CanopyStyle Summit 2022: Reflections and Insight
Nov 30th 2022
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Canopy is a not-for-profit that protects the world’s forests, species, and climate by working hand in hand with companies from around the globe to transform unsustainable supply chains, catalyze innovative Next Generation Solutions, help advance frontline community rights, and conserve vital forest ecosystems all over the world.
Anyone who has had the pleasure of working with them knows that the organization is filled with some of the most knowledgeable, passionate, and hardworking individuals in the environmental movement. Their ability to create lasting change through their brand and supply chain connections is awe-inspiring.
In 2013 the organization launched CanopyStyle, a network of brands that have committed to sourcing their manmade cellulosics in a way that does not destroy Ancient and Endangered Forests.
Most people don’t realize how much of their wardrobe is derived from trees. I certainly didn’t until meeting the Canopy team!
From Canopy’s website: “Check the label on what you are wearing right now. Did you know that if it says viscose, rayon, modal, lyocell, or acetate, the fabric you are wearing all too often comes at the expense of Ancient and Endangered Forests, impacting the species and people that call them home? Manmade cellulosics are a type of regenerated fibre made primarily from the dissolved pulp (“cellulose”) of trees, such as viscose/rayon, lyocell, and modal. Vital forest ecosystems are being used to manufacture the pulp to produce fabrics.”
Today, CanopyStyle includes more than 515 brand partners who have signed sustainable sourcing commitments. Together, this group represents more than 857 billion USD of annual revenue.
Several years ago, Canopy launched a similar initiative in packaging. EcoEnclose became a Canopy Planet Pack4Good Policy Holder, which means we have made a commitment to sourcing paper in a way that minimizes risk and harm to the world’s forests, eliminating (or never sourcing from might be a more appropriate language for EcoEnclose) all sourcing from Ancient and Endangered Forests, with a focus on recycled content and next-generation fibers.
Last week, we had the privilege of attending CanopyStyle’s 2022 Summit, an afternoon of learning for brands who have put the prevention of degradation, fragmentation, and deforestation of Ancient and Endangered Forests at the forefront of their sustainability vision.
It was one of the most insightful afternoons I can remember, with so much wisdom, reflection, and ideation by both Canopy team members and brand representatives. On my drive home, my brain buzzed with the reflections and insights I had taken away.
Here, I share a handful with you in the hopes that it helps our broader EcoAlly community be even more successful in pursuing its sustainability goals and vision.
#1: If sustainable alternatives were perfect, we wouldn’t need CanopyStyle (or Pack4Good, or EcoEnclose.)
Several wonderful textile producers, some of whom produce next-generation viscose, were in attendance. What they shared about their challenges mirrored what EcoEnclose sees and experiences in paper packaging.
They explained that brands often come to them interested in Next Generation viscose (viscose fibers made from recycled fabrics). Brands then ask: “Is it as affordable as traditional viscose?” and “Are there any performance issues compared to traditional viscose?”
By traditional viscose, I am referring to fabrics made of wood pulp, like beech, pine, and eucalyptus (and even bamboo, though bamboo is not technically a tree). It is part of a family of cellulosic fibers, which are all derived from trees and other tree-like plants, and whose widespread use in the fashion industry puts immense pressure on our world’s forests.
Every brand in the room has made a stated commitment to ensuring their cellulose-derived fabrics are not coming from Ancient and Endangered Forests and recognize that doing so requires - in large part - the introduction of “next generation” cellulosic fibers, or viscose derived from non-tree sources, including recycled fabrics and agricultural waste.
Canopy announced at COP 27 with several brands in the room that there is already 550,000 tonnes of market demand for these Next Generation Solutions. Despite this, some brands are still reticent to move forward with these innovative materials as they don’t have the same scale and known history as standard viscose.
At EcoEnclose, we have the same conversations about paper with individual customers. The most ecological brands recognize the importance of ensuring their paper packaging is not made from the world’s Ancient and Endangered Forests or plantation trees causing land use change. But they then ask - is recycled or next-gen paper competitive with virgin paper?
