Nicole Rycroft

‘Risk-taking is an absolute expectation’: Nicole Rycroft talks forests and her US$3 million climate award

Canopy founder and executive director plans to use the Climate Breakthrough Award to scale up her work to shift packaging and clothing manufacturing away from forest fibre to tackle the climate crisis and protect biodiversity and human health

Nicole Rycroft was in her East Vancouver living room a few days before Christmas, working on her laptop, when a life-changing email pinged in her inbox. The email, with the subject heading “Congratulations,” informed Rycroft that she had just won a US$3 million Climate Breakthrough Award. 

“There was definitely dancing that followed immediately,” says Rycroft, the founder and executive director of Canopy, a Vancouver-based non-profit organization that works with the forest industry’s biggest customers, including the fashion, publishing and packaging industries, to develop business solutions that protect the world’s last frontier forests.

“It’s not every day that conservationists are awarded international prizes like this, especially ones that allow you to take risks and really lean in on how we can solve the climate crisis — and get $3 million to do it.” 

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The Climate Breakthrough Project gives the award to extraordinary strategists around the world to afford them the time, space and resources to come up with visionary strategies to tackle the growing climate crisis. Recipients of the award must make change at an immense scale, affecting entire industries or countries and materially changing the lives of millions of people.

Past recipients of the award include Indonesia’s Arief Rabik, who is using bamboo agroforestry to sequester carbon and restore degraded tropical forest lands in dozens of countries, and Stand.earth co-founder Tzeporah Berman, for her work to advance the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty, an initiative to phase out fossil fuels and fast-track solutions.

Rycroft shares the 2021 Climate Breakthrough Award honour with Mohamed Adow, the director and founder of Power Shift Africa, a nongovernmental organization and think tank he founded to mobilize climate action in Africa and shift climate and energy policies to zero carbon. Like Rycroft, Adow will receive US$3 million over the next three years. 

The awards, announced in February, follow a two-year screening process with extensive reference checks. Rycroft says the Climate Breakthrough Project spoke with at least 20 people, formally and informally, to determine if she could help achieve the scale of change needed to shift the dial on the climate crisis. “They probably know me better than my mum does at the moment,” she jokes. 

We spoke to Rycroft, who was born and raised in Australia, about the award and her plans for the next three years. 

What’s the first thing you’re going to do?

Over the next six months, I’ll develop a more detailed strategy for our work. Then it’s “Go run with it. Take risks.” We are tasked with resolving these big, urgent issues — the climate crisis, the precipitous decline in biodiversity. There’s complexity to these problems. They can’t be turned around overnight. We need to approach them with different ideas and different strategies than we have historically. Even though there’s been a lot of good work done by a lot of good, smart people, we haven’t collectively shifted the dial quickly enough on climate change and on habitat loss and species decline. 

What I really love about the Climate Breakthrough Award is that risk-taking is an absolute expectation. Most other philanthropic grants are quite wary of risk. Our times require us to be thinking boldly and doing things that are a little outside the box. 

Can you think of another instance in your work where you’ve taken a risk and it’s paid off in terms of moving that dial?

Some people thought that starting Canopy was a bit of a risk. I was a physiotherapist and an elite level athlete, a lightweight rower, by way of training when I first started Canopy 21 years ago. It’s not exactly what you would expect for the resume of somebody who was going to start an international environmental NGO focused on transforming unsustainable global supply chains. 

Initially it was seen as crazy. We may as well have been saying that cars were going to fly. In 2008, we worked to have Canadian Geographic print an issue on paper that was 20 per cent wheat straw. We worked with Margaret Atwood and Penguin Random House in 2011 to produce a book completely free of forest fibres: recycling content, flax straw and wheat straw. We did that to show these papers were commercially viable in North America and that they weren’t pink with green spots, to show that this new green resource sector was a viable alternative and one to be leveraged. 

Where does your interest in transforming global supply chains come from?

I’ve always been very passionate about the world’s wild places and our natural world. My grandmother had an infectious love of wild places. If you’ve been in the Australian bush, there’s an intensity to being in that landscape. It’s hot. It’s noisy with crescendo of cicadas and birds, and very pungent with the eucalyptus oils of the gum forest. It gets woven into your fabric, into your DNA in a particular way. I just felt that there was no need for 800-year-old trees to be logged to make Jackie Collins novels and T-shirts and pizza boxes. We, as a species, had to be smarter than that.  

