Africa, and Canada. At Rainforest Action Network, our work focuses on Indonesia where the producing company Toba Pulp Lestari (TPL) has destroyed the forests owned by the indigenous Batak people. Over 17 villages have lodged complaints again TPL, who has clear cut the forests managed by the communities. Replacing diverse forests with monocrop plantations has also meant that the local ecosystem has changed, drying up rivers and streams that communities depend on for drinking and farming. Non-violent Batak activists have been beaten and jailed for defending their land. 

This video will introduce you to some of the people being affected.

How are they able to do this? Don’t the people own the land?

It's a complicated situation  since these communities have traditional rights, but not legal rights to the land, the government considers that land un-owned and sells the land to companies for plantations. Sometimes government officials are uninformed about the traditional ownership on the land, and sometimes they are driven by the desire to profit from the sale. In the end, this means that the companies actually have the legal rights (and formal paperwork) to the land and the government is obliged to support the company if there is conflict with the community. This is why it is so important that we ensure that companies recognize traditional land rights  regardless of legal status  and that we support communities in getting their traditional land rights recognized and formalized by the government.

Is it affecting animals? The environment?

Absolutely. Cutting down diverse natural forests and replacing them with monocrop plantations has meant that valuable habitat has been lost around the world. In South Africa, baboon habitat has been destroyed, while in Indonesia the forest homes of endangered species including sunbears and gibbons has been impacted. This expansion has also put additional pressure on critical ecosystems, like the Leuser Ecosystem, which is home to orangutans, Sumatran tigers, and the Sumatran rhinoceros. 

Is the pulp for all rayon, modal, and lyocell procured this way? If not, how do I know the good from the bad?

All rayon, modal, and lyocell is produced from tree pulp, and too often, from trees that were planted on clear-cut rainforest. But the thing is, because of the complicated production process, it is almost impossible to know if the pulp comes from well-managed plantations or critical ecosystems. Even the fashion companies don’t know where their fabric is coming from! What we do know, is that companies producing pulp like Toba Pulp Lestari (TPL), are doing it in a way that is destroying the environment and the livelihoods of the communities on the ground in Indonesia. This is the reason is it so important that we put pressure on fashion companies to trace their supply chain to see if the fabric they are buying is made from pulp being produced by TPL and others, and then to develop policies so that they never purchase from controversial sources in the future. 

What should I do or avoid as a consumer?

As a consumer, we have an important role to play by telling companies that these issues are important to us, and that we won’t purchase clothing that causes human rights abuses or rainforest destruction. 

RAN doesn’t offer specific guidance on what you should or should not purchase. What we believe is that clothing companies should trace their supply chains, eliminate controversial fiber and suppliers, create policies to ensure they never purchase controversial fiber again, and ideally join us in the fight to make their industry more sustainable. In the meantime, we encourage customers to buy used, to recycle and up-cycle, to host clothing swaps, and to do without when and where they can. 

How can I find out if a brand I buy from is culpable? 

Contact your favorite companies and ask if any of their rayon, viscose, or modal fabrics are sourced from Indonesia, specifically from Toba Pulp Lestari or Sateri/Royal Golden Eagle. If they can’t tell you (which will likely be the case) demand that they look through their supply chain, find out, and cancel if they are supplying from them. Of course, you can tell your favorite companies to contact RAN and we’d be happy to work with them! 

How can we stop this from happening?

Join RAN in pressuring clothing companies to trace their supply chains, eliminate controversial fiber and suppliers, create policies to ensure they never purchase controversial fiber again, and (ideally) join us in the fight to make their industry more sustainable. Join us today at www.outoffashion.org

What is RAN’s role in this campaign?

Rainforest Action Network is targeting 15 companies who are leading in the fashion world, but are laggards when it comes to environmental sustainability and social responsibility. Through grassroots pressure and engaging action, we work with our supporters to demand change in the fashion industry. Currently, we are focusing on one of the most famous — and most destructive — fashion companies in the world, Ralph Lauren. 

Find out more about this and other issues on the Rainforest Action Network website.


Brihannala Morgan is the senior campaigner on the Rainforest Action Network's Rainforest Free Pulp and Paper campaign. She has been working on forest and climate issues for over a decade, including work with the Center for International Forestry Research supporting community-based land rights; and as director of the Borneo Project, supporting indigenous rights in Malaysian Borneo; and as the first campaigner on Rainforest Action Network's palm oil campaign. She has lived and worked in Indonesia for nine years. 


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