The answer to those questions - for both paper and the world of fabrics is currently -– no, it depends (different next-gen and recycled pulps perform differently), and (the price of next-gen and recycled paper will vary as these industries work towards economies of scale).
And everyone knows that or would understand that clearly if they think about these questions more deeply. If recycled or next-gen alternatives were already at the scale of virgin tree paper (allowing them to be competitively priced with the standard materials we use today that drive degradation and deforestation of Ancient and Endangered Forests), they would already be the norm. Every textile producer and paper producer would already be offering it as their standard option.
It was illuminating to hear this dialogue play out in an industry that is tangential to my own.
When an industry has been as heavily subsidized as logging and pulping has (giving it the scale advantages it has today), it makes sense that the chosen, established solution of virgin tree paper has become the status quo, with no real regard to their environmental impact. Decades of industrial efforts and government support have been focused on scaling and perfecting these destructive industries (industries such as logging, pulping and paper making as well as oil, gas and plastic manufacturing), such that they are challenging for innovators to compete with them based on government policies and capitalist principles alone.
The way to change this reality is by accelerating as quickly as possible through the messy initial transition period, the time in which the more thoughtful and sustainable solutions are unlikely to be as effective and competitively priced as the destructive standards they are seeking to replace. As an EcoAlly community, we cannot let these shorter-term roadblocks stop us from making the progress that needs to be made to achieve the longer-term vision of circularity and sustainability our future requires.
So that brings me to my next takeaway…
#2 We need to find the Risk Takers. And yes, we acknowledge that it is tough for a brand to be the Risk Taker!
A CanopyStyle team member made the incredibly insightful comment that sustainability is the opposite of the Olympics. Everyone is competing to finish as a close second rather than being the ones out in front.
Because no individual or brand wants to be the one who is taking the risk on new, untested sustainable alternatives. They don’t want to have to sell it to their leadership teams or defend their decisions publicly or to investors if the alternatives prove unsuccessful or too expensive.
But once a single brand has shown that a new solution works, well-intentioned brands scramble to follow suit.
In some other industries, like energy-efficient appliances or renewable energy, climate-conscious government policies have helped to fund and de-risk these transitions. This has resulted in Energy Star appliances becoming commonplace and wind and solar energy that is now relatively affordable and effective, allowing us to now finally see a distant future world in which renewable energy is queen.
Unfortunately, parallel policies are few and far between in forest conservation and next-generation solution development.
Global policies that treat wood chips as renewable, net-neutral sources of energy reward aggressive logging, and public land leasing schemes give loggers (and the pulpers and paper/textile makers who buy from them) easy access to cut down trees from primary forests. Some Extended Producer Policies worldwide (which are slowly emerging in the US) reward brands for maximizing recyclability and recycling. Still, pulping industry groups and plastic pushers are lobbying heavily against these policies and have, in many cases, been successful in removing paper from EPR legislation. Public policies related to viscose sourcing are virtually nonexistent.
So that begs the question…if legislation is unlikely to pave the way in the short term, what brands will take the first, riskiest leaps when it comes to next-generation alternatives to materials currently derived from primary forests and driving our biodiversity and climate crisis?
CanopyStyle has done a brilliant job here. Their strategy - signing brands on as responsible sourcing policyholders, educating and supporting their brands to constantly find ecologically better ways to make and package their products, and (this is the most brilliant part!) consolidating spending across enthusiastic brands to develop truly meaningful offtake agreements - is a truly innovative approach. These collective offtake agreements are large enough to de-risk the massive investments needed to bring next-generation (non-tree) fibers into the market. ( Learn More)
But, even with those offtake agreements in place, a handful of brands still need to raise their hands to be test cases for new materials. In doing so, these brands will take on cost burden and performance risk and could very well end experiments finding that these materials were not optimal and they have to go back to the drawing board.
