Are you still unsure if viscose is an ethical option to replace some of the cotton in your wardrobe? We get where you're coming from, many of us have developed trust issues around the "eco-friendly" claims in the fashion industry. And rightly so! Unlike cotton, viscose attracts less media attention and is not so well understood, allowing fake claims to fly unnoticed.
What is Viscose Fabric?
Everyone will rush to tell you that viscose is made of cellulose, and honestly, that's pretty awesome! After all, cellulose is the main building block of plants, trees, and even algae which means it is organic and there's plenty of it in nature. And yet the most common source of raw material is wood pulp from fast-growing trees like eucalyptus, beech, and pine.
And from here it gets a little confusing...
Viscose is by definition a semi-synthetic fiber. It is part of the rayon family along with other cellulosic fibers like modal, lyocell, acetate, cupro, etc. Viscose, however, is the most common of them all and has the largest market share, making up 79% of the global rayon production.
But why do we say it is semi-synthetic? Well, the main reason is to differentiate it from fibers that occur naturally like cotton, silk, and wool. But also from synthetics such as polyester and nylon. Natural fibers are readily available to us with little to no processing, while synthetics are made artificially from non-renewable resources like petroleum. Rayon is indeed neither of the two. Its main compound is organic, but the fibers are artificially synthesized (man-made) through a series of chemical interventions.
The Benefits of Viscose
Invented as a cheap replacement for silk, viscose has some undeniable aesthetic features. It has a lustrous finish, excellent colors, and drapes nicely. If that's not enough to win your heart, it will sure make you love the soft, smooth, and light feel on the body.
Viscose is very versatile too! It is often easy to blend with other natural and synthetic materials like cotton, wool, lycra, etc. That makes it possible to engineer fabrics with many useful properties and a wide range of applications. You can find a variety of apparel and home textile products esp. summer dresses, blouses, lingerie, and even cozy bed sheets.
Environmentally viscose seems like a good material in the eyes of the general public. After all, it is made of trees which means it is renewable, biodegradable, and generates less waste. That is a great advertisement platform especially after the raising concerns around the impact of synthetic fibers and cotton agriculture. But honestly...
How Sustainable is Viscose?
Viscose can be a truly fascinating textile. That however makes it an easy target for fast-fashion corporations. Really, think about it, it has all it takes to be a best seller - look and feel that consumers desire and a very convincing price tag.
Increasing in popularity, cellulosic fibers are estimated at 7% of the total industry volume. Viscose is reportedly the 3rd most used textile only placing behind polyester and cotton. At the same time, the fast fashion business model is based on mass production, which creates constant pressure on suppliers to deliver more at a lower cost. Honestly, this is the root of all evil in fashion and the reason it has the reputation of a top polluter.
Viscose is not inherently bad for the environment. Yet, many companies that mass-produce it prioritize profit over ethics which creates many sustainability issues. The two most concerning are deforestation caused by unregulated sourcing of wood from endangered and ancient forests and poor handling of hazardous chemicals in manufacturing.
To gain quick insights about viscose and many other materials consider exploring the Textile Footprint Calculator.
For reference, our product assessment framework doesn't credit generic viscose any points when forming the rating score because of the associated risks.
In their 2016 report Canopy raises a hot button issue that requires urgent actions from leading brands and producers in the industry. The statistics are troubling, over 200 million trees are logged for fabrics on yearly basis and that number is expected to double by 2025. The lack of protection from governments and environmental organizations has left ecologically important forests at the mercy of financially driven corporations. The report reveals systemic clearing of endangered and ancient forests where many of the trees are over 1000 years old. In Indonesia, 70% of Sumatra's natural forest has been converted into plantations and in Canada, only 10% of Vancouver Island's old-growth forests remain intact.
Forests are important ecosystems and home to 80% of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity. Deforestation of this scale has a lasting impact on animals and their ability to form habitats and survive. That's backfiring on us, especially on the 60 million indigenous people who live in forests and rely on the healthy ecosystem for their livelihoods, freshwater, food, and fuel. Forests regulate the climate and improve the quality of the air we breathe. In fact, their ability to store carbon is only second the World Ocean thus playing a critical role in fighting climate change.
Raising awareness has been critical in taking the first steps towards more conscious management of our forests. The textile industry is making progress to sustainable sourcing of wood material. In 2016 only 2 of the 10 biggest viscose producers, Lenzing and Aditya Birla, were meeting the CanopyStyle standard. As of 2020, 52% of the global viscose supply is classified as "green shirt" in the Hot Button Ranking. The green shirt status means that the manufacturer has been audited and proved that no wood pulp is sourced from endangered or ancient forests. The full list of companies and their current status is available in the official 2020 Hot Button Report.
