ISTANBUL — The conservation of endangered forests is becoming a pressing issue as designers turn increasingly to wood pulp-based fibers, according to experts who tackled the issue at the Textile Exchange’s annual sustainability conference here last month.

This story first appeared in the December 3, 2013 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Amanda Carr, campaign director at Canopy, a not-for-profit conservation organization that is working to convince companies to develop policies that serve the environment, said, “At least half of the brands we approached did not have any idea that their fabric could be forest-based.”

Eileen Fisher, Quiksilver, Prana, Patagonia and Lululemon Athletica, which together account for $4.1 billion in annual sales, were among the first to join with Canopy to develop sourcing policies and commitments to avoid using fiber that comes from the most-endangered forests.

“It was when rayon became 20 percent of our business that we decided to look closely into our fabric sources, tracing where they came from,” said Shona Quinn, sustainability leader at Eileen Fisher, said at the event. “We were able to identify 80 percent of our sources, but the remaining 20 percent was unknown.”

Canopy approached the company about its forest policy, making Fisher one of the early champions of the initiative. Several other brands and designers, such as Prophetik, Miik, Anne de Shalla, Nicole Bridger, Tara St. James of Study NY and Auralis, signed a statement supporting the protection of ancient and endangered forests.

“The good news is that this is a new and emerging issue, one that isn’t so big that it cannot be addressed,” said Carr.

Forest-based fabrics currently represent 5 percent of the total textile industry, but the demand is projected to increase by 112 percent in the next 40 years.

As one of the largest producers of viscose, a cellulose-based fiber, Lenzing’s reaction to use of ancient and endangered forest was important to Canopy’s initiative. Peter Bartsch, prototyping and sustainability manager at Lenzing, said the Austria-based company has a pulp policy in place and it only buys from certified sources. Lenzing has been awarded a Program for the Endorsement of Forest Certification, given to firms that have products derived from sustainably cultivated forests. Lenzing specializes in man-made cellulose fibers from classic viscose to Modal and lyocell fibers.

New alternatives to wood pulp are equally important in preserving ancient and endangered forests. Crailar Flax, produced from fast-growing rotational flax, requires minimal pesticides, herbicides, fertilizer and irrigation, noted Jay Nalbach, chief marketing officer at Crailar.

Nalbach said Crailar worked closely with the Canadian National Research Council to utilize the potential of flax and improve its performance.

“It is not an invention, but a new way of looking at things,” said Nalbach, recounting how the research process saw crunchy, plant-based fibers transformed into fabrics with a cottonlike feel.