As the Fashion Industry Grows, Rainforests Shrink

👡  The following piece appears in Issue 03 of Selva Beat. Grab your copy here.   👡

Choosing what to wear in my mornings goes something like this: go to the closet and pull an outfit out that best suits my day’s needs, taking into consideration every weather possibility and every other potential scenario. Five minutes later: eye myself up and down in the mirror and decide I really don’t look good. Pick  a second outfit. Cry because it looks terrible and I have nothing to wear. Go back to first outfit.

Something like that, anyway.

My mother-in-law, however, does not have this problem — she makes all of her own clothes. There’s no dramatic decision making moment in her mornings as her clothes are always made from the same pattern: a long white smock top and white harem pants, always paired with white nail polish on her fingers and toes. Like some sort of personified unicorn, she completely rocks it, and I am unattractively jealous of her skills.

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Of course, what looks good isn’t the only consideration that comes into the great clothes debate when you are a semi-conscious (n.b. work in progress) consumer like I am. The items that are in my closet have been bought with my best intentions of avoiding big brand names that I know to be associated with unscrupulous practices. Since 2013, when the infamous clothing factory in Bangladesh (Rana Plaza) collapsed, killing over a thousand people, the global community became acutely aware of the very human impact we have when we purchase our clothes. Myself included. We learned that many of those well-loved big brands have a complicated production process that includes a huge number of underpaid, overworked people working in outrageously dangerous and unacceptable conditions.

That’s one of the stories entangled in the fibers of our clothes. A step before this manufacturing process, however, is a lesser known story — the forest in our fabrics.

Fabrics like rayon, viscose, and modal — everyday textiles that our closets are likely filled with — are made from trees. It’s a complicated process that takes this "raw material" from the forests to our clothing stores floors, but it’s one with a huge impact. It goes something like this: the corners of our planet that are covered in rich, diverse forest lands are stripped bare (places like Canada and Indonesia) and replaced with monocropped plantations of acacia or eucalyptus. A very toxic process takes these trees and dissolves them into a pulp, which is then spun into thread and manufactured into clothes by big-name brands that we all know and "love." It’s a highly intensive process that is demanded by our insatiable consumer habits which tell manufacturers that we want these clothes at the cheapest price possible and in high quantities.

The problems of this process are both obvious and subtle. Chopping down indigenous and diverse forests has very physical implications on the land, leaving local ecosystems completely changed. Rivers and streams that local communities have always depended on in these areas dry up as a result of losing their established canopies. Wildlife is displaced as they lose their habitats; in Indonesia, endangered species like sunbears and gibbons have been impacted, in South Africa baboon habitat has been completely lost. It’s not only the land that suffers either but the indigenous communities who have lived in harmonious relationship with it for generations. The forests have long provided their livelihoods and sustained their living, but it’s even more complex than that, too. A lot of indigenous lands around the world are protected by traditional rights but not legal. So when big corporations earmark their land for monocropping, governments happily sell the rights of this "unowned" land to to them, leaving their own people with little resources or access to the rights they need to maintain the land they have loved and lived on for generations.

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The morning closet mayhem just got a bit more complicated, didn’t it? There is hope, though. Firstly, there are incredible organizations like the Rainforest Action Network who are working hard to hold the companies sourcing their materials in this way accountable and to make the production process more transparent. You can even ask the brands you love to tell you where they source their material from — you’re who they want to keep sweet after all! Not only that, but there are so many ways in which you can keep forests from the fabrics that make it into your closet. Thrift shopping is one way, using online secondhand sites like eBay, holding clothes swaps, and even by getting the sewing machine out like my mother-in-law and making your own from materials you know you can trust. (The Rainforest Action Network has a really helpful guide on what materials to favor — we recommend exploring their website.)

As I said, I’m a work in progress. Starting with my closet. My morning battle from this point out is going to be concerned less with how good I look but how good what I’m wearing looks for the planet and people. Are you with me?


These images above are from the Fall 2017 runway show of PRADA Group's Miu Miu — one of the fashion houses that RAN identifies as a fashion laggard. Find out more here.