Modern, sustainable living

Meet the woman saving endangered forests from becoming viscose

by | Sep 25, 2018

Nicole Rycroft is one of a growing crew of people who work tirelessly at changing how we impact Earth. Most of her work has focused on protecting ancient and indigenous trees from becoming wood pulp. She does this through the not-for-profit she founded, Canopy, which works with business partners in the fashion and publishing industries to transform supply chains.

“I have always cared very deeply about our natural world and our forest eco-systems in particular,” Nicole says. Forests produce oxygen and absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and are fundamental to the fight against climate change. Yet they are disappearing at an alarming rate. Every year, 150 million trees disappear into viscose for clothing, 2.3 billion trees disappear into packing every year. “These are big footprints on forest eco-systems,” she says.

The production of viscose is expected to double in the next decade

In the context of global warming and climate change, Nicole says, “There is no reason for us to be using 800- or 1000-year-old trees to be making novels, pizza boxes and the clothing that we wear.” Viscose and other cellulosic fibres such as lyocell and modal, are the third most commonly used fibres in the world for clothing, after synthetics and cotton. The production of viscose is expected to double in the next decade.

Nicole founded Canopy in 1999 after an earlier career as a physiotherapist and elite-level lightweight rower which had nothing to do with forests and nothing to do with running an NGO or working with the business community. But after reading about what was going on with the environment she had a sense that “we could be doing things in a smarter way.”

Canopy was inspired by the successes of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and the civil rights movement in America. Nicole had done work in Burma, documenting human rights degradation, and learnt about civil society and other environmental initiatives globally before launching Canopy. “It became really obvious to me that financial mechanisms had played a really important role in all of these successful initiatives.”

“Whether it’s human rights or environmental degradation it’s all happening within the context of a globalised economy. The dichotomy established between the supply and demand world of our economy and of our natural world and the front line communities, is a false dichotomy and we need to shift that,” she says.

They can change the behaviour of the executives who have a lot of buying power

Canopy’s model is to engage with large corporate customers of the forest products industry to enable the transformation of unsustainable supply chains. Nicole says that her model is based on the awareness that a modestly resourced organisation does not have the ability to change the baviour of seven billion people. But they can change the behaviour of the executives who have a lot of buying power and who work as Canopy’s partnering corporates.

To date, Canopy has collaborated with about 750 large corporate customers of the paper, packaging and viscose industries to eliminate ancient and endangered forests from the production processes. These companies include printers, fashion brands and publishers such as Penguin Random House and The Guardian newspaper. Canopy worked with JK Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series and her publishers around the world to move from conventional paper, to using paper that was 100% post-consumer recycled paper or high post-consumer Forest Stewardship Council certified wood mix. The first ancient-forest-friendly edition of Harry Potter showed that it was possible to print on paper that was good for the environment, encouraging other publishers to follow suit. Clothing brands and retailers that work with Canopy include Zara and H&M, Levi Strauss & Co., Marks & Spencer, Arcadia Group, Eileen Fisher, Patagonia, and Woolworths.

Woolworths first partnered with Canopy in 2015 to promote responsible sourcing policies. Samantha Williams who works with Woolworths in response to questions, says that the retailer wants to drive engagement with their suppliers and wood cellulose-based fabric producers to ensure that the production of fabrics such as viscose and rayon does not result in illegal forest degradation or deforestation. While it continues to engage with Canopy, Woolworths currently sources 32% sustainable viscose, and Country Road Group 77%.

As with transforming any global supply chain, it doesn’t happen overnight

Anna Gedda, head of sustainability at the H&M Group says that they have made significant progress toward ensuring that their supply chain is free of ancient and endangered forest fibers. But, she says, “as with transforming any global supply chain, it doesn’t happen overnight and we will continue to work with Canopy and our supply chain partners to reach our target of zero tolerance for ancient and endangered forest fibre.”

Nicole grew up in Sydney, Australia. “Although I’m definitely a city slicker, my grandmother had an infectious love of wild places which I was lucky to inherit.” She describes how the intensity of being in the Australian bush experiences was woven into the core of her being from an early age. “It’s hot. There is a cacophony of sound: it’s loud with cicadas and birds. The heat releases the smell of eucalyptus oils so there is a pungency as well,” she says.

Nicole describes her move from Australia to Canada, where she is currently based, as a move to the belly of the beast of consumerism. It was this move that triggered the launch of Canopy and gave her agency and “an opportunity to contribute to shifting the impacts that global supply chains, like those of the fashion industry, have on our forest eco systems and frontline communities”.

Forests are absolutely critical for biodiversity

Canopy recognizes the world’s forests are important for reasons other than being critical carbon storehouse. They also play an important role in the indigenous and traditional communities in terms of cultural practice and physical and economic sustenance. Forests are absolutely critical for biodiversity and there is a growing body of science pointing to the importance of forests in the precipitation cycle.

Besides working with corporate customers, like H&M and Woolworths, the organization works with about 20 to 30 big global paper mills. There is a high level of corporate concentration in the pulp supply chain. The top 10 viscose producers control 70% to 75% of the world’s viscose production. Nicole says that there is a similar kind of production concentration within the packaging and paper industries. Using criteria developed by Canopy, the certification body Rain Forest Alliance conducts audits with various viscose producers.

Nicole says that although they are a lean operation, they are always focused on how they can magnify their impact and are global in scope. “We don’t want to shift one person’s problem to another’s backyard,” she says.

Canopy is currently producing a map of the word’s ancient and endangered forests to help customer companies assess if they are sourcing from ancient and endangered forests. “We work on solutions. We want to transform the impact we’re currently having on these really fragile ecosystems. They are so critical for so many things, for the species we share this planet,” says Nicole.

Besides protecting the forests, one of Canopy’s goals is to increase the use of recycled clothing or left over straw from the food grain harvest or non-wood alternatives as feedstock for man-made cellulosics. “We’re working with 6 to 8 disruptive technology entrepreneurs in that space to provide those solutions,” she says.

Taking care of what trees are felled for the wood pulp takes care of one environmental issue in the production of viscose. There is another whole can of worms that other crews are sorting out. Recently the Changing Markets Foundation reported that it had found toxic run-off into rivers next to factories which was destroying subsistence agriculture and had been linked to higher incidence of serious diseases such as cancer in local populations. It also found that “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”. This is another story.

For now, be happy that Nicole and her team are tackling the destruction of ancient and endangered forests.

Images: Supplied 

This article first appeared in Business Day. 

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