You might not believe it, but viscose is one of the most common fibers used in the textile industry. In fact, industry figures suggest that it's the third most popular choice of fiber globally.
Now, if you haven't heard of viscose before – you may have heard of it under another brand name, Rayon fabric.
It's a semi-synthetic fibre that draws its material mainly from trees but does that make it a sustainable fiber or should we be wary of potential greenwashing around the viscose production process?
We asked a textile specialist and this is what they told us about viscose.
What Is Viscose Fabric?
Viscose Rayon is a European invention. It was discovered/fabricated for the first time by Hilaire de Chardonnet a French chemist.
It was meant to be a cheaper alternative to silk. However, there was just one problem with this – commercial Viscose Rayon was an impossible dream as Hilaire's invention caught fire far too easily and was a danger to anyone who wore it.
In 1892, a team of British scientists with strong expertise in synthetic fibers decided to take on Viscose and by 1905, they had refined the chemically intensive manufacturing process to one which, while not eco-friendly per see, at least didn't involve the immolation of the wearer. And the first commercial Viscose fibre hit the market – where it was a huge success.
The name “viscose” comes from cellulose – which means that viscose material is a cellulose material and it's made from wood pulp.
Wood Pulp? Surely, That's Sustainable?
Sustainable fashion is often surprising and while Viscose is, indeed, made from wood pulp that doesn't make it a sustainable fabric. Responsible and sustainable manufacturing avoids the use of toxic chemicals but commercial viscose rayon uses a lot of toxic compounds in its manufacture, unlike say organic cotton which avoids these chemicals.
It's not that you can't make Viscose in a sustainable fashion, it's that by and large, it's not economic to do so.
So, they take the pulp and turn it into a viscous organic liquid which is treated with a ton of chemicals and then they filter that “soup” and use the remaining fraction to spin Viscose threads.
This Viscose process then results in the run-off being dumped into the waterways surrounding production plants and sees toxic fumes released into the air.
One of the chemicals they use, Carbon disulfide, is considered highly toxic and can cause heart disease, skin cancer, and skin conditions in workers that use it – worse, it can cause birth defects in their children too.
There is another version of viscose that is more eco-friendly called Modal fabric but even that is just a more sustainable viscose, it's not a fully sustainable fabric.
The Fashion Industry Has A Need For An Artificial Silk That Is Sustainable But Viscose Is Not It
There's no doubt that the fashion industry wants a solid alternative to silk.
But sadly, viscose just isn't it. An investigation by the Changing Markets Foundation found that brands such as ASOS, Zara, and H&M (all fast fashion brands) have viscose factories in Asia and all of them have been linked to the destruction of forests in countries like China, India and Indonesia and pollution of the local environment.
The growing fast fashion industry loves Viscose because it's a cheap breathable fabric but the reality for the planet is that these fashion brands get nearly 1/3 of the viscose they use from endangered and ancient forests. This is an environmental horror story even before the pulp is chemically treated.
We'd like to see the industry switch to Lyocell, which is another version of Viscose fabric but one which is much kinder to textile workers and to the environment.
It's not a completely sustainable alternative but it is much better than the currently used fabrics and it is made of sustainable wood and uses no poisonous chemicals.
Unfortunately, it's hard to be certain that Lyocell is what you're getting as there's no certification process for the fabric, as yet. Some of the brand names such as Tencel, Newell, etc. help you to have more confidence in your Viscose alternative.
Final Thoughts On The Sustainability Of Viscose Fabrics
Viscose might make for wonderful drapey summer dresses but it's not a sustainable fabric, though it is manufactured cheaply, it requires chemically intensive processes that ensure the plant-based fibre is not great for the planet.
Fortunately, there are alternatives and if you pay close attention to the supply chain of the brands that you buy your clothes from, you should be able to source those alternatives reasonably easily.