When it comes to viscose toxicity the problems start at the factory. The manufacturing of fibers from wood pulp is known as the viscose process. First, the cleaned and bleached pulp is treated with carbon disulfide (CS2) to prepare the cellulose xanthate which is then dissolved in caustic soda (NaOH) to form the honey-like viscose syrup that the material is named after. Second, the liquid solution is regenerated into fine white fiber filaments. For this purpose, the viscose is extruded through the holes of the shower-like spinnerets into a flowing spinning bath, which contains sulfuric acid (H2SO4), sodium sulfate, and zinc sulfate.
The process lists a cocktail of toxic chemicals that pose a threat to the environment, occupational exposure, and the health of the communities living near the factory. Many of the hazardous chemicals are not recycled causing air emissions and water pollution.
Carbon disulfide is one of the industrial chemicals with the worst reputation. It is a colorless inflammable liquid that has been linked to health issues that affect plant workers who suffer exposure. The chemical doesn't only impact those who are in direct contact, there is evidence of CS2 levels three times above the allowed limits in residential areas near the viscose plants in China. WHO warns about the potential health risks associated with acute and chronic exposure. The long list of serious conditions includes - cardiovascular diseases (stroke), respiratory failure, hormonal and reproductive issues, mental health problems, skin rashes, blurred vision, etc.
Another aspect that is often overlooked is the expected lifetime of the fabric. Sustainability is all about the efficient and ethical use of resources. If our clothes deteriorate quickly we will need to shop more often which consumes more natural resources and generates waste.
Unblended viscose is notoriously hard to maintain. It is more prone to stretch and tear than cotton and it gets even weaker when wet. That makes machine washing and drying a challenge. You can opt to dry cleaning, but it is chemically intensive and comes with an additional environmental burden. With that said, probably your best bet is handwashing in cold water to avoid shrinkage and dye bleeds. After all, if the good properties of viscose outweigh the headache it will give you, then we recommend following a care protocol that will allow you to enjoy your garments longer.
Is Bamboo any Better?
It's key to make clear that bamboo viscose is manufactured under the same rayon process. The only difference is the source of wood pulp. Fast-growing trees like eucalyptus, beech, and pine are used the most, but others like bamboo and sugar cane are no exception. In cases when wood pulp comes from bamboo, it is usually marketed as, well, ...bamboo.
Bamboo is often perceived as a greener fabric because of its association with the ultra fast-growing tree/grass. And while using bamboo as raw material solves many of the problems related to deforestation, it is equally toxic and dirty to produce.
How to Find Better Viscose?
Better alternatives do exist! All we have to do is believe in our consumer power and make the right call. Here is what you can do:
- Prefer sustainable viscose - Lenzing EcoVero™, Lenzing Viscose, Re:newcell, etc.
- Seek FSC and PEFC certified fabrics
- Choose quality brands that team up with responsible suppliers. To name a few, Stella McCartney and Eileen Fisher have been among the first to lead the change.
- If unsure, text brands and ask for their viscose suppliers. Then check how they rank in the latest CanopyStyle hot button report. Lenzing, Birla, ENKA and Kelheim are all good.
- Since 2017, the Changing Markets Foundation has been reporting on the state of viscose manufacturing. Their Dirty Fashion microsite, maintains a list of fashion brands that have disclosed information about their viscose supply chain.
Clean and ethical viscose has a lot of advantages over its generic equivalent. For instance, EcoVero™ by Lenzing AG represents the Best Available Technology (BAT) of global viscose production. They supply wood pulp only from sustainably managed FSC certified forests. Toxic gases such as carbon disulfide (CS2) and hydrogen sulfide (H2S) are not released into the environment but are recovered, converted, and returned to the production process.
Why choose EcoVero™?
If you want to expand your options or just can't quite find what you need, then you may want to consider other cellulosic fabrics. They have a very similar appeal while being highly sustainable.
If you want to go for a generic variant that will be likely more cost-effective then you should consider lyocell. The lyocell process came to life much later (in the 70s), it is also a type of rayon, but instead of the toxic CS2, it uses an organic solvent called NMMO to dissolve the wood pulp. Even better, the technology allows more than 99% of NMMO to be recovered and reused in the production process. The only drawback with generic lyocell is the lack of transparency in sourcing wood pulp.
Similarly to EcoVero™, Lenzing also creates sustainable alternatives to lyocell and modal:
- TENCEL™ Lyocell
- TENCEL™ Modal
- REFIBRA™ (lyocell from upcycled cotton scraps)