What do clothing brands such as Timberland, Ralph Lauren, H&M, Vans, Nautica, Stella McCartney, ASOS, Levis Strauss & Co., Wrangler, Lee and The North Face all have in common?

All have implemented a form of responsible forest product purchasing policies. Most recently, apparel brand conglomerate VF Corporation adopted its Forest Derived Materials Policy which sets purchasing guidelines and commits the company and its suppliers to using sustainable forest materials and products. As part of its policy adoption, VF declared they will no longer make products derived from:

“sources that contribute to the loss of ancient and endangered forests or rights taken from Indigenous people and local communities.”

Rayon, Other Cellulosic Fibres Targeted

Apparel makers have long relied upon cellulosic fibres such as rayon, lyocell, and modal used as a cheap replacement for more expensive and less readily available fibres such as silk. Rayon, in particular, is found in the product lines of most international apparel retailers.

It is claimed that that as much as 65% of the pulped tree used to derive rayon is wasted during the production process. Rayon pulp sources include at-risk forests in Indonesia, the Amazon and Canada’s west coast. Canada alone exported 426,000 tonnes of dissolving pulp valued at $361 million in 2016.

Conflict Minerals Legislation a Model for Forestry-based Products?

There is a discernible trend towards adoption of voluntary sustainable forestry policies, either company-specific or NGO-derived standards such as those of the Sustainable Forest Initiative or the Forest Stewardship Council. If a critical mass of apparel producers restrict their sourcing from endangered forest ecosystems, there may well be an industry push to enact legislative standards applicable to producers with a commercial connection (however defined) to one or more legislating countries.

In looking for a model of extraterritorial responsible supply chain legislation, regulators may well seek to learn from the international legal experience around Conflict Minerals, both the (seemingly outgoing) U.S. SEC Conflict Minerals Rule or the incoming EU Conflict Minerals Regulation. With increasing pressure to preserve existing at-risk forests, an extraterritorial supply chain law governing rayon is arguably within sight.

Proceed with Caution in Making Sustainability Claims

Even when a company has buy-in from a respected NGO in creating its sustainability program, it must proceed with caution before making sustainability claims in advertising or marketing materials, especially in the U.S. Green product claims have been the target of litigation in the U.S., including terms such as “natural” or “sustainable.” The Federal Trade Commission updated its “Green Guides” to help company’s avoid making misleading marketing claims. Even the FTC did not tackle the complexities of providing specific guidance as to what “sustainable” means.

The source of complaints over environmental claims are usually not the FTC by way of enforcement or consumers through litigation. More often marketing is policed by competitors who cite to the Green Guides and demand that green claims be removed or revised. Company’s must be able to substantiate all reasonable interpretations of any green marketing claims and should avoid making general, unqualified claims of a product’s environmental benefits.