Eco-warrior: Nicole Rycroft says there is no reason why ancient and indigenous trees should be cut down to make books and clothing. Her NGO is working with the packaging and paper industries, clothing brands and retailers, to change their thinking. Picture: SUPPLIED
Eco-warrior: Nicole Rycroft says there is no reason why ancient and indigenous trees should be cut down to make books and clothing. Her NGO is working with the packaging and paper industries, clothing brands and retailers, to change their thinking. Picture: SUPPLIED

Nicole Rycroft is one of a growing crew of people who work tirelessly at changing how we affect the Earth.

Her focus is on protecting ancient and indigenous trees. By collaborating with business partners in the fashion and publishing industries she is transforming supply chains to prevent these trees from becoming wood pulp.

"I have always cared deeply about our natural world and our forest ecosystems in particular," Rycroft says.

Forests produce oxygen and absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and are fundamental in the fight against climate change. Yet they are disappearing at an alarming rate. Every year, 150-million trees disappear into viscose for clothing, 2.3-billion trees disappear into packing every year.

"These are big footprints on forest ecosystems," she says.

"There is no reason for us to be using 800-or 1,000-year-old trees to be making novels, pizza boxes and clothing."

Viscose and other cellulosic fibres such as lyocell and modal are the third most commonly used fibres in the world for clothing, after synthetics and cotton. The production of viscose is expected to double in the next decade.

Rycroft grew up in Sydney, Australia. "Although I’m definitely a city slicker, my grandmother had a love of wild places, which I was lucky to inherit."

She says the intensity of Australian bush experiences was woven into the core of her being from an early age.

"It’s hot. There is a cacophony of sound: it’s loud with cicadas and birds. The heat releases the smell of eucalyptus oils so there is a pungency as well."

Rycroft describes her move from Australia to Canada, where she is now based, as a move to the belly of the beast of consumerism. It was this move that triggered the launch in 1999 of the NGO Canopy "to contribute to shifting the impacts that global supply chains, like those of the fashion industry, have on our forest ecosystems and frontline communities".

Rycroft’s organisation was inspired by the successes of the anti-apartheid movement in SA and the civil rights movement in the US. "It became obvious to me that financial mechanisms had played a really important role in all of these successful initiatives," she says.

Rycroft says her modestly resourced organisation does not have the ability to change the behaviour of 7-billion people. But it can change the behaviour of the executives who have buying power and who are corporate customers of the forest product industry.

To date, Canopy has collaborated with about 750 large corporate customers of the paper, packaging and viscose industries. Canopy worked with JK Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series, and her publishers around the world to move away from conventional paper and showed that it was possible to print on paper that was good for the environment, encouraging other publishers to follow suit.

Clothing brands and retailers that work with Canopy include Zara and H&M, Levi Strauss & Co, Marks & Spencer, Arcadia Group, Eileen Fisher, Patagonia and Woolworths.

Anna Gedda, head of sustainability at the H&M Group, said it has made significant progress towards ensuring its supply chain is free of ancient and endangered forest fibres. But, she says, "as with transforming any global supply chain, it doesn’t happen overnight and we will continue to work with Canopy and our supply chain partners to reach our target of zero tolerance for ancient and endangered forest fibre".

Besides working with corporate customers, Canopy works with about 20 to 30 big global paper mills. There is a high level of corporate concentration in the pulp supply chain.

The top 10 viscose producers control 70% to 75% of the world’s viscose production.

Recently the Changing Markets Foundation found toxic run-off from viscose factories into rivers destroys subsistence agriculture and is linked to a higher incidence of serious diseases such as cancer in local populations

Rycroft says there is a similar concentration in the packaging and paper industries. Using criteria developed by Canopy, the certification body Rain Forest Alliance conducts audits with various viscose producers.

Canopy is producing a map of the word’s ancient and endangered forests to help customer companies see whether they are sourcing from these forests. It also encourages the development of man-made cellulosics from recycled clothing or leftover straw from the food grain harvest. "We’re working with six to eight disruptive technology entrepreneurs in that space to provide those solutions," she says.

Taking care of what trees are felled for wood pulp takes care of one environmental issue in the production of viscose. Recently the Changing Markets Foundation found toxic run-off from viscose factories into rivers destroys subsistence agriculture and is linked to a higher incidence of serious diseases such as cancer in local populations. It also found that "communities living near some of the plants spoke of a lack of access to clean drinking water and sickening smells that were making life unbearable".

This is another story.

For now, be happy that Rycroft and her team are tackling the destruction of ancient and endangered forests.

"We work on solutions. We want to transform the impact we’re currently having on these really fragile ecosystems. They are so critical for so many things, for the species [who] share this planet," says Rycroft.