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Hot New Trend: World's Largest Clothing Brands Take Action for Endangered Forests

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In the wake of this week's IPCC report outlining the dire consequences of the continued lack of bold political leadership to systemically address climate change, it's left to NGOs and the private sector to provide us with some noteworthy progress.

Cue a North American environmental not for profit and two of the world's largest clothing brands and cultural influencers.

Iconic retailers H&M and Zara made landmark commitments this week to eliminate ancient and endangered forests from their viscose and rayon clothing.

Working with the environmental organization Canopy, the companies developed policies as part of an initiative aimed at addressing the rapidly growing impacts the clothing industry has on the world's forests, biodiversity and climate.

Canopy's research has found that fiber from forests are routinely making their way into fabrics, contributing to the deforestation of the tropical rain forests of Indonesia and the fragmentation of North America's temperate rain forests. Trees are broken down into dissolving pulp through a chemically intensive and notably inefficient pulping process.

The dissolving pulp is then used in a variety of products from ice cream to computer screens to contact lenses. However the lion's share of dissolving pulps, 85 percent, is used to make rayon, viscose, Tencel™, lyocell and modal -- important fabrics for the global textile and clothing industries. These fabrics are increasingly found in the clothes that we all buy in high-end boutiques and malls across North America.

As supporters of Canopy's Fashion Loved by Forests initiative, H&M, Zara, lululemon athletica, EILEEN FISHER and more are committing to eliminate endangered forest fiber from their clothing.

"These clothing sector leaders are showing that being stylish doesn't have to cost the earth," said Nicole Rycroft, Canopy's executive director. "Canopy is excited to see two of the largest brands, both major trendsetters, stepping up to ensure fabrics are no longer sourced from the world's endangered forests."

As North American consumption of paper grades such as newsprint have dropped in recent years, the forest industry has been busy identifying other uses for forest products. Viscose and rayon have become priority growth markets for the forest industry and there has been a 12 percent jump in dissolving pulp production during the past three years. An estimated 70 - 100 million trees were cut for fabric production last year -- enough trees to circle the earth seven to 10 times if placed end to end. At least one third of these trees are from ancient and endangered forests -- a number projected to double in the next 20 years unless the market shifts.

Indonesia already has a controversial dissolving pulp mill in Northern Sumatra and a significant amount of wood flows out of the country to feed other South East Asian dissolving pulp mills and textile factories. Indonesia enjoys the dubious title of being the third largest greenhouse gas emitter behind the U.S. and China -- with the vast majority of its emissions attributed to the logging of its high carbon peatland rain forests for paper, palm oil and increasingly pulp for viscose clothing. Globally, approximately 15 percent of greenhouse gas emissions is attributed to logging and deforestation. A little closer to home -- North America's Boreal forests, the so-called "lungs of our planet," are estimated to store more than 200 billion tones of carbon and it is this region that is slated for the largest expansion of global dissolving pulp capacity over the next five to 10 years.

Large global clothing brands currently use an average of 10 to 25 percent rayon-viscose fabrics, making the commitment by H&M and Zara to eliminate all use of viscose and rayon originating from endangered forests by 2017 a substantial endeavor.

H&M wants to play a strong role in ensuring a future for the planet's ancient and endangered forests. We are fully committed to exploring our supply chain and doing our utmost to avoid these fabrics within the next three years. -- Henrik Lampa, Environmental Sustainability Manager at H&M.

"Working with Canopy, we are excited to take the additional step of encouraging leaders throughout the supply chain to support conservation in endangered forests and use alternative inputs, for example recycled clothing, so our actions create lasting change", he added.

With the global apparel industry worth an estimated $1.2 trillion USD, Canopy's "Fashion Loved by Forests" campaign (canopystyle.org) is already reverberating through the supply chain. H&M and Zara join Loomstate, EILEEN FISHER, Quiksilver, Patagonia and 17 other brands and designers who are tackling forest-fabric sourcing.

"Anyone with young adults in their lives is aware of the incredible cultural sway and market influence of these two brands," Rycroft continued. "Their efforts will send a powerful signal to the logging and pulp sectors that market demands are shifting and stop endangered forests from continuing to disappear into our wardrobes."

Although primarily focused to date on getting major brands to lend the support of their purchasing muscle, Canopy's campaign has also gained significant backing from fashionistas themselves. Most Americans buy more than 70 new items of clothing each year and a growing number of them want to be part of the solution and are signing the CanopyStyle Pledge in support of the campaign.

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