How H&M, Marks & Spencer and Zara are fashioning change

Lyocell and wool felting
ShutterstockKostikova Natalia
Felting made of wool and lyocell, otherwise known as rayon.

Transforming an unsustainable global supply chain can seem daunting. As much as a single company may be committed to change, it’s almost impossible to do it alone. There is a need for peers and competitors to become colleagues and mentors to enable all. Collective action possesses a raw power that enables us to imagine a different reality. And once that happens we put solutions squarely within the realm of the possible and probable.

That is exactly what happened last week in New York City as our environmental nonprofit Canopy, along with H&M, Inditex/Zara, Stella McCartney, Marks & Spencer and Eileen Fisher, welcomed representatives of 87 global fashion brands and retailers for a day-long summit to strategize conservation solutions for the world’s endangered forests.

What’s the link between forests and fashion? The immensely popular fabric rayon (otherwise known as viscose, modal or lyocell) has become a major driver of logging globally, with more than 120 million trees disappearing into the fabric annually.

"We know our customers want great, affordable fashion," said Giles Bolton, responsible sourcing director of Tesco, which works with CanopyStyle on sustainable viscose sourcing. "And they also want it without compromising on social and environmental standards."

The summit came on the eve of the third anniversary of the CanopyStyle initiative, which brings together global companies pledging to end the use of ancient and endangered forests in their stylish creations.

As noted last week by H&M’s environmental sustainability business expert, Cecilia Strömblad Brännsten, "CanopyStyle is moving the dial faster than any other environmental issue that H&M or our industry is currently working on."

With a shared 2017 deadline to end the use of endangered forests in fabrics fast approaching, the campaign continues to gain strong momentum. 

"Companies share the responsibility to create a shift in the global fiber supply and ensure it becomes free of ancient forests," said Mike Barry, Marks & Spencer director of Plan A. "We’re embracing the CanopyStyle vision and are ready to work with our peers to create real change on the ground to ensure a future for threatened forests.”

Here are five key reflections coming out of the Summit on our collective successes to date.

1. We’re successful together

The power of collaboration is shifting the rayon supply chain at almost record pace. Three years since our public launch, CanopyStyle has 68 apparel brands and designers formally committed to eliminating their use of fabrics that contain endangered forests.

That, in turn, has translated to producers that represent 70 percent of global rayon production also working with Canopy to operationalize policies that will see them not source from the world’s endangered forests, kick-start innovative solutions as well as build lasting conservation solutions for our forests. As an NGO, Canopy is cognizant of the business adage "the customer is always right," and that engaging viscose suppliers on our own would not have yielded the same response. 

Last week, individual brands let us know that they find the courage to act by acting together. Some companies communicated that they are early followers, not leaders. There is plenty of room for both. The success to date is due to the commitment of many, and now is the time for new brands and retailers to add their voice to ensure change continues by developing endangered forest commitments. We welcome the participation of new partners. 

2. As in Pilates, have a strong core

Every movement starts with a spark. And in this movement, the CanopyStyle Leaders’ Working Group has set the fire of this industry-wide shift ablaze. H&M, Stella McCartney, Eileen Fisher, Marks & Spencer and Inditex/Zara already work closely with Canopy on strategic planning, implementing ideas, influencing forest conservation on the ground and setting the pace for the sector. With the support of this cadre of brands, Canopy has been able to catch the attention of viscose producers and motivate them to embark down a path of similarly ambitious environmental commitments. 

Also foundational to having a strong core is ensuring that implementation is done with integrity. To that end, viscose producers are undertaking CanopyStyle verification audits with independent third party auditors. As those are completed over the coming months — Canopy will be in a position to identify a nominated list of suppliers, highlighting those that are verified as low risk of containing ancient and endangered forest fiber in their supply chain as well as identifying those players taking bold actions to drive conservation legacies on the ground and the production of next-gen fabric solutions.

3. Put a face to a place

The impacts of fabric production on indigenous communities and forest ecosystems can feel abstract for those us who live and work primarily in urban settings. Last week the powerful voice and story of Mandy Gull, deputy chief of the Cree First Nation of Waswanipi, came to the heart of downtown Manhattan. Gull lives in a remote part of North America’s Boreal forest and is a tireless advocate for the protection of this landscape and her people. Not only is the Boreal one of the most important, intact forests remaining on the planet, it plays a vital role in mitigating climate change, provides copious fresh water and acts as the nursery for billions of birds every year.

The Boreal is also a landscape where it is anticipated we will see a significant increase in logging for rayon production over the coming decade. When Gull explained the impact of logging on her community, it put a face to the importance of our efforts. Connecting the complex rayon supply chain to a specific place and community, enabled brand representatives to see the just how big the price tag associated with sourcing can be and how well positioned they are to help advance change on the ground.

4. Builders need the right tools

When brands join CanopyStyle, they pledge to eliminate ancient and endangered forests from their fabrics, as well as commit to support the development of alternative fabric fibers and work with us to advance conservation solutions in forest hotspots around the world.

Canopy has developed systems and tools to support brand representatives, with several released last week. One such tool was The Hot Button Issue (PDF), a report ranking the world’s largest viscose producers. This detailed report helps brands to be able to make the most informed decision about where to source rayon as well as track rayon producers’ progress. Feedback from the Summit will also help Canopy in developing the next generation of tools and it became clear that public profile and communications about the issue and initiative will become a priority in 2017 and beyond.

5. No one wants to join the army of the glum

Recognizing that working on sustainability issues can bring with it a Twitter feed of depressing facts, we aspire to be clear on the context but focus on the solutions we can catalyze together. That’s why building markets for next gen fabrics that support a circular economy and advancing conservation legacies in priority forest landscapes are key elements of our work with the fashion sector.

Whilst brands confront how to reverse the adverse impacts of their viscose supply chain, they also contribute to conservation legacies in Landscapes of Hope such as the Great Bear Rainforest and systemic solutions that will see textiles produced from waste fabrics. Contributing to life-affirming and pioneering solutions quickly overpowers 140 characters of gloom.

Likewise, fun and quirky awareness-raising initiatives such as Stella McCartney’s deforestation videos engage people on serious issues without shutting them down. Envisioning the "Art of the Possible" and having fun with it is key to ensuring that the movement continues to build and that ultimately, being stylish doesn’t have to cost the earth.  

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