EcoEnclose understands this position very well. It is one we were in when we began working with Living Ink Technologies to help them commercialize their - then very untested - Algae Ink™. We invested countless hours and significant funds in this. Lucky for us, it has been a success, with brands like Nike and Adidas now using the ink in their packaging and apparel. But we’ve had quite a few innovation “failures” as well. We’re taking on the world of next-generation paper packaging as aggressively as we did algae ink, and we’ve had as many roadblocks as we have successes on our journey so far.
Willing and risk-tolerant brands (such as Bedrock Sandals) were instrumental in paving the way for us to work with algae ink. Likewise, the movement to prevent sourcing from our world’s forests will need similarly committed (and even risk-seeking) brands to help catalyze and accelerate the innovations this space needs.
If that describes your brand, please reach out! EcoEnclose is always looking for brands that want to work with us on new, promising next-gen paper materials and packaging solutions.
#3 Let’s not let LCAs and efforts to quantify get in the way of common sense.
Life Cycle Analyses (LCAs) and standards such as GHG Protocol have a tremendously important role in holding countries and companies accountable for their environmental impact and guiding them to find ways to reduce their ecological footprint.
However, in some situations, they inadvertently discourage brands from pursuing strategies that are - based on a broader ecological vision and common sense alone - better for the planet.
For example, nascent technologies and innovative materials are often at such an early stage that standard LCA software still needs impact data on them (and, in many cases, even the inventor of the new material still needs this data).
As a far-fetched example (at least in the short-term), if an innovative company has figured out how to transform food waste into textiles, anyone in the sustainability space would see that as an ecological win versus deriving fabric from cotton or trees. But unfortunately, carbon accounting requirements may prevent many companies from adopting the technology until impact data is readily available on the material.
One panelist at the summit responded to LCA questions about recycled viscose by asking brands to “give grace” when it comes to impact data on new materials from small start-ups, and to not let the absence of specific data prevent companies from adopting these textiles, but to offer support for LCA as a parallel strategy to scaling up.
For us, the takeaway is - let’s not let complicated LCAs get in the way of what we know we should all do for the planet’s sake. Instead, eco-conscious companies should focus on their own ambitious sustainability north star and then look to LCAs as one tool to help guide them there rather than letting the LCAs become their end goal.
As an aside, there are many other ways in which LCAs frequently fall short. They are only as good as the data, assumptions, and system boundaries that go into them and many assumptions in them are problematic. They favor short-term victories over long-term system change. And if something isn’t measurable, it isn’t factored in. For example, biodiversity loss and soil carbon are missing from many LCAs. We use LCAs at EcoEnclose all the time. While we respect and appreciate the output we get from them, we also see that output as a starting point for decision-making rather than the dictator of our strategy. Read more: Packaging Lifecycle Analysis
#4 Individuals and brands have different sustainability priorities. We can respect each other’s varying focus areas, while still pushing each other to ensure we don’t lose sight of the bigger picture.
Across engaging dialogues with so many different brands, I was struck by the fact that - despite our collective purpose in the room being focused on conserving Ancient and Endangered Forests - brands all had unique goals driving their broader sustainability work forward.
Some brands, particularly those who have signed onto the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Plastic Pact, have a clear directive to eliminate as much single-use plastic as possible from their business.
Other brands, particularly some of the largest ones in the room, seemed more focused on minimizing carbon emissions and achieving carbon neutrality.
Still others were focused on maximizing recycled content.
More than in any other community I’ve been in, there was a real appreciation here of the fact that goals are often to single-minded and that in solving one problem, brands and people need to open their eyes to the fact that new problems may be created and must be acknowledged and addressed. Here are some examples of what I mean.
- Replacing polyester with viscose: One brand mentioned that in their quest to do away with fossil fuels across their organization, they were working to replace their polyester with cellulosic and that until very recently (when the brand had signed on as a CanopyStyle partner), there was no knowledge or appreciation within their company that this transition could be very harmful to forests.
- Replacing cotton with recycled polyester: On the other end of the spectrum, another attendee mentioned that, in focusing on maximizing post-consumer waste across their products and packaging, they were replacing water-intensive cotton with recycled polyester. Polyester (whether virgin or recycled) fabrics can shed microplastics in the laundry.
