Material Monday EP. 3: What is Viscose and how sustainable is it?

Viscose is the third most commonly used fabric after polyester and cotton. If you’ve never heard of viscose before, you might know it by the name rayon. (Viscose is actually a type of rayon. The two materials are manufactured slightly differently, but they look and feel pretty much the same.)

Viscose is often said to be more sustainable than polyester and cotton. But is it really more sustainable? There have been many discussions about the material recently. Keep reading to find out what what viscose is, how sustainable it is and whether there are more sustainable alternatives.

What is viscose?

Viscose is a a semi-synthetic fibre that is made from cellulose. Cellulose is what helps plants stay stiff and upright.

Viscose is usually used to make light and delicate clothes, like soft blouses, skirts and dresses. The material is often used as a cheaper and more durable alternative to silk.

How is viscose made?

Viscose and other semi-synthetic fibres are made by breaking down and modifying cellulose from wood pulp.

The trees used to make viscose include eucalyptus, bamboo, pine, and soy. The cellulose of these trees is dissolved in a chemical solution, and is then turned into fibres. Those fibres are then spun into viscose threads.

How sustainable is viscose?

How sustainable viscose is comes down to the way it’s produced. Unfortunately, because of the growing fast fashion industry, a lot of viscose is produced as cheaply as possible. The process often has horrible effects on the environment, including water and air pollution.

So is viscose more sustainable than cotton and polyester? In contrast to polyester, viscose is biodegradable. It also doesn’t require oil to be produced. In that sense, viscose is better for the environment than polyester. But according to the Common Objective, the production of viscose contributes to more greenhouse gas emissions than the production of cotton. 

Overall, viscose was given ‘D’ and ‘E’ scores for sustainability in the Made-By Environmental Benchmark for Fibres.

However, there are ways to produce viscose in a sustainable way. Read more about sustainable viscose below.

Ethical issues

The environmental issues aren’t the only problem with viscose. There are also ethical issues related to the production of the material.

Many forests around the world are being cleared to make room for wood plantations. It is estimated that around 30% of viscose used in fashion is made from trees that are sourced from endangered and ancient forests. This also threatens endangered species and often includes human rights abuses and land-grabbing from Indigenous communities.

Additionally, the chemicals used in viscose productions can cause serious health issues, such as cancer and heart conditions for garment workers and local communities.

buying viscose

So, how can you make sure that a viscose clothing is sustainable and ethical? As always, it comes down to the brand’s transparency. Brands that are transparent, will state where their viscose comes from. Another helpful hint are certifications. Organisations like Canopy work to protect endangered forests and to produce viscose sustainably. You can find a list of brands that partner with Canopy here. But be careful – just because a brand is on this list does not mean it is 100% sustainable.

sustainable alternatives to viscose

There are a few new materials that are very similar to conventional viscose. They are also made from cellulose and feel similar, but they are more sustainable.

Some materials worth mentioning are Tencel, Refibra and EcoVero. All three fabrics are developed by Lenzing, an innovative Austrian company.

EcoVero is made from sustainable wood pulp from controlled sources. All sources are either Forest Stewardship Council or Program for Endorsement of Forest Certification Schemes certified. More than 60% of the trees used to produce EcoVero come from Austria and Bavaria to ensure lower emissions. Nearly all the chemicals used are also recovered and reused. This causes 50% less emissions and uses half as much energy and water. (Example: Viktoriaa Dress – Armedangels: Made from 100% Ecovero)

Refibra is created from recycled cotton scraps and wood pulp.

Tencel is made from trees grown on land that is not suitable for growing food. It’s also produced in an environmentally-friendly way. I will write more about Tencel in next week’s Material Monday. (Example: Gellar Top – Reformation: Made from 95% Tencel)

And finally, there are other entirely natural materials that are more sustainable than conventional viscose: linen, organic cotton and hemp.

In conclusion, conventional viscose (or rayon) is definitely not as sustainable as it is often portrayed. The production of the material has several negative effects on the environment. There are also ethical implications, such as dangerous chemicals and threatening of endangered species and forests. If you are looking for more sustainable materials that are similar to viscose, EcoVero, Refibra and Tencel are great alternatives. 100% natural alternatives are organic cotton, linen and hemp.  

Please let me know if you have any questions, thoughts or recommendations.


Thanks for reading!

Pauline xx

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