There is an intrinsic link between fashion and forestry, and it’s one that the South African diversified woodfibre company Sappi is taking full accountability for.

The company’s dissolving pulp products are used to create viscose fibers for clothing and textiles, as well as pharmaceutical products, packaging and specialty papers. It sources its wood pulp either from its own sustainably managed forests and plantations, or from accredited suppliers around the world.

Out of the 390,000 hectares of land that the company owns and leases, approximately 135,000 hectares are set aside and maintained by its sub-division Sappi Forests, a leader in research and development, to conserve the natural habitat and biodiversity found there. Textile Exchange spoke to Hlengiwe Ndlovu, Divisional Environmental Manager; Krelyne Andrew, General Manager – Sustainability Dissolving Pulp; and Peta Hardy, Environmental Analyst to find out more.

Textile Exchange: What inspires and excites you about working to improve outcomes for biodiversity, and how did Sappi get started in this area?

Peta: For the past 20 years, I have been part of the team monitoring water quality and grassland veld condition to determine trends in habitat quality and species diversity. This has enabled Sappi to identify impacts and initiate actions to address them.

It is my objective to ensure that Sappi practices forestry in a manner that has the least impact on the natural environment. It is imperative that the biodiversity remaining on our land is managed appropriately to ensure that there is no species decline or no habitat deterioration occurs at the expense of our operations.

Textile Exchange: What are the highlights from your work on biodiversity over the past year?

Hlengiwe: We have committed to enhancing biodiversity by 10% in conservation areas on our Sappi Forest landholdings. This is one of the ‘Planet’ targets in our Thrive 25 business strategy and it is our Life on Land (SDG 15) target for Sappi Southern Africa.

In the past year, we have made progress in addressing our first biodiversity objective underpinning this target, which is to understand the types of vegetation that are present on our plantations, as well as their conservation value. This enables managers to develop appropriate management plans for implementation. 

Textile Exchange: How does Sappi Forests work to protect threatened species and their habitats on its landholdings?

Peta: Sappi Forests has been undertaking Invasive Alien Plant (IAP) species control on our property for over 20 years to avoid negative impacts such as biodiversity loss, higher water use and increased intensity and frequency of fires. For these reasons, IAPs are widely considered to be a major threat to biodiversity, livelihoods and economic development. 

South Africa, where Sappi Forests works, has declared 379 alien plant species. These include weeds and invaders that spread rapidly and can displace the indigenous plants. They are extremely difficult to control due to their high diversity and far-reaching distribution.

To proactively combat weeds, all Sappi plantations have long term integrated weed management plans which include the management of natural areas to maintain healthy vegetation as weeds generally spread into disturbed or poorly managed areas. 

We also implement control measures to reduce the sources and avenues of seed dispersal. Alien invasive weeding activities are assessed annually within the unplanted landscape during the environmental audit process for each forest management unit, undertaken as part of Sappi’s internal risk assurance process.    

Textile Exchange: What biodiversity-related goals do you hope to achieve in the next year? The next five years?

Hlengiwe: We aim to achieve the ‘Planet’ goals set out in our Thrive 25 business strategy by undertaking the following actions:

  • Assess and identify Critically Endangered and Endangered ecosystems and important areas for conservation present on the property and ensure that these are effectively managed
  • Ensure that effective plans are in place to manage the habitat for important conservation areas as well as to ensure that there is effective implementation of required actions
  • Participate in biodiversity stewardship initiatives to ensure that sustainable management of our landholdings is consistent with the conservation of diversity
  • Ensure that appropriate action is taken, based on best available scientific information, to avoid, reduce and mitigate the impact of plantations on areas of conservation concern
  • Enable knowledge transfer to support the management, conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity

Textile Exchange: How can we achieve greater impact for biodiversity by working together?

Hlengiwe: At Sappi we believe that Partnerships for the Goals (SDG 17) and creating shared value are essential for the conservation of biodiversity at a meaningful landscape level.

South Africa’s Biodiversity Stewardship Programme, managed by the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI), is an example of a program involving multi-stakeholder partnerships between landowners, provincial conservation authorities and NGOs, to secure biodiversity. Sappi’s seven declared nature reserves on our landholdings in Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal provinces are part of this program, where important biodiversity or ecosystem services have been identified.

Textile Exchange: What do you think are the biggest challenges for the textiles industry as a whole in addressing biodiversity-related issues?

Krelyne: It goes without saying that traceable supply chains are a key enabler for understanding risk and opportunities. But if we are to meaningfully shift the needle, we need data that goes deeper than country of origin, as well as consistency in the scale at which we apply the biodiversity measurement. To move from a siloed supply chain approach to a landscape level, we need to look at the ecosystem dynamics, communities and stakeholders involved. Given the supply chain complexity and fragmentation, I can see this being quite a challenge.

The principles of and actions taken in terms of sustainable forestry management are complex, and one of the current challenges is for landowners and dissolving pulp producers to clearly and simply articulate all the good work that is being done on the ground in a way that all stakeholder groups, from consumers to supply chain partners, and the wider industry, can easily understand.

Textile Exchange: What other opportunities do you think there are in the sector? Are you seeing any trends emerge? 

Krelyne: There are lots of opportunities for collective action across the value chain that are not only needed to measure impacts and determine dependencies, but also to secure meaningful investments that shift action from doing less harm to doing more good.

We are seeing interest from all stakeholder groups, including investors, in terms of understanding biodiversity risks and opportunities. Not only is there a trend towards developing a clearer and simple articulation of sustainable forest management, but I also see a greater urgency to develop continuous improvement plans that go beyond the requirements of forestry certification to drive positive impacts at scale.