Nicole Rycroft

Rycroft says her passion for protecting forests is woven into her DNA. Photo: Alana Paterson / The Narwhal

Nicole Rycroft

Growing up in Australia allowed Rycroft to experience — and fall in love with — some of the world’s wildest places. Photo: Alana Paterson / The Narwhal

We need to harness the purchasing influence of the marketplace to help transform unsustainable supply chains and to catalyze commercial scale production of truly sustainable next generation solution alternatives. Whether it’s human right violations or environmental degradation, a lot happens under the umbrella or the rubric of the global economy. The supply and demand world, rather than leaving a trail of damage behind it, can actually be harnessed to incentivize sustainable and just supply chains. 

Why did you decide to make Canada the headquarters for your work?  

I moved to Canada in 1996, long ago enough now to pick up a bit of a funny accent, according to my Australian friends and family. When I moved to Canada — after spending a year and a half in Southeast Asia doing volunteer work on the Burmese border, documenting the link between human rights violations and environmental degradation — I really felt I was moving to the belly of the beast in terms of global consumption. There was just so much consumed in terms of the world’s resources in Canada and the U.S. It was an incredible opportunity to look to harness that purchasing influence to help start driving positive change — and ultimately the conservation of high-carbon, high-biodiversity forest landscapes.  

What particular problems do you want to deal with as part of the Climate Breakthrough Award?

This is a turnaround decade for our planet. We need to keep as much carbon out of the atmosphere as we can, especially between now and 2030 and now and 2050. Keeping intact, old-growth forests standing is the fastest, most efficient, most economical way to achieve that. 

We need to protect 30 to 50 per cent of the world’s forests by 2030, which is what the scientific community is calling for us to do. Forests represent 30 per cent of the climate solutions. They are habitat for 80 per cent of the terrestrial species that we share this planet with. We have to enable forests to perform critical life support systems and functions — like stabilizing our climate and [generating] precipitation, clean air and fresh water. 

Forest

Forests represent 30 per cent of climate solutions, yet every year three billion trees disappear into packaging and 200 million disappear into clothing, according to Rycroft. Photo: Conscious Design / Unsplash

And so, a big priority and focus of my time and Canopy’s efforts over the coming years is diversifying the fibre basket that’s used to make pulp and paper packaging and wood-based fabrics. 

There are three billion trees that disappear into packaging every year. Much of that comes from high-carbon, high-biodiversity value forests. There are 200 million trees that disappear into clothing every year, viscose and rayon clothing. That’s slated to double within the next eight years. If we’re going to continue to rely almost exclusively on forest ecosystems to make boxes and packaging and wrapping and clothing, we are going to continue to degrade and destroy these really fragile ecosystems at our own peril. 

This past year has really underscored that conserving forests and stabilizing our climate is not just nice to have for the sake of the planet, it’s absolutely essential for human health. Seventy-five per cent of the new diseases that humanity is grappling with are crossing the animal-human barrier. Many of those are being exacerbated by climate change and are being unleashed because intact forests are being degraded and cleared. 

Since 2003, we’ve had SARS, MERS, Ebola and COVID-19. The speed at which we’re being confronted by these exotic and highly virulent pathogens is directly related to environmental degradation. And so, a big part of this work will be diversifying the fibre basket. 

Walbran-Logging-W730-16

Three-quarters of emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic, meaning they jump from animals to humans. Clearing forests makes people more vulnerable to diseases as they encroach on wildlife habitat. Photo: TJ Watt

How do you start to diversify the fibre basket?

The plan is to basically replace 50 per cent of the forest fibre currently used to make paper and packaging and viscose clothing and replace it with lower-footprint alternative fibres. Agricultural residues like straw — that would otherwise be burned after the food grain harvest — make excellent grades of paper and packaging. Eighty-five per cent of clothing ends up in the landfill. It can be turned into next season’s styles rather than degrading into methane.  

Microbial cellulose, which is basically a fermentation process of food waste, can make either textiles or packing products. These next generation solution alternatives carry fundamentally lighter ecological footprints. On average, the raw materials and processing to turn them from textile or straw or food waste into cellulose fibre consumes 70 per cent less energy, 90 per cent less water and significantly fewer chemicals. If there are chemicals, often they are green chemicals. 

They are also value-added revenue streams for farmers. Rather than burning straw, they’re able to get a revenue stream and we get a whole second harvest from that straw. In nature, there’s no such thing as waste. It’s a completely foreign construct in the natural world — and yet we burn and landfill literally hundreds of millions of tonnes of low-carbon alternative fibre every year. 

The plan — and a big part of the focus with this Climate Breakthrough Award — will be kickstarting commercial-scale production of those next generation solutions by mobilizing investment at scale and exploring what other mechanisms and strategies can enable us, over the course of the next 10 years, to have 50 per cent of global production of wood-based clothing and packaging come from these next generation solutions. 

