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Here’s How Much of the World’s Viscose Supply Chain Is ‘Green’

“This is a supply chain that’s transforming in real time,” said Nicole Rycroft, founder and executive director of Canadian forestry nonprofit Canopy.

She was talking about viscose, rayon, lyocell and other man-made cellulosic fibers. Seven years since Canopy started engaging with the fashion industry, it can now confidently peg 52 percent of the world’s viscose suppliers with a “green shirt,” which is the organization’s shorthand for producers it deems at low risk of sourcing fibers from ancient and endangered forests.

This marks an important milestone, Rycroft said at a press briefing in late October. Fashion poses an “aggressive growing threat to forest ecosystems around the world,” with roughly 150 million trees “disappearing” into man-made cellulosic fibers every year. The number is poised to double within the next decade.

The industry has rallied, however, and much progress has been made—hence Rycroft’s comment about transformation. Today, 90 percent of the world’s viscose supply chain has a publicly available CanopyStyle policy in place, according to the organization’s latest “Hot Button” report, its fifth.

Ten viscose producers—Eastman, Enka, Formosa, Jilin, Kelheim, Tangshan Sanyou, Xinxiang Chemical Fiber and Yibin Grace—earned “green shirt” designations based on their performance across 26 different criteria, including the completion of third-party verification audits, contributions to conservation efforts and innovations in forest-free alternative fibers. Two—Birla Cellulose and Lenzing—obtained Canopy’s first “dark green” shirts, indicating best-in-class sustainability performance in the man-made cellulosic fiber space.

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Greater strides are anticipated: Viscose producers have committed to plough a combined $233 million into “next generation” research and development, with the intention of procuring 274,000 metric tons of low-impact alternative fibers derived from recycled textile waste, microbial cellulose or agriculture residues. “This would be enough to replace approximately 8 million trees,” said senior corporate campaigner Mélissa Filion.

Four of the top five largest producers with deep supply-chain integration, Canopy’s report noted, now sell viscose made from recycled textiles. Among them are Lenzing’s Refibra, which comprises 20 percent post-industrial and 10 percent post-consumer recycled textile waste; Birla Cellulose’s Liva Reviva, which incorporates 20 percent pre-consumer recycled fabric; and ReVisco by Tangshan Sanyou, which uses dissolving pulp from Re:newcell to achieve its 50 percent post-consumer recycled content.

All this is good news for the CanopyStyle initiative’s 320 brands and retailers, which have pledged to source only from producers with “green shirts.” Its members, which boast a combined annual revenue of more than $578 billion, represent some of the world’s biggest apparel purveyors, including Amazon, Gap, H&M, Levi Strauss, Marks & Spencer, Target and Zara owner Inditex.

Despite the advances, there remain laggards in the space. The flip side of the 52 percent figure is that 48 percent of the world’s viscose suppliers need to take greater remedial action to put more green in their “shirts.”

“There’s a real and clear distinction between the companies that are engaging and taking action with those that are either unresponsive or that are confirmed via audit to have known high risks in their supply chains,” Filion said. In a mirror of the 10 “green shirts,” 10 producers—Sateri, Nanjing Golden Antelope Biobased Fibre Co., Mitsubishi Chemical Corp., Asia Pacific Rayon, CTHC Helon, China Textile Academy, SilverHawk, Aoyang Technology, Shandong Yamei and Xinjiang Zhongtai Textile Co.—received predominantly or completely “red shirts,” meaning “they don’t meet the minimum requirements for compliance.”

She’s not writing them off, however. “If we want to be successful in our fight against the climate crisis in safeguarding biodiversity, and in defending the rights of frontline communities, until lasting conservation solutions are in place, we must keep asking for change,” Filion said. “So let’s remain hopeful and also ambitious. And let’s keep pushing, let’s keep an eye on the companies that will look to move out of this red risky zone in upcoming months, some of which have signaled that they want to improve.”

This year’s “Hot Button” report features a new icon to complement Canopy’s signature shirt: an Erlenmeyer flask. The flasks distill, for the first time, information of each producer’s chemical management performance, based on input from ZDHC, a multi-stakeholder collaboration whose “Roadmap to Zero” program helps companies improve the quality of wastewater discharge in textile production, including those of man-made cellulosic fibers, which typically require a prodigious amount of potentially toxic chemicals.

If the current array of flasks looks rather dismal—no company scored more than one out of four or more points, for instance—it’s because the guidelines are still so fresh and manufacturers need time to iron out the kinks. “This will be a journey; this is just a start,” said Carla Chidichimo, materials manager at ZDHC. “And we hope to see, in the years to come, facilities moving from orange or red bottles to dark green, to show how much they are involved with our guidelines.”

It’s an ongoing process, Rycroft admitted. To hit climate targets, as well as safeguard biodiversity, scientists say between 30 percent and 50 percent of the world’s forests must be protected. Diversifying the “fiber basket” then, is essential, but Rycroft says she’s also excited by the “force of collective action” that is building.

“Green shirts and green bottles, that’s the aspiration all around,” she added.