Viscose, the fiber derived from cellulose in wood, is a major ingredient in everyday products like baby wipes and face masks. When it is made into a fabric, it is referred to as viscose silk.
Viscose silk was first created over 100 years ago. Vegan fabric is marketed in fashion circles as cheaper and more durable than silk, as sustainable and biodegradable. Its popularity has skyrocketed in recent years, as it has grown into a multi-billion dollar industry.
But some of the major companies in the viscose supply chain have been criticized for their contribution to the destruction of rainforests in Southeast Asia.
Asia Pacific Resources International Holding (known as APRIL Group), Indonesia’s second largest pulp and paper company, has long been facing accusations of involvement in deforestation. It sources wood from several suppliers, including Adindo, which controls land on the Indonesian island of Kalimantan (also known as Borneo).
In June 2015, April pledged to stop harvesting natural forests. Environmental groups praised the announcement, which came on the heels of similar pledges from some of its competitors.
The company has made significant progress in its efforts to reduce deforestation. But some APRIL suppliers, including Adindo, have been accused of clearing intact rainforests since the company committed.
In October 2020, a coalition of environmental groups released a report on deforestation on Adindo land based on satellite imagery and land cover classification maps released by the Indonesian government.
The report claimed that nearly 7,300 hectares [28 square miles] of natural forest cleared within the Adindo Concession between June 2015 and August 31, 2020. Half of the deforestation occurred in areas that Adindo classified as forest of “high conservation value,” according to the report. Field reports and drone footage were also used to make decisions, according to Manurong, who was one of the lead authors.
April denied the allegations at the time, saying there had been no deforestation in the areas mentioned in the report. April said the land cleared in the Addendo Concession was located in certain cultivation areas, none of which included forest areas of “high conservation value”.
April also earlier denied allegations that other suppliers had cleared permanent forests since June 2015.
NBC News asked Edward Boyda, a physicist who co-founded the environmental research group Earthrise, to analyze deforestation on nearly 4,200 square miles of land controlled by timber suppliers to April in Kalimantan.
Using NASA and commercial satellite imagery, Boyda concluded that an estimated 30 square miles [7,700 hectares] of intact forests cleared of that land since late 2015. He described 30 square miles as a conservative estimate.
Boyda says the photos tell a story that begins with an adjacent green canopy and turns into a growing patch of brown — what he calls “burn scars” from trees that have been cut down and cleared. He says The time-lapse images show uniform rows of plantation trees forming.
“It has gone from one of the most biodiverse places in the world to what is basically like a biological desert,” Boyda said in an interview from Norway, describing the change from rainforest to tree planting.
APRIL has argued that its suppliers have cut down parts of intact rainforest.
The company said in a statement that its analysis showed that the vast majority of lost tree cover was cited by Boyda Represents the harvest of trees on existing farms.
“Obviously, these are not activities that involve deforestation of healthy forests but are in fact associated with normal legal harvesting, replanting and small-scale community farming,” the company said.
The April group noted that the amount of alleged deforestation of non-agricultural land, 1400 hectares [5 square miles], representing less than 0.1 percent of the total territory controlled by its suppliers in Kalimantan.
April added that the loss of tree cover detected on 1,400 hectares consists of a mixture of areas that have been “overrun or damaged by third parties” and are in some cases the result of errors in the “remote sensing algorithm” due to local conditions such as clouds and fog.
“Our company takes any allegation of illegal land cover alteration very seriously and investigates all cases that we identify or bring to our attention,” the APRIL Group said. “If illegal activity is confirmed, we ensure this is stopped quickly and reported to the appropriate authorities.”
The company also said it has fulfilled 81 percent of its commitment to conserve or protect one hectare of natural forest for every hectare of its farms. “For us, production and preservation depend on each other as they make one possible for the other,” said APRIL Group.
Last November, April sent a letter to the Forest Stewardship Council, the world’s highest industrial certification program, acknowledging the “potential environmental and social harms” of its previous operations dating back to 1993.
APRIL has been banned from using the Council’s trademark to market paper and pulp products since 2013 when it withdrew from certification. The company said it was pulling out over concerns about FSC policy after three environmental groups filed a complaint accusing April of “engaging in large-scale deforestation” in Indonesia.
The company has been trying to restart its business for several years. The process is ongoing, according to the Forest Stewardship Council, or FSC.
APRIL is managed by Royal Golden Eagle, a Singapore-based group that operates the paper, palm oil and viscose business.
APRIL ships lumber from Kalimantan to a facility in China operated by another Royal Golden Eagle-operated company, Sateri, where it is converted into viscose. The resulting material resembles puffed cotton.
Sateri sends viscose to factories around the world that have supplied clothing to a range of major brands, including Adidas, Abercrombie & Fitch and H&M, according to an NBC News review of company disclosures. Satri also sends viscose to US facilities that produce baby and facial wipes and sterilizers.
H&M and Adidas are among several major retailers who have come under pressure from NGO groups such as Changing Markets to use viscose linked to deforestation.
H&M said manufacturing suppliers used to source the material from Sateri, but the brand “does not currently have any indirect business relationship with Sateri.”
Adidas representatives declined to comment. Abercrombie and Fitch did not respond to a request for comment.
Adidas and H&M were among 12 brands last year that joined a consortium dedicated to selling clothing made from recycled textile waste. The European Union is funding the group called the New Cotton Project.
In a statement, Satrie said he is taking steps to ensure that timber suppliers are engaged in “no deforestation or exploitation”.
“With respect to the solution of our pulp supplier APRIL, we reject suggestions that they have in any way ‘retreated’ from any of their sustainability commitments, including their firm commitment to zero deforestation,” the statement said.
Royal Golden Eagle stated that it has “full confidence in the sustainability policies and commitments of the APRIL Group and Sateri.”
Not all viscose is derived from tree plantations found in and around tropical rainforests. There are also viscose pulp plantations far from the rainforests in places like South Africa and the Czech Republic.
Some companies have stopped using viscose altogether.
Dana Davis, vice president of sustainability for designer Mara Hoffman, said the company took a closer look at the source of its fabrics in 2015. Hoffman decided to move away from sourcing viscose silk and use a different material instead, lyocell. Although it comes from trees, more than 99 percent of the solvent can be reused, and Davis said the company has a clearer picture of where the wood comes from.
“The last thing we want to do is source from endangered forests,” Davis said.
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Johnny Speedica knows hardly anything about viscose silk, but he talks in great detail about how the destruction of the rainforest changed his life. He does not utter his words.
Spidika lives in Tatapan village, 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 meters into the woods outside his home and hunt wild boar and other animals with relative ease. But nowadays, Spidica said he can walk 5 kilometers [3 miles] In the jungle you don’t come across a single animal.
“It became very difficult for us to find any animals to hunt,” said Spidica, who runs a small chicken and vegetable farm to help feed his family.
Odindo, the supplier of timber, controls an area around the village of Spidica that spans over 190,000 hectares [700 square miles] What used to be pure rainforests.
People who buy clothes in the United States should be aware of the effects in places like Indonesia, said Hendrik Sirigar, a researcher with environmental monitoring group Auriga.
“Maybe this is causing a debate about this substance being said to be environmentally friendly,” Sirigar said. “What is clear is that we don’t see it as being environmentally friendly because it continues to increase the amount of wood that is being chopped.”
Adindo did not respond to requests for comment.
Spidica said the climate around his village has changed along with the surrounding forest – it’s drier and hotter due to lower tree cover, and floods and fires happen more often.
“We can’t respond,” Spidica said. “Because they obtained the permits, this area became theirs. We can’t help but succumb to our fate.”