Viscose. Often we make the mistake of considering it a natural fabric, instead it is a fiber extracted from vegetable cellulose, then undergone chemical treatments that make it what it is, an artificial material. In fact, it was invented by a chemist, Hilaire de Chardonnet, who presented it at the 1889 Paris Universal Exposition; initially defined as ‘artificial silk’ or ‘Chardonnet silk’, it was then distinct from it by its economic value (viscose was in fact created to respond to the request for silk-like but much cheaper fabrics).
There is an English foundation, Changing Markets, which was formed to accelerate and scale up solutions to sustainability challenges by leveraging the power of markets; working in partnership with NGOs, other foundations and research organizations, it creates and supports campaigns that shift market share away from unsustainable products and companies and towards environmentally and socially beneficial solutions. To do this, the foundation withdraws its support to non-virtuous companies, certain that, by applying the model at scale, it can create a self-reinforcing accelerating loop of positive change in global markets, change defined by the most sustainability-focused companies succeeding and forcing others to follow their lead.
A year ago, Changing Markets launched the ‘Dirty Fashion: on track for transformation’ campaign, to assess the progress made to date by global apparel companies and viscose manufacturers in the transition towards responsibly-produced viscose. And what emerges from the report is that only up to a year ago there was little knowledge of the environmental and social impacts of viscose production within the apparel industry, which was mostly focused on the sourcing of timber for use in the production of wood-based dissolving pulp, which is the starting material for most viscose. In partnership with the NGO Canopy, many had pledged to stop sourcing pulp from ancient and endangered forests, others, through ‘Detox’ commitments with Greenpeace and other initiatives, had also taken action to curb pollution from wet processing by committing to phase out the use of toxic substances in textiles dyeing and finishing. However, almost without exception, brands and retailers had neglected to address a key part of the production chain causing significant pollution and taking a heavy toll on the health and livelihoods of communities living in the shadow of viscose factories.
Following on-the-ground investigations in India, Indonesia and China, it was revealed how companies supplying viscose to the international market were dumping untreated wastewater in lakes and waterways, ruining lives and livelihoods. Toxic run-off into rivers next to factories was destroying subsistence agriculture and had been linked to higher incidence of serious diseases such as cancer in local populations. 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.
Since then, seven retailers have signed up to Changing Markets’ Roadmap towards responsible viscose and modal fibre manufacturing’ and are calling on their viscose suppliers to move to ‘closed-loop’ production defined as a system that ensures emission controls and chemical recovery rates in line with EU Best Available Techniques (BAT). The two largest viscose producers in the world, Lenzing and Aditya Birla Group, have both committed to make concrete investments to clean up production and have begun working on plans to make all their sites compliant with the requirements of the Roadmap. While substantial process has been made in a relatively short time, much now depends on the implementation of these plans. Brands continue to play a key role in this process through engagement with their viscose producers, while civil society also has a role to play by maintaining pressure on the industry to be transparent and accountable across its entire supply chain.
Every step of these changes, with further information, is found inside the report disposable on the foundation’s site; obviously the plans made must be implemented and, in this sense, not just the viscose producers but also brands and civil society brands continue to play a key role, the first through engagement with their viscose producers, the second by maintaining pressure on the industry to be transparent and accountable across its entire supply chain.