INTERVIEW: Positive Impact Awards, Nicole Rycroft, Canopy

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Canopy works with over 750 of the forest industry’s largest customers, from book publishers and printers to leading clothing brands and fashion designers, to help shape their purchasing practices and create permanent solutions for the world’s threatened forests. Canopy’s brand partners include H&M, Sprint, Penguin-Random House, Zara/Inditex, TC Transcontinental, Levi Strauss & Co., Stella McCartney, The Globe and Mail and Guardian Media Group.
According to Canopy, three years ago, the not-for-profit exposed a serious threat to the world’s forests: the fact that over 120 million trees a year are logged for jeans, t-shifts, dresses and even your bedroom sheets. All too often, fabrics like rayon and viscose are made from endangered forests, threatening critical habitat for orangutans, bears and eagles.
Last month, Canopy published the Hot Button Issue, which ranks the performance of the largest rayon-viscose fabric producers in the world. It’s the first tool of its kind in enabling brands to assess producers’ impact on forests and their leadership in forging solutions.
I caught up with Nicole to talk about her work as well as the new report.

DEB JOHNSON: Tell us more about the work of Canopy.

NICOLE RYCROFT: Canopy’s mission is to protect forest ecosystems by harnessing the business adage that “the customer is always right.” What we find with supply chains is that customer companies that buy a lot of forest products have significant sway with their suppliers and can be incredibly powerful advocates for improved practices on the ground and conservation. We focus on building support for conservation and sustainable supply chains in sectors such as the book publishing and fashion industry and then translate that momentum back through to change on the ground and tangible solutions.
DEB: Is the customer always that knowledgeable in being right?

NICOLE: We work with large corporate customers and we work to help them better understand the ecological and social context for their business and purchasing decisions. Part of our work is to help them realize the opportunity that exists for them to step forward as agents of change in helping transform unsustainable supply chains and kick-start solutions at scale.

DEB: This is so interesting to me. We do something similar in working with companies and getting into design groups to create a common language across departments. Are the senior executive teams excited about the opportunities to be agents of change?

NICOLE: Absolutely! The social sensibility around environment and social responsibility and how it fits into the rubric of business has changed a lot since I started Canopy in 1999. We’ve found the fashion sector in particular to be incredibly receptive to the role they can play in not only reducing the environmental footprint of their own operations but also contributing to the broader shift of an unsustainable supply chain. The response has been so heartening.

DEB: That’s great. Can you dig into the differences between paper supply versus textiles in the supply chain?
NICOLE: There’s a commonality in that be it rayon or paper, they both start in a forest and end up as a commodity that touch almost all of our daily lives. But the supply chain looks a little different – the rayon supply chain is more complex in that there are more players involved between the forest and the garment we have hanging in our closets. The complexity of the apparel sector is that rayon goes to a spinner and a cutter and a weaver and various other actors before it ends up in boutiques and malls. What we became aware of five years ago, was that even though there were less printed newspaper as people shifted the way that they consume information, the stress on endangered forests and forest dependent communities was not reducing. What we discovered at that time was that dissolving pulp was an aggressively growing threat to forest ecosystems and that 80% of dissolving pulp is destined for clothing and textile production.
When we started reaching out to brands 3 1/2 years ago, about 70 million trees were disappearing into clothing. This year it’s closer to 120 million and industry projections predict that number will double within the decade. That’s when we decided to start CanopyStyle and work with leaders in the fashion industry to shift an unsustainable supply chain towards a more sustainable path.

DEB: Is there any difference around the amount you get from a tree that’s 50 years old versus a tree that’s 10 years old? Is there something more desirable with old growth?

NICOLE: It’s interesting because different tree species have different qualities and yields that provide different profiles or qualities to the fiber. Rayon is currently sourced from various old growth forest regions from the tropics of Indonesia to Canada’s Boreal as well as places like Europe and U.S. Southeast which tend to have more second growth forests in their mix. We’d like to see a shift away from sourcing from the world’s remaining old growth forest regions to sustainably logged second growth forests and a shift to using raw materials such as recycled fabrics or straw that are more sustainable and help support a circular economy.

DEB: When working with large brands, how do you get them to consider that particular part of their supply chain?

NICOLE: We find that different companies respond to different things. It helps to be tenacious and it helps to be shameless. When we first started reaching out to brands 3 1/2 years ago, we reached out to both viscose producers and brands at same time. Perhaps not surprisingly, most viscose producers weren’t really interested in speaking to an environmental organization about their fiber sourcing. So we focused on engaging brands. To be honest, I think what mostly captured the imagination of brands was that even though 120 million trees were being impacted, everybody recognized there was the opportunity to engage now to help redirect the sector to be more sustainable before it became an even more entrenched problem with billions of dollars of infrastructure invested in the wrong places. People found being proactively engaged on an environmental issue exciting and we had a clear strategy and vehicle, which made it easy for them to be part of.
The viscose supply chain is incredibly concentrated – the top ten producers control about 75% of global production – so it’s a very clear pinch point for brands to engage with. We’ve been surprised and really buoyed by the support of brands and can see how that is translating through into a change in the supply chain. Rayon producers that represent ~70% of global production are now also working with Canopy to operationalize policies that will see them not source from the world’s endangered forests, kick-start innovative solutions as well as build lasting conservation solutions for our forests.

DEB: Have you had a reaction from people on the Hot Button List already?

NICOLE: Brands have embraced the report. We hosted a Brand Summit last week that had representatives of 87 brands present in the room. The response was very enthusiastic! We’ve also heard from rayon producers. Some have already updated policies, some are now in the process of updating their sustainability and sourcing policies to be more robust, others have renewed focus on eliminating endangered forests from their supply chain and secring 3rd party audits to verify their progress. Others still are ramping up their work on the R&D of next gen fabrics.

DEB: How do we move away from these extraction materials? How do we just move off of trees entirely?
There are two parallel tracks of work with CanopyStyle. One is to ensure that these most critically important forest ecosystems and socially controversial sources no longer disappear into the clothing that we wear. The incredible galvanization of collective action with brands is translating into concrete change by their suppliers as they shift their footprint on forest ecosystems. The parallel track with that is the development of next gen fabrics and how we can catalyze these systemic solutions that diversify the fiber basket and alleviate the stress on forest ecosystems altogether. We’re really excited to starting into that phase of our work in 2017. That’s the next phase CanopyStyle: helping to kickstart commercial scale production of these next gen fabric that use recycled fabrics and straw leftover after the food grain harvest. It’s the future.