The Aral Sea disaster and the destruction of the Rio Grande and Colorado River ecosystems are just some of the issues attributed to the world’s hunger for cotton, so it’s no wonder that consumers are turning to alternatives. However, these alternatives may be worse than cotton in terms of sheer destruction, as they’re sourced from so-called renewable resources that really aren’t that renewable. You may find that you’re wearing part of the rainforest!
Here’s the issue: Cellulose is found in most plants, and it forms long fibers that are ideal to turn into thread and fabric. Cotton fibers are almost pure cellulose and they’re easy (and cost-effective) to turn into clothing. Wood pulp is harder to turn into thread, but it can be done in bulk using a number of methods. This leads to cloth that’s known as viscose or rayon. From a clothing point of view, rayon can be easily made to mimic cotton, silk, and wool, and it’s a lot cheaper than cotton. It does involve a lot of chemicals, but most of them are reclaimed within the plant, so that’s not the problem.
The problem is where the wood is sourced. When sustainable wood is used, rayon production is a relatively clean and ethical process. Unfortunately, wood pulp is spectacularly difficult to trace, according to One Green Planet. Pulp mills exist all over the world, including in Brazil and Indonesia, home to vital rainforests. Because of the way that wood pulp is treated, it’s also impossible to verify which trees were used in a particular batch, as the cellular DNA is completely destroyed. These companies must self-police, which hasn’t turned out well so far.
Asia Pulp and Paper is a common target for those who wish to stop deforestation. For many years, the company failed to meet its conservation goals while under intense scrutiny. Illegal logging and rainforest encroachment meant that thousands of trees ended up in its pulp mills and subsequently were turned into paper and clothing. Greenpeace reports that the company has cleaned up its act with respect to logging in the Sumatran rainforest. However, its pulp products remain in many people’s closets.
Similarly, the clearance of ancient bamboo forests in China and Southeast Asia has led to ecological devastation for various species, including the giant panda. While bamboo can be an ecologically sound source for wood pulp due to its root system and rapid growth, it’s not always sustainably sourced, leading to widespread deforestation. In addition, bamboo plantations are often monocultures, so they only contain one species of bamboo. This means that there’s limited diversity within the plantation. These monocultures also can replace forest habitat, forcing out a number of species that formerly inhabited the area.
This isn’t to say that all rayon is all bad. While the use of chemicals sounds dangerous, it’s typically in the refining company’s interests to ensure that the chemicals are recovered, as unrecovered chemicals need to be disposed of appropriately (raising costs) or recovered and reused. Most regulations require minimal discharge of chemicals. In addition, when the starting wood pulp is retrieved from an actual sustainable source â€”such as the plantations of Canada, Scandinavia or the United Statesâ€” the forests are replaced and managed. Bamboo forests can also provide sustainable sources of pulp for rayon, although, to call the finished product “bamboo fiber” is grossly misleading, states The Telegraph; it’s so chemically altered that it bears no relation to actual bamboo. Ultimately, it’s impossible to track where the fiber in your clothes is from; you could very well be wearing the rainforest. Until there’s better tracking of the wood pulp market, wearing clothing with viscose or rayon in them is always going to be a gamble with habitat destruction.