Whether you’re a sustainable brand on the lookout for eco-friendly materials or a conscious shopper keen to make ethical decisions, finding out what clothes are really made of is a top priority. We talk a lot about the issues with chemical-heavy cotton farming and harmful synthetic fabrics like polyester, but viscose, caught somewhere between a natural and synthetic fiber, remains a bit of a mystery. So, is viscose eco-friendly?
What Is Viscose?
The process to make viscose was first discovered by English chemist, Charles Cross in 1891. It then went on to be sold on the market from 1905, when it was mainly called ‘rayon’ or ‘artificial silk’, thanks to its softly draping quality. It is made from tree cellulose, usually from Eucalyptus trees, which is then broken down through a chemical process to form fibers. A versatile and affordable fabric, viscose is popular for these reasons and because it takes to dye particularly well.
How Is Viscose Made?
The most common method for turning cellulose into viscose is known as ‘the viscose process’, so-called because of the honey-like viscosity of the fluid produced. Cellulose is immersed in caustic soda, or sodium hydroxide, to break down fibers. It is then bleached, spun and reformed to make the material we can use in clothes. The problem with this process is that sodium hydroxide is highly hazardous, and this richly chemical washing process is often not trapped within a closed-capture system – so it can escape into waterways and cause environmental harm.
What About The Trees?
Since lots of tree pulp is needed to make viscose, its production leads to large monocrop plantations of acacia and eucalyptus trees. To clear the way for these plantations, rainforests are felled in Indonesia, South Africa and Canada. Destroying diverse and even endangered rainforests to plant a single, water-intensive, tree like eucalyptus is extremely harmful to the local ecosystem. Additionally, many Indigenous communities have been displaced from their homes because of this process, unