Who speaks for the trees? Neither Chanel nor Gucci, Lidl nor Asda, Boohoo nor Missguided, according to Changing Markets Foundation, a social and environmental advocacy group based in the United States and the Netherlands.
Despite overwhelming evidence of viscose’s impact on the environment, this motley group of luxury houses, low-cost retailers and digital-native brands have shown a “complete lack of engagement” with this “critical sustainability issue,” Changing Markets wrote in a report earlier this month.
Viscose is currently the third most commonly used textile fiber in the world. Like all cellulosic fibers, it starts off life as wood, which can hail from ancient and endangered forests. With demand for dissolving pulp projected to increase by 122 percent in the next 40 years, according to Canopy, a Canadian forestry nonprofit, the viscose industry is a growing threat to vulnerable habitats around the world.
Meanwhile, the production of viscose itself, which employs chemicals to break down the cellulose, can extract an equally hefty toll. Investigations by Changing Markets in China, India and Indonesia last year revealed that factories supplying viscose to the international market were dumping untreated wastewater in lakes and rivers, “ruining lives and livelihoods” by destroying subsistence agriculture and exposing local populations to cancer-causing substances.
“Communities living near some of the plants spoke of a lack of access to clean drinking water and sickening smells that were making life unbearable,” the organization added.
Following the findings, several clothing companies pledged to take immediate action, including supporting Changing Markets’ “Roadmap Towards Responsible Viscose and Modal Fiber Manufacturing,” which outlines key principles for cleaning up manufacturing. The roadmap now boasts seven signatories—Asos, C&A, Esprit, H&M, Inditex, Marks & Spencer and Tesco—with Next a soon-to-be eighth in the coming weeks.
Others, on the other hand, were less responsive. Not only did Chanel, Gucci, Lidl, Asda, Boohoo and Missguided fail to respond to any of Changing Markets’ queries, there is also “scant detail about their environmental policies online, with almost nothing on viscose,” the organization noted.
Not that strides haven’t been made of late. Lenzing and Aditya Birla, two of the world’s largest viscose producers, recently committed all their sites to meeting EU Ecolabel requirements for viscose production by 2022.
Even so, more needs to be done. “Manufacturers need to translate initial commitments into detailed implementation plans, concrete investments and the transparent reporting of their performance, including of complaints and grievances,” said Changing Markets. And it’s up to brands and retailers to maintain pressure by sending a “clear message” about where they stand. This includes Chanel, Missguided and any others involved.
“After many years of complacency from fashion brands and producers with regard to the environmental impacts of viscose manufacturing, the tide is finally beginning to turn towards more responsible production methods,” Natasha Hurley, campaign manager at Changing Markets Foundation, said in a statement accompanying the report. “But the unlikely bedfellows of luxury brands and discount retailers continue to ignore an issue that is blighting people’s lives and the environment.”
Despite the general perception that luxury brands are more sustainable, most continue to stay silent about supply-chain information, Hurley said.
“This is unacceptable,” she added. “It’s time for them to wake up to consumers’ desire for more transparency and more sustainable fashion.”