How would you define a next generation solution?  

Next generation solutions are low-carbon-footprint alternative fibres to forest fibre that would otherwise be burned or landfilled.

There’s a plant in Washington state that is turning agricultural waste into fibre. I’d like to hear more about that.

Columbia Pulp is based in eastern Washington. They are a 150,000-tonne pulp mill that takes straw from the surrounding area. This mill takes five per cent of the straw within a 50-mile radius — an area that has an incredibly high density of agriculture and quite serious air pollution issues — and turns it into pulp that is suitable for any kind of packaging. We’ve worked with them since they were hidden away in a lab in a University of Washington dungeon and have really helped to break them out of the lab into pilot scale and then to market scale.

This is a mid-sized commercial scale pulp mill. It’s brought direct jobs to what was a struggling rural part of Washington state and has provided an economic boost to farmers locally, in that they get a value-added revenue stream for what was historically a waste management expense for them. 

Nicole Rycroft

There are many alternatives to forest fibre for clothing and paper products, Rycroft says, including agricultural and food waste. Photo: Alana Paterson / The Narwhal

Nicole Rycroft

Disruptive technologies must balance the climate’s need for sustainable solutions with society’s need for products to maintain lifestyles and businesses, Rycroft says. Photo: Alana Paterson / The Narwhal

It took them four years to secure their financing, which was when the light bulb triggered. It’s absolutely imperative for us to be mobilizing conventional investment to these disruptive technologies. These facilities are a big part of us unlocking the climate solutions that are needed, whilst enabling people to maintain lifestyles and businesses to maintain a secure supply of materials. We don’t have four years to wait for all of these really promising game-changing technologies to be able to secure their financing. That’s going to be a big part of this work. 

Are there other examples of next generation technologies you can point to?

There’s another venture that we work with in China that is building the world’s first waste textile pulp mill. It draws exclusively on waste textiles as its feed source. It’s just received a green light for financing and is going to be building a 60-tonne facility in Sweden. We’ve helped them build this mill, which is the first of its kind, by engaging many of the brands we work with as part of our Canopy Style or fashion initiatives. 

Many of those brand partners have written strategic letters of interest to purchase next generation solutions. It’s an articulation that when these fibres made from waste fibres or agricultural residues come along to the market, with certain pricing and quality conditions, then they will give preference to it and will shift X number of tonnes of purchasing in that direction. Big brands, like H&M, like Zara and others, have written those letters with a very clear articulation of market support and interest. 

Clothing waste

Eighty-five per cent of clothing ends up in the landfill, according to Rycroft. Here, artists turn clothing found in an abandoned Cambodia factory into an art installation. Photo: Francois Le Nguyen / Unsplash

It was enough to involve and encourage one of the really big Chinese viscose producers to develop an agreement with Renewcell, which is the game-changing technology. That offtake agreement was basically what unlocked their investment. For an investor, knowing that at least 50 per cent of this brand-new mill, trying out this crazy new technology, is vouched for by a large commercial producer is enough to give them the confidence and security to step in. 

What exactly does Renewcell do?  

It’s kind of like the Columbia mill [in Washington state] in that it’s a pulp mill. It takes old blue jeans and T-shirts and stops them going to a landfill where they’re going to rot and turn into methane. It takes that waste textile and processes it back into a pulp that is then used by viscose producers to make the viscose fibre, which is then sent to a weaver and turned into the T-shirts and clothing that we will hopefully be buying as of next year. 

What are you planning to do next? Do you have any more pilot projects you’re scaling up to commercial production?

We work with a pipeline of about 25 different game-changing technology entrepreneurs and ventures. Some are still at lab and pilot scale. We’re looking and working with innovators globally. We’re having conversations with investors. Survival: A Pulp Thriller is an action plan to save 30 to 50 per of the world’s forests by 2030 by mapping out an action plan for the transformation of this supply chain. That’s the kind of infrastructure transition that is required to be able to replace 50 per cent of the fibre basket currently being sourced from forests with waste textiles and agricultural residues and other alternative fibres. 

We launched that action plan in Davos last year. We had the CEO from H&M with us at the launch. The plan maps out the number of mills that need to be built that rely on agricultural residue as the feedstock over the next decade and the number of mills that need to be built that rely on waste textiles.  

Where can next generation fibre plants be built?  

Canada has incredible potential, given the amount of agricultural processing that happens here. In India, 92 million tonnes of wheat straw are burned each year. Forty per cent of the particulate matter in Delhi’s air pollution is from burning straw. There’s enough straw in India alone to build 50 mills without really blinking an eye. We’ve mapped out a global scenario that brings benefits to dozens of countries.

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