Championing Change: Introducing the Woman Taking on Fashion’s Deforestation Issue
Nicole Rycroft describes herself as a “professional tree hugger”. Growing up in the Australian bush, the environmental campaigner was obsessed with nature, recalling how she would often watch wildlife documentaries with her grandmother as a young child. “That appreciation of the world we live in got woven into my fabric at an early age,” she tells Vogue during a recent visit to London.
But it was when Rycroft contracted a virus that halted her professional rowing career that she really began to consider what impact she could have on the planet. “It literally stopped me in my tracks,” she says. “I went from tracking towards going to the Word Championships with my rowing partner to not being able to walk to the corner shop. I was incapacitated for a couple of years – it really made me focus on what you really value and how you want to spend your lifeforce.”
Inspired by a campaign to save the Daintree rainforest in Queensland, Rycroft, who is now based in Vancouver, Canada, decided to make protecting ancient and endangered forests her life’s purpose. “I started Canopy with the conviction that we are smarter than using 400-year-old trees and cutting down climate-critical forest ecosystems and orangutan habitat to make pizza boxes,” she says of the decision to set up her non-profit nearly 25 years ago.
Fast forward to today, and Canopy has helped to conserve 39 million acres of forest in the US, Canada and Indonesia, as well as working with more than 900 companies to help save ancient and endangered forests globally. Initially, the focus was on tackling the publishing industry, with the non-profit helping to “green” the Harry Potter series – ensuring the books were printed on ancient forest-friendly paper.
Soon Rycroft’s attention turned to the fashion industry, after finding out that many of the fibres that we wear – including viscose, rayon and modal – were coming from some of the world’s oldest trees. “It’s not an intuitive link that a tree that stands tall in a forest, that can give you a splinter, ends up as that soft silky fabric next to your skin,” she says. “We were really surprised at the extent of how much of the world’s forests were being cut down to make viscose, and just how intensive [the] chemical [process] is.”
In fact, Rycroft and her team discovered that more than 300 million trees are logged every year to produce materials like viscose, which is made using wood pulp. That’s why the non-profit set up Canopy Style a decade ago, working with brands like Stella McCartney, H&M and Gucci owner Kering to ensure that ancient and endangered forests are not being cut down to produce textiles. Now, more than 500 brands have signed up, with 53 per cent of the world’s viscose supply chain now deemed low risk and 90 per cent being committed to Canopy’s initiative.
“Those brands [that are signed up to the Canopy Style initiative] represent more than a trillion dollars in annual revenue – so significant market muscle,” Rycroft says. “We’re often told that supply chains take decades to transform, but this is a supply chain transforming in real time. It’s the fastest moving environmental initiative in the fashion sector because there’s been concerted collective action and leadership from brands.”
Now, the focus for Canopy Style is to transition towards low-impact next-gen materials, such as Renewcell’s Circulose fibre, which is made from 100 per cent textiles waste. “Decoupling viscose from being reliant on these critical forest ecosystems globally is the focus for us as we look to the next five to 10 years,” Rycroft explains. “By 2030, our vision is to have 50 per cent of viscose made from next-gen feedstocks [such as recycled textiles and bacterial cellulose] – that [would bring] significant environmental benefits.”
Of course, viscose is not the only cause of deforestation in fashion: leather has been linked to tree felling in the Amazon, while forests are also cleared for the production of natural fibres like cotton and wool. Packaging, too, is a major issue: “There’s seven times the amount of packaging for an e-retail transaction compared to bricks and mortar,” the Canopy founder continues.
It’s clear that continued collaboration in the industry will be crucial moving forward. (Canopy Planet is the official charity partner for the British Vogue X eBay charity auction launching early next year, as part of our Forces For Change partnership.) As Rycroft puts it: “We really encourage brands to work with us and lean in to help conserve [our forests]; these landscapes of hope.”