This fabric is hailed as “ecological”. The rainforest tells a different story.
Viscose, the fiber derived from wood cellulose, is a key component in everyday products such as baby wipes and face masks. When made into fabric, it is called viscose rayon.
Viscose rayon was created over 100 years ago. Cheaper and more durable than silk, the plant-based fabric is marketed in fashion circles as being sustainable and biodegradable. It has grown in popularity in recent years, becoming a multi-billion dollar industry.
But some of the top companies in the viscose supply chain have come under fire for contributing to the destruction of the rainforest in Southeast Asia.
Asia Pacific Resources International Holding (known as APRIL Group), Indonesia’s second-largest pulp and paper company, has long been accused of engaging in deforestation. She sources wood from several suppliers, including Adindo, which controls the land on the Indonesian island of Kalimantan (also known as Borneo).
In June 2015, APRIL made a commitment to stop logging natural forests. The announcement, which follows similar commitments from some of its competitors, has been welcomed by environmental groups.
The company has made significant progress in its efforts to limit deforestation. But some APRIL suppliers, including Adindo, have been accused of clearing untouched rainforest since the company got involved.
In October 2020, a coalition of environmental groups released a report on deforestation on Adindo lands based on satellite images and land cover classification maps produced by the Indonesian government.
The report alleged that nearly 7,300 hectares [28 square miles] of the natural forest was cleared in the Adindo concession between June 2015 and August 31, 2020. Half of the deforestation occurred in areas that Adindo had designated as forest of “high conservation value”, according to The report. Field reports and drone footage were also used to make the decisions, according to Manurung, who was one of the lead perpetrators.
APRIL denied these allegations at the time, saying no deforestation had taken place in the areas cited in the report. APRIL said the land cleared on the Adindo concession was located in designated plantation areas, none of which included âhigh conservation valueâ forest areas.
APRIL has also previously denied allegations that other suppliers have cleared standing forests since June 2015.
Edward Boyda, a physicist who co-founded the environmental research group Earthrise, was asked by NBC News to analyze deforestation on about 4,200 square miles of land controlled by APRIL’s timber suppliers on Kalimantan.
Using NASA and commercial satellite images, Boyda concluded that approximately 30 square miles [7,700 hectares] of intact forest had been cleared on this land since late 2015. He described the 30 square miles as a conservative estimate.
Boyda says the imagery tells a story that begins with a contiguous green canopy and turns into a growing brown patch – what he calls âburn scarsâ caused by trees that have been felled and cleared. He says time-lapse images show even rows of plantation trees looming up.
âYou’ve gone from one of the most biodiverse places in the world to what essentially looks like a biological desert,â Boyda said in an interview in Norway, describing the shift from rainforest to tree planting. .
The APRIL Group denied that its suppliers felled sections of intact tropical forest.
In a statement, the company said its analysis showed the vast majority of the lost tree cover cited by Boyda represents the harvest of trees from existing plantations.
“These are clearly not activities involving the deforestation of intact forests but are, in fact, related to normal legal harvesting and replanting of plantations and small-scale community agriculture,” the company said.
The APRIL Group noted that the amount of alleged deforestation on unplanted land, 1,400 hectares [5 square miles], represents less than 0.1 percent of all land controlled by its suppliers on Kalimantan.
APRIL added that the loss of tree cover detected over the 1,400 hectares consists of a mixture of areas that have been “encroached upon or damaged by third parties” and is in some cases the result of errors in “the remote sensing “due to local conditions such as cloud and haze.
âOur company takes any allegation of illegal change in plant cover very seriously and investigates all cases that we identify or bring to our attention,â said APRIL Group. âIf illegal activity is confirmed, we ensure that it is promptly stopped and reported to the appropriate authorities. “
The company also said it has met 81 percent of its commitment to conserve or protect one hectare of natural forest for every hectare of its plantation. âFor us, production and conservation are interdependent where one allows the other,â said APRIL Group.
Last November, APRIL sent a letter to the Forest Stewardship Council, the industry’s first certification program in the world, acknowledging the âpotential damage to the environment and societyâ from its past operations dating back to 1993.