- Replacing a plastic bag with a virgin paper bag: Several brands focused on removing single-use plastic had chosen a paper bag option. The paper bag is virgin, and (despite being FSC certified) this shift from plastic to virgin paper is putting immense pressure on our natural forests. Additionally, paper almost always has a significantly higher carbon footprint than the plastic it replaces.
These are just three examples out there of brands (and people!) taking steps forward towards a goal they are focused on (i.e. eliminating fossil fuel-derived materials, minimizing fresh water consumption, or eliminating plastics) but - in doing so - creating other environmental consequences that must be addressed.
For me, this is the heart of Progress Over Perfection. Unfortunately, this phrase is often maligned by people who worry that celebrating progress over perfection is a free pass to pat oneself on the back for the tiniest and most insignificant steps forward.
But what I found in the room I was in last week, Progress Over Perfection (or perhaps better said, Progress in Pursuit of Perfection), was the right way to describe the actions of incredible individuals working in brands trying to do better while still acknowledging the complex and often in-conflict world of sustainability.
People were aware of the new environmental challenges being created and felt an immense sense of urgency that these new hazards must be addressed, sometimes to the point that they were reluctant to showcase these ecological steps forward they were making.
This balance of making positive progress, recognizing that there are no silver bullets and all actions (today) leads to consequences that must be minimized, and keeping our collective eye on the bigger picture prizes of circularity, net neutrality, and even regeneration, is exciting. It means we won’t fall into the traps of perfectionism and non-action we’ve seen in the last several decades. Our community can understand and navigate the nuances in this complicated world of sustainable business.
#5 Sustainability is “actually” pre-competitive (not just posturing.)
Much has been written about the concept of pre-competitive collaboration. According to Resonance Global, the term describes a situation in which two or more companies operating within the same industry come together to address a shared problem or pain point that doesn’t impact direct business competition or contribute to unfair advantage. Such partnerships can also be between companies sharing a supply chain ecosystem (e.g., companies that source from the same regions, farmers, or factories or that hire from shared labor pools). (source)
That sustainability should be considered a pre-competitive area for businesses is a familiar idea. But I’ll be honest I was always a bit skeptical. One look at the marketing strategies of certain brands who were in the CanopyStyle reminds us that, in some ways, sustainability is a major factor in their identity, and their ability to be competitive and successful. Additionally, it is no secret that brands that are part of CanopyStyle are all at very different places in their sustainability journey.
In general, smaller, independently owned brands (many who’ve built their entire brand identity around ethics, transparency, and the environment) have embedded sustainability in every decision they make. On the other hand, large, multi-national, often publicly owned companies have commonly been around for many decades and built their original brands and supply chains based on a very traditional, linear model of doing business. However, they are now bringing the environmental lens into their decision-making and R&D. While the changes they can make are slower and can’t quickly be adopted by every facet of their complex organizations, they often have deep wallets to spearhead significant innovations. It is hard to deny the fact that when these brands make a change, their impact is widespread and significant.
It would be easy for employees of different brands across this broad spectrum to be judgmental of each other and to let resentment get in the way of sharing innovations and resources. It would also be easy for brands to hoard innovations they have spent massive funds on and could use to help differentiate their brand.
But none of that was true. In the event that Canopy brought together, it was clear that sustainability can be pre-competitive for these brands, or at least for the individuals participating in the summit. Information was shared freely. Criticisms were made, but all in the spirit of moving the eco needle forward. Innovations were offered up readily.
Brands and retailers with policies with CanopyStyle represent a significant chunk of worldwide consumer spending on apparel and outdoor gear. The fact that Canopy has played such a key role in convening these companies in a pre-competitive way, far more successfully than our politicians seem to be able to do, was uplifting and created a sense of optimism about the massive positive impact the private sector can have on the environmental movement.
#6 Sustainable forestry in its current form will not save us. Forward-thinking brands should see FSC Certification as a gateway to a future that relies less on logging to create raw materials.
