Material Guide: Is Viscose Ethical and Sustainable?
09 Mar

Material Guide: Is Viscose Really Better For The Environment?

Viscose is said to be the third most commonly used textile fibre in the world. If you’ve never heard of viscose, you may know it by another name: rayon. It’s a semi-synthetic fibre that is made from trees—but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s any better for the environment, or for you. In fact, the material has become a hot-button environmental issue recently. Here’s what you need to know.

What is viscose?

Viscose is often touted as a sustainable alternative to cotton or polyester and is popular in the fashion industry as a cheaper and more durable alternative to silk. It’s usually what’s used to create those drapey summer dresses, skirts, soft blouses, and synthetic velvet. But viscose isn’t just found in our clothes—it’s also used in the manufacturing of upholstery, bedding, carpets, cellophane and even sausage casing!

A brief history

Viscose rayon has a truly European story. French scientist and industrialist Hilaire de Chardonnet (1839-1924) is credited with inventing the first commercial viscose fibre, as a cheaper alternative to silk. But the fabric was so flammable it was quickly taken off the market until a safer process was developed by the German Bemberg Company. In 1892, British scientists Charles Frederick Cross, Edward John Bevan, and Clayton Beadle discovered and patented the production process, and by 1905 the first commercial viscose rayon was on the market.

How is viscose made?

Viscose is derived from the ‘cellulose’ or wood pulp from fast-growing, regenerative trees such as eucalyptus, beech and pine, as well as plants such as bamboo, soy, and sugar cane. This cellulose material is then dissolved in a chemical solution to produce a pulpy viscous substance, which is then spun into fibres that can then be made into threads.

So, is it sustainable?

As a plant-based fibre, viscose is not inherently toxic or polluting. However, because of the growing fast fashion industry, much of the viscose on the market today is manufactured cheaply using energy, water, and chemically-intensive processes that have devastating impacts on workers, local communities, and the environment. This is why it (including bamboo viscose) was given ‘D’ and ‘E’ scores for sustainability in the Made-By Environmental Benchmark for Fibres.

There are two main areas of concern when it comes to the production of viscose, and they are the source of the wood pulp and how it is turned into a usable fabric.

The wood pulp that viscose is made from is manufactured by treating it with chemicals, which is then filtered and spun into a fine thread. This is a highly polluting process and releases many toxic chemicals into the air and waterways surrounding production plants. Carbon disulphide, one of the chemicals used, is another toxic ingredient which has been linked to higher levels of coronary heart disease, birth defects, skin conditions, and cancer, not just in textile workers, but also in those who live near viscose factories. What’s more, dissolving-pulp wastes approximately 70% of the tree and is a chemically intensive manufacturing process.

In 2017, an investigation was undertaken by the Changing Markets Foundation that linked fashion brands such as Zara, H&M, and Marks & Spencer to highly polluting viscose factories in China, India, and Indonesia. Concerns have also been raised regarding the devastating impact of wood pulp production on forests, people, and vulnerable animal populations.

What’s more, the production of viscose is contributing to the rapid depletion of the world’s forests, which are being cleared to make way for pulpwood plantations. It is estimated that around 30% of rayon and viscose used in fashion is made from pulp sourced from endangered and ancient forests. This leads not only to habitat destruction—creating a significant threat to endangered species—but also often involves human rights abuses and land grabbing from Indigenous communities.

Organisations like Canopy work to make sure that viscose is not from high-risk areas. In 2014, Canopy also teamed up with Stella McCartney to create a life-cycle analysis on alternative fibres.

Though the viscose production process is multi-faceted, retailers play a significant role in the problem. Fast-fashion giants are placing pressure on manufacturers to produce and distribute clothes at ever-increasing speeds and cheaper costs. This encourages these unsustainable social and environmental practices. Big brands have the money and power to step up and encourage responsible and sustainable manufacturing, but we are yet to see enough meaningful action.

Are there better options?

As technology progresses, new materials are created, such as EcoVero. Produced by Lenzing, this innovative fabric is made using sustainable wood from controlled sources which are either Forest Stewardship Council or Program for Endorsement of Forest Certification Schemes certified in Europe. More than 60% of the trees used to produce the fibre come from Austria and Bavaria to ensure lower emissions. Nearly all the chemicals used during the production of EcoVero are also recovered and reused, causing 50% less emissions and taking up half as much energy and water: Armedangels even started using EcoVero in 2017, like in this pretty dress:

Armedangels

Rated: Great
woman wearing orange viscose dress by armedangels

Niaraa Dress – Ships internationally

Affordable, ethical, and on-trend. Germany’s Armedangels gets a ‘Great’ rating overall from us. The brand covers all the basics for women, men, and kids. Armedangels' quality and long-lasting pieces are made from eco-friendly and certified materials, like Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) certified cotton. The brand also adopted the Fair Wear Foundation Code of Conduct to protect its workers abroad. Its products are available in sizes XS-XL.

See the rating.

Shop Armedangels.

Shop Armedangels @ thegreenlabels.

Another solution is to use upcycled viscose, like the R Collective:

The R Collective

Rated: Great
woman wearing black viscose jacket from the R Collective

Gisborne Jacket – Ships internationally

The R Collective's womenswear collections are made by reusing rescued excess materials from leading luxury brands and reputable manufacturers. The brand uses a high-proportion of eco-friendly materials, which limits the amount of chemicals, water and wastewater used in production. It also ensures the payment of a living wage in its supply chain, which is why we rated it 'Great'!

See the rating.

Shop The R Collective.

Shop The R Collective @ ourCommonplace.

What else can we do?

Another man-made fibre, modal, is said to be more sustainable than viscose, but in general, we recommend sticking to natural fabrics. Purchase garments made from natural, organic, sustainable, or recycled fibres, such as organic cotton, hemp, and linen, and ensure natural dyes are used. Keep in mind that some natural materials such as conventional cotton and wool have their own ethical issues regarding environmental sustainability, labour rights, and animal welfare.

There are also more ethical alternatives, like Tencel, as seen in these pieces:

Tasi Travels

Rated: Good

Wilder Wrap Dress – Ships internationally

For travelwear designed for adventures, look no further than Australian brand Tasi Travels. Boasting a stunning collection of handmade garments in eco-friendly materials that are made-to-order, you can feel good out in the world knowing you are leaving a light footprint behind. Garments come in sizes S/M and M/L.

See the rating.

Shop Tasi Travels.

Whimsy + Row

Rated: Good

Lex Tee – Ships internationally

This LA-based brand makes ethical fashion that looks great—a rare find indeed.  By limiting each garment to short runs, Whimsy + Row utilises deadstock fabric, reduces packaging waste, and takes care of precious water resources. Find most products in XS-XL.

See the rating.

Shop Whimsy + Row.

Finally, buy less, buy secondhand! Choosing well and buying less is a great way to reduce your impact on the environment. When you do want to add to your wardrobe, buying secondhand is an amazing way to form your own unique style. It’s also fantastic for the environment and your bank account!

Learn more about sustainable and ethical materials.

Editor's note

Feature image via the R Collective, all other images via brands mentioned. This article was first published in 2017 and updated in March 2020. Good On You publishes the world’s most comprehensive ratings of fashion brands’ impact on people, the planet and animals. Use our Directory to search more than 2,500 brands. We may earn a commission on sales made using our offer codes or affiliate links.

Ethical brand ratings. There’s an app for that.

Wear the change you want to see. Download our app to discover ethical brands and see how your favourites measure up.