Used in everything from activewear to formalwear, viscose is a versatile staple of the fashion sector. However, this ever-present fabric has made some serious environmental missteps and is often produced in shadowy supply chains, leaving us all wondering, is viscose environmentally friendly?
The process to make viscose involves breaking down wood fibres into a wood pulp. This pulp is then washed, cleaned, bleached and treated with a myriad of toxic chemicals to create regenerated fibres that can be spun into yarn and then a textile.
Why is viscose so popular?
Viscose’s enviable versatility is one of the drivers of its rise to prominence in the fashion sector. Depending on how it is manufactured, viscose can mimic the qualities of a variety of fabrics, with silk being one of the most common.
It is often cheaper and offers extra durability compared to its natural counterparts. Viscose also works well with other fibres to make fabric blends. The unique properties of this innovative fabric mean that it is used across the fashion sector, with everything from the luxury market to fast fashion giants taking advantage of viscose.
A History of Innovation
Viscose may now be a staple of the fashion sector, however, this wasn’t always the case. Viscose-like material was invented in the late 1800s by French industrialist and scientist, Hilaire de Chardonnet, searching for a cheaper alternative to silk. However, his specific blend was highly flammable and was taken off the market due to safety concerns. It wasn’t until 1905 that the first commercial, and safer, viscose rayon hit the shelves.
Since these early beginnings viscose has gone from strength to strength and can now be found in everything from skirts, dresses and hosiery to velvet coats. Branching beyond fashion, viscose is also found in bedding, carpets and even cellophane.
So, Is Viscose Environmentally Friendly?
Due to the mix of its natural origins and synthetic manufacturing process, it’s hard to know at first glance if viscose is sustainable. Because of its natural origins it can biodegrade when not mixed with synthetic fibres, however, it inherently gets a failing grade for sustainability.
In the Higg Index, viscose scored better than wool and silk. However, this is largely due to the limited scope of this index as it doesn’t consider the entire lifecycle of a fabric or all environmental and social factors associated with a material. For more about these indices and which fabrics are most sustainable see here, and for our guide to biodegradable fabrics see here. Our article Water Pollution in the Fashion Industry: the Shocking Truth and What You Can Do has more information on this topic.
Perhaps the biggest mark against viscose’s sustainable credentials is its part in the deforestation of ancient and endangered forests. Rainforest clearing to create plantations or the use of rainforest trees to fuel the viscose market are making a heart-breaking impact on some of the world’s most delicate ancient and endangered forests. Forests in South East Asia are at particular risk of forest clearing for the viscose trade.
A Chemical Conundrum
Not only are these chemicals harmful to the environment, they also pose a major threat to human health. These two chemicals alone can cause neurological changes, eye damage, cancer, organ damage and severe chemical burns. Air quality tests outside one viscose factory in India found carbon disulphide levels to be at 125 times the WHO guideline value.
As well as the health effects on workers and local populations mentioned here, many viscose production plants don’t operate in a closed-loop system. A closed-loop system involves water and chemicals inside the system being recirculated and reused so that exposure to the outside atmosphere is mitigated.
Unfortunately, viscose manufacturers are known culprits of dumping wastewater back into the environment: in a 2017 report, viscose manufacturers in every country visited were found to be dumping wastewater back into the ecosystem.
Pollution from viscose factories entering waterways has been associated with killing fish and aquatic life, stunting crop growth and putting already endangered species at further risk. The potency of chemicals involved in viscose production, such as carbon disulphide and sodium hydroxide, can mean that even one instance of pollution can lead to severe biological harm.
Considering viscose is made from trees, it may be hard to believe that tree plantations to support viscose manufacturing dramatically contribute to carbon emissions. However, the rainforest environments that are cleared for viscose production have a much greater ability to lower carbon emissions than the plantations that take their place.
A hectare of forest trees has a far greater capacity for carbon absorption than a hectare of pulpwood plantation trees, which can be a variety of species but are those planted specifically to be turned into pulp to become viscose.
This means pulpwood plantations can’t take the same amount of climate contributing carbon out of the atmosphere as biodiverse rainforest environments. When rainforest is cleared to create plantations, this negatively impacts the area’s carbon footprint.
If these plantations are created on peatland then the impacts are even direr. Studies have found that every year, every hectare of pulpwood plantation on drained peat releases emissions equivalent to 98 return flights from London to New York.
Can it be Sustainable?
So, is viscose environmentally friendly? Currently, the answer is a resounding no. However, it has the potential to be. When managed correctly and manufactured responsibly viscose doesn’t have to be as damaging to the environment as it currently is.
Sourcing wood from managed forests goes a long way in making the industry more sustainable. This means that forests are managed in a way that plant and animal life can continue to thrive and biodiversity is supported while still being productive for the fibre trade.
The trend of sourcing viscose from sustainable sources has been growing in the fashion industry. Canopy, which campaigns to save the world’s forests, found in their 2020 report that 52% of manufacturers have stopped sourcing manmade cellulosic fibres from ancient or endangered forests. This number is up from just 28% in 2018.
Closed-Loop Water and Chemical Systems
Technology for viscose manufacturers to create a closed-loop system is already available. These systems reuse and reclaim the chemicals and water needed to create viscose fibres meaning that the chemicals are not released into the environment. It goes without saying that the more factories that implement this technology, the less environmentally harmful the process will become.
The organisation Changing Markets is a driving force for adopting closed-loop systems. It has created a road map for moving to closed-loop processing. 14 major fashion companies including Next, Marks & Spencer and H&M have already signed a pledge to adopt more responsible and ethical production practices.
Innovation is an important pillar in the fashion industry. Viscose was the result of such innovation and now companies are innovating again to make these sustainable alternatives:
Common in sustainable activewear, Modal is a somewhat more sustainable alternative to traditional viscose. Commonly made from beech trees, truly sustainable modal must be sourced from managed forests to avoid contributing to deforestation. While a large percentage of modal is sourced from managed forests, it is important to check a specific brand’s supply chains to ensure this.
A viable viscose alternative, Tencel lyocell is biodegradable when not mixed with other fabric fibres and requires less dye than cotton. Tencel lyocell does require the use of chemicals, but not those used in viscose production. These chemicals are more easily recoverable in the closed-loop system used.
Is Bamboo Viscose Sustainable?
Often portrayed as a sustainable option, bamboo viscose further complicates viscose’s environmentally friendly conundrum. Bamboo is fast-growing, doesn’t require pesticides and is a less thirsty crop than commonly used cotton.
As bamboo itself is a largely sustainable crop, it can be an eco-friendly fabric if the process to turn it into bamboo viscose is managed responsibly in a closed-loop system with environmental and ethical policies in place. It’s important to check the information from the brand you’re buying from to find out if this is the case. Most brands will let you know if it is!
The Future for Fashion and Forests
The versatility and popularity of viscose mean that its use is unlikely to be reduced. This is why it is so important to buy from companies that support sustainable and ethical viscose production. Whether that is purchasing viscose clothing made in a closed-loop system, supporting new innovations such as EcoVero or learning more about where the viscose in our clothes comes from, we have the power to support change.
Viscose was an innovation for the textile sector, we have the power to embrace new innovations to create a truly sustainable sector.
Fashion should never come at the cost of ancient forests, clean water or people’s health.