As a biodegradable fibre made from trees and plants (bamboo), viscose has the potential to be
a sustainable alternative to oil-derived synthetics and water-hungry cotton. However, risks are associated with deforestation for souring of the raw material, the manufacturing of viscose uses a number of toxic chemicals to transform plant cellulose into viscose fibres.
In this regard, viscose suppliers are trying hard to make considerable strides to eliminate endangered forest fibers from their feedstocks over the years. However, some 75 percent of the world’s leading brands have made few or no commitments to sourcing more sustainable viscose, said a new report by the Changing Markets Foundation, Fashion Revolution, the Clean Clothes Campaign, Ethical Consumer and WeMove.EU.
The organizations examined 100 of the world’s leading apparel brands. It divided the companies into four groups based on their responses to a questionnaire about their responsible viscose production plans and progress on transparency: Frontrunners, Could Do Better, Trailing Behind and the Red Zone.
Just 14 of the 100 brands, including Asos, C&A, Esprit, H&M, Levi Strauss, Reformation, Tesco and Zara owner Inditex, earned gold stars for maintaining viscose-specific policies, for publicly disclosing their viscose suppliers and for signing up to the Changing Markets Foundation’s roadmap, which the nonprofit established in 2017 to set the industry on a path to closed-loop viscose manufacturing that doesn’t contribute to deforestation or chemical pollution.
The 28 worst-performing brands assigned to the Red Zone category, including Aeropostale, Ann Taylor, Armani, Carter’s, The Children’s Place, Forever 21, Hanesbrands, Macy’s, Michael Kors, Nike, Prada and Walmart, earned failing grades for their lack of engagement and supply-chain visibility.
The report indicated a “clear divide” between American and European brands. More than two-thirds of the Red Zone brands (64 percent) are U.S.-based. And some of them, such as Aeropostale, Forever 21 and Michael Kors, have repeatedly landed on the bottommost rung, demonstrating they are “completely out of step with industry trends and consumer expectations,” it noted.
The presence of a number of luxury brands indicates that viscose sourcing isn’t a problem just for the “cheaper end of the market,” the report said, adding that while some high-end stalwarts made sweeping public statements about sustainability following the Covid-19 outbreak, their dearth of engagement, commitments and transparency “clearly shows they are only paying lip service to this issue.”
“After years of engagement we are especially surprised by a complete lack of progress by some luxury brands that claim to sell higher quality and more exclusive clothing, while completely ignoring such a key sustainability issue,” Urska Trunk, campaign manager at the Changing Markets Foundation, said in a statement. “The technology to produce cleaner viscose already exists. Brands like Prada, Versace, Nike, Forever 21, and so many more must clean up their act and use their purchasing power to make manufacturers move to closed-loop production. No more excuses.”
Companies were assessed using the following criteria:
Transparency: A company was rated low on transparency if no information about where its viscose comes from was communicated to Changing Markets or is disclosed publicly.
It was rated high if it provided a full supplier list, including names of viscose suppliers and locations of factories, on its website.
Viscose policy: A company was rated low on policy if no information about its suppliers’ viscose-manufacturing practices was communicated to Changing Markets or is accessible on its website. Companies were rated high if they had strong policies with clear plans to improve viscose-manufacturing practices in their supply chains and to move away from unsustainable suppliers.
Engagement: A company was rated high on engagement if it meaningfully responded to Changing Market’s questions on its viscose supply chain.
To rate highly overall, companies needed to demonstrate real and measurable signs of progress in line with the Changing Markets Roadmap. Where few signs of progress were seen compared to our 2019 analysis, this was taken into account. For example, if a company had made no progress on commitments set out last year, it was, in some cases, downgraded to a lower category.
The report also spotlighted the limitations of a voluntary approach in driving change, calling for ambitious legislation, particularly in the European Union, to turn greener viscose sourcing into corporate table stakes.
“It is time for EU leaders to step up and make the necessary regulatory reforms, as industry initiatives have clearly failed and the current health economic crises have taken devastating tolls on workers throughout the supply-chain,” said Muriel Treibich, lobby and advocacy coordinator at the Clean Clothes Campaign. “In an industry known for power imbalances, it will take leadership on EU level to ensure that the textile sector supports workers’ rights instead of actively undermining them.”
Man-made cellulosic fibers such as viscose, rayon, lyocell, modal and cupro have an annual production volume of around 6.7 million tons annually, or roughly 6.2 percent of total fiber production volumes, according to Textile Exchange, a sustainability nonprofit. Canopy, a forestry conservation group, estimates that some 150 million trees “disappear” into man-made cellulosic fibers every year, with the number poised to double within the next decade.