Welcome back to WTF? (aka our favourite question), where we attempt to demystify the fashion and textile industry.
This week we ask WTF is Viscose?
Viscose/Rayon is one of the most popular fabrics in the textile industry. Soft and drapey, it is often compared to silk but with a much lower price point.
So WTF is it, how is it made and importantly when (and why) do we avoid it?
What is Viscose?
Viscose is a type of MMCF (man-made cellulosic fibre) or ‘regenerative cellulosic fibre’. These terms encompass any fibre which is made by taking a plant, breaking it down then reforming it.
Rayon, lyocell, Tencel™, modal, cupro, Ecovero™, and acetate are all types of MMCFs. Some are brand names, some are generic fibre names and they are often used interchangeably = mass confusion. For the sake of sanity (and accuracy) we will use the umbrella term MMCFs throughout this article.
Because MMCFs require the plant to be broken down (through various chemical processes) they are categorised as ‘semi-synthetic’ not ‘natural’ fibres. This does not mean there is any polyester component to them, unless that is blended in later.
Technically MMCFs are biodegradable because they are made from plants, but their biodegradability can be impacted by how they are dyed, processed and coated during production (this relates to all fibres, natural or not).
What is it made from?
Usually wood pulp. The majority of the time it comes from eucalyptus or beech trees but it can come from any plant source; bamboo, ginger, even cotton scraps in the case of cupro. Heads up, just because a fibre is made from scraps or a fast growing plant doesn’t make it safe or sustainable. The entire production process needs to be taken into account.
Concerns around production
Sourcing of raw materials
Viscose production is linked to deforestation, including the logging of trees in ancient and endangered forests. The impacts of deforestation are vast, serious and real. They include:
- loss of crucial habitat for wildlife
- loss of important and complex eco-systems that maintain environmental balance
- increased greenhouse gas emissions. Trees play an important role in capturing carbon plus the act of cutting down a tree releases carbon into the atmosphere
- soil erosion (the loss of and degradation of fertile soil)
- destruction of important resources for indigenous communities.
Trees grow back but complex ecosystems take time to develop. Time, many experts say we don’t have. Fibre production is not the sole cause of deforestation, but it contributes - significantly.
Bamboo is often cited as a more sustainable source of wood however even this comes with its own set of concerns. Bamboo can also be harvested from ancient and endangered forests, natural ecosystems may be cleared to make room for bamboo crops and bamboo can invade and colonise other plant species.
Without transparency it can be difficult for consumers, brands or even manufacturers to know where the wood for their fibres is coming from.
Chemicals and Pollution
Making MMCFs uses a lot of energy and a lot of chemicals. One chemical used in viscose and modal production is Carbon Disulphide, a known neurotoxin. Carbon disulphide exposure has been associated with serious health consequences since the beginning of its use in the 1970s.
Viscose production in the EU must comply with strict guidelines and production in the US has all but disappeared however the majority of countries where viscose is produced do not share these policies or protections.
Creating viscose safely and responsibly isn’t cheap. Before we go pointing blame at the countries producing these fibres it’s important to understand who introduced the manufacturing into their countries and where the drive for cheap, unregulated viscose is coming from.
For a more detailed dive into the history of viscose we would highly recommend reading Worn by Sofi Thanhauser.
Aside from Carbon Disulphide a range of other chemicals are required to produce MMCFs and if released into the environment via waterways as waste or through the air they are extremely damaging. Unfortunately they often are released which is bad for all of us, but particularly bad for the communities where the fabrics are being produced.
More responsible MMCFs
Viscose and other MMCFs CAN be produced in a more responsible way by ensuring wood is sourced from sustainably managed forests, employing closed loop production methods, monitoring outputs and investing in new technologies (such as next generation solutions - see below).
Lenzing AG is a company that has been pioneering more responsible MMCF production for years and consistently ranks highest on Canopy’s hot button report (an independent audit of MMCF producers).
They demonstrate commitments to their sourcing of wood from certified sources such as FSC and PFEC and protecting endangered and ancient forests.
They have developed technology to allow them to create viscose using a closed loop system which monitors water use and minimises chemical run off. This fibre is trademarked as Lenzing™ Ecovero™ Viscose. You can read more about it here.
They also specialise in creating lyocell fibres (made without the use of Carbon Disulfides) which employ a closed loop system. These fibres are trademarked as Tencel™. As a company they monitor water use, greenhouse gas emissions, chemical use and engage in wastewater treatment.
As always it’s not just about where or how the FIBRE is made, but also how these fibres are then transformed into FABRICS. That’s why we don’t just look at the origin of our fibres but also the manufacturers of our fabrics.
Healthy fabric consumption
The creation of any new textile takes resources, energy, water and chemicals therefore we always encourage choosing products of the highest quality that will be loved and will last. Using MMCFs from responsible manufacturers such as those produced by Lenzing AG provides assurances around quality, sourcing of raw materials and management of chemicals and waste.
Looking after your MMCFs is vital to ensuring a long life plus making sure you use them for appropriate garments. Despite how they are sometimes marketed they are not appropriate for heavy, every day wear so save them for special items.
If fabric consumption could be conceptualised as a food pyramid we would place MMCFs near the top - a delightful treat but not with every meal.
Looking to the future
Next Generation Solutions materials refers to MMCFs created from waste, mostly recycling of textiles, food and agricultural waste. They have enormous potential in their ability to preserve and protect forests, reduce greenhouse gas emissions as well as providing additional revenue streams for farmers and methods of managing (and monetising) current waste. As discussed above, it is not just the source of the raw materials that is important, the production processes are equally important. Lenzing AG along with other companies are currently developing production of these types of fibres and we expect to see them increasingly as a mainstream textile (and get our hands on some too!).
Want to learn more?
Canopy is a non-profit organisation dedicated to the protection of the worlds endangered and ancient forests. They are an incredible source of information for all things deforestation and the Canopy Hot Button Report is an excellent tool for finding out more about the companies who currently produce MMCFs.
- 📕WORN - By Sofi Thanhauser