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.
What is it?
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 viscose (including bamboo viscose) was given a ‘D’ score for sustainability in the Made-By Environmental Benchmark for Fibres.
The wood pulp that viscose is made from is manufactured by treating it with sodium hydroxide (caustic soda) and carbon disulphide, 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 is another toxic chemical 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.
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Impacts on people and planet
A recent article in the Guardian detailed an investigation undertaken by the Changing Markets Foundation that linked international fashion brands such as Zara, H&M, ASOS and Marks and 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.
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.
Wastewater outfall near viscose plants in Jiangxi, China | Image credit: Changing Markets Foundation
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?
Choose natural fabrics — Purchase garments made from natural, organic, sustainable or recycled fibres, such as organic cotton, hemp, linen and natural dyes. Keep in mind that some natural materials such as regular cotton and wool have their own ethical issues regarding environmental sustainability, labour rights and animal welfare.
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 a great way to form your own unique style! And it’s also fantastic for the environment and your bank account!
Get informed — Looking to buy something brand new? Look for brands that care about their environmental impact, the rights of their workers and animal welfare. The Good On You app is a great tool for finding brands that share your values.