APRIL has been prohibited from using the council’s brand to market its paper and pulp products since 2013, when it withdrew from certification. The company said it was pulling out over concerns over FSC policy after three environmental groups filed a lawsuit accusing APRIL of “engaging in large-scale deforestation” in Indonesia.
The company has been seeking reinstatement for several years. The process is underway, according to the Forest Stewardship Council, or FSC.
APRIL is managed by Royal Golden Eagle, a Singapore-based conglomerate that manages the paper, palm oil and viscose businesses.
APRIL ships timber from Kalimantan for processing on the neighboring island of Sumatra, then to a factory in China operated by another company managed by Royal Golden Eagle, Sateri, where it is processed into viscose. The resulting material looks like swollen cotton.
Sateri sends viscose to factories around the world that have supplied clothing to many top brands, including Adidas, Abercrombie & Fitch and H&M, according to an NBC News review of corporate disclosures. Sateri also sends viscose to US facilities that produce baby, face and disinfectant wipes.
H&M and Adidas are among several large retailers that have come under pressure from NGO groups like Changing Markets for their use of viscose linked to forest destruction.
H&M said its manufacturing suppliers source materials from Sateri, but the brand “currently has no indirect business relationship with Sateri.”
Adidas representatives declined to comment. Abercrombie & Fitch did not respond to a request for comment.
Adidas and H&M were among 12 brands that last year joined a consortium dedicated to the sale of clothing made from recycled textile waste. The group, called “New Cotton Project”, is funded by the European Union.
In a statement, Sateri said he was taking steps to ensure his timber suppliers do not engage “in deforestation or logging.”
“Regarding our dissolving paste supplier APRIL, we reject suggestions that they have in any way ‘backed down’ from any of their sustainability commitments, including their unwavering commitment not to deforest.” , indicates the press release.
Royal Golden Eagle declared that it âhas total confidence in the sustainable development policies and commitments pursued by APRIL Group and Sateriâ.
Not all viscose comes from tree plantations in and around tropical rainforests. There are also pulpwood plantations for viscose far from tropical forests in places like South Africa and the Czech Republic.
Some companies have completely stopped using viscose.
Dana Davis, vice president of sustainability for designer Mara Hoffman, said the company took a close look at the source of its fabrics in 2015. Hoffman decided to move away from sourcing viscose rayon and use a different material, lyocell. Although it comes from trees, more than 99% of the solvent can be reused, and Davis said the company has a clearer idea of ââwhere the wood comes from.
âThe last thing we want to do is source our supplies from endangered forests,â Davis said.
“We cannot retaliate”
Jonni Spedika knows next to nothing about viscose rayon, but he talks in detail about how the destruction of the rainforest changed his life. And he doesn’t mince his words.
Spedika lives in the village of Tetaban, one of the main communities of the indigenous Dayak people, with his wife and 5-year-old daughter.
There was a time when he could venture 500 yards into the forest outside his home and hunt wild pigs and other animals with relative ease. But nowadays Spedika says he can walk 5 kilometers [3 miles] in the forest and not meet a single animal.
âIt has become very difficult for us to find animals to hunt,â said Spedika, who runs a small chicken and vegetable farm to help feed her family.
Adindo, the timber supplier, controls an area around the village of Spedika which covers 190,000 hectares [700 square miles] of what was once a virgin rainforest.
Hendrik Siregar, a researcher with environmental watch group Auriga, said people who buy clothes in the United States should be aware of the impacts in places like Indonesia.
âMaybe that will spark a debate about what material would be environmentally friendly,â Siregar said. âWhat is clear is that we do not consider it to be environmentally friendly because it continues to increase the amount of wood cut. “
Adindo did not respond to requests for comment.
Spedika said the climate around her village has changed along with the surrounding forest – it’s drier and warmer due to reduced tree cover, and floods and fires occur more often.
âWe cannot retaliate,â Spedika said. âBecause they had the permits, this area has become theirs. We can only resign ourselves to our fate.