One brilliant speaker was asked, point blank, whether the challenges of deforestation could be righted by sustainable forestry certification. She answered bluntly - no - stating that if forest certifications could put an end to logging in primary forests, we wouldn’t be seeing today’s rate of destruction. This is why brands and nonprofits must shift to materials that don’t rely heavily on cutting down trees to make raw materials, while also lobbying these certification bodies to make their standards significantly stricter and more protective.
We have written extensively on why EcoEnclose relies heavily on waste to make our paper packaging and why we use FSC-certified paper sparingly, so I won’t rehash that here. Read more: All Paper Isn't Equal
I think every brand in the room was 100% on board with these concepts. And yet, we all simultaneously acknowledge that FSC certification has become an essential focal point of our sourcing. Many of the world’s largest brands, as well as many smaller, sustainability-rooted brands, have set goals along the lines of “Ensure All Cellulose / Wood / Paper is Derived from FSC Certified Forests.” EcoEnclose follows Canopy’s lead and says, “When virgin paper is needed, it must be FSC certified and verified not to come from Ancient and Endangered Forests.”
I think the question for all of us, especially after hearing the powerful words of a speaker so educated on the topic, is, “How do we ensure sustainable forest certification does not become a crutch for us and we maintain our focus on aggressively shifting towards sourcing strategies that help us diversify our fiber basket?” This will involve steps like:
- Educating sourcing and product development teams.
- Setting annual sourcing priorities that push for integrating recycled content and next-gen fibers.
- Educating consumers to recognize the hierarchy of wood products and begin demanding their goods to be made from waste as much as possible.
- Setting sourcing policies that minimize the use of any virgin wood (i.e., no more than X% of my wood-based products can be virgin, and all virgin wood is FSC certified).
Additionally, brands can come together to help push certifying bodies for far more rigorous standards that keep forests standing.
#7 People, not brands, are what drive change. Companies should seek to remove silos to help people better collaborate to achieve sustainability goals.
Some attendees represented brands we, as consumers, equate with progress, ethics, and sustainability. Others represented Fortune 500 companies that are often the subject of public scrutiny for not doing enough. But everyone I talked to was energized and excited about helping their products and brand make positive changes.
This was a good reminder that, while we often treat corporations as monolithic and emotionless entities always trying to squeeze out the last dollar, they are just fluid organizations of people - and the people behind these companies are generally passionate, mission-oriented and anxious to help their companies make great progress.
I feel that at large brands, sustainability decisions often cut across many teams (procurement, operations, sustainability, marketing, finance, etc.). Yet, it is difficult for the team members with the most acute and well-educated understanding of sustainability to engage in the day-to-day and bigger-picture decisions that will drive a brand’s ecological footprint.
This siloing is by no means deliberate or malicious. It is often just the way of the corporate world. There is only so much time in a day; team members all have competing priorities, and getting communication right across teams is insanely challenging.
Here are a few ways I heard about brands acknowledging and trying to address this challenge:
- Training sessions and lunch & learns, that put sustainability experts in front of the entire organization, to help build a broader understanding of these topics that can feed into day-to-day decisions
- Restructuring teams in such a way that materials procurement and sustainability are in one department, a step that - in some ways - redefines success for procurement (such that materials sustainability metrics become part of how they are being measured).
- Regularly-written updates across multiple departments that share out new decisions in consideration, recent decisions made, new learnings gathered, etc.
#8 Collaborative network building leads to lasting improvements versus naming and shaming, which lead to quick short-term image fixes.
Time and again, brands lauded Canopy for being a solution-focused and collaboration-oriented not-for-profit.
Several people mentioned that the naming and shaming tactics employed by other organizations and influencers tend to be quick in grabbing the attention of the C-Suite. But the resulting directive that comes down, as a result, is generally reactive, short-sighted, and distracting from the brand’s bigger-picture sustainability vision.
In reacting to a naming and shaming campaign, brands aim to “make the thing go away.” The goal for brands when working with CanopyStyle and other associations that encourage collaborative solution building (Ellen MacArthur, Responsible Packaging Movement, Sustainable Apparel Coalition, etc.) is to learn, establish goals, and achieve lasting wins.