By Camille Mori

Rayon, a cellulose-based synthetic fiber, is a popular choice of many clothing brands. The low cost, ease of care, and soft hand feel make it an easy fabric for designers to incorporate into their lines. The fabric has even been masqueraded as a sustainable textile. In reality, however, the irresponsible sourcing of rayon and other viscose fabrics are leading to deforestation of endangered forests at a rate of 70 to 100 million trees felled every year.

At the recent United Nations DPI/NGO sustainable fashion briefing in November, Amanda Carr, Campaign Director at Canopy, spoke about her efforts to stop deforestation caused by rayon production. Even in a room full of fashion professionals, she shocked the audience about the extent of the problem and the commitment she was able to garner from fashion brands. Canopy has worked with a wide range of brands from established sustainable fashion lines like Stella McCartney to fast fashion corporations like H&M and Zara. In just 4 years, the organization has persuaded over 100 apparel brands to join the cause and source their rayon responsibly.

Yet, even with these major accomplishments, deforestation and responsible rayon sourcing are not hot topics in sustainable fashion circles, let alone among general fashion enthusiasts. This impressive shift in the industry has gone largely unnoticed by consumers and begs an important question: do consumers have an impact on trends in sustainable fashion? And should companies wait until market demands change to implement sustainable strategies?  

It is often said that sustainable fashion is following a similar path to the organic food trend, much of which was spurred by shocking documentaries and raising awareness among consumers. The trend is now to the point where even fast food restaurants like McDonald’s are adopting messaging about quality ingredients and nutrition. This could not have happened without a simultaneous shift of best practices in the food industry and policy changes that were led by consumer demand.

The apparel industry is just starting to scratch the surface of customer awareness on clothing and textiles. Documentaries like The True Cost and RiverBlue are starting to bring to light the human rights and environmental problems along the global supply chain. At the end of the day, however, consumers do not connect the contents of their clothes to the environmental and social impact they have. To further complicate the issue, it is difficult to succinctly explain the apparel supply chain because there are so many diverse factors: which fabric you’re using, how textiles are dyed or finished, where the clothing is cut and sewn, how the product is discarded or recycled at the end of the lifecycle – and on and on.

Since the fashion supply chain is so complex, instead of relying on consumers to drive market change, the problem of responsible resource management needs innovative leaders like Canopy. Consumer awareness should not be abandoned, but it is only a part of the puzzle to building effective campaigns to change sourcing practices. We have seen innovation in the private sector from companies like Patagonia and Eileen Fisher who are finding ways to build a circular economy, as well as from NGOs like the ILO that tied good working conditions for garment workers in Cambodia to international trade policies, and consumer movements like Fashion Revolution that have harnessed the power of social media to raise awareness about waste in the industry and the lives of garment workers. As we look for the next leaders in the movement, we should keep an open mind. Consumers are not the only ones who can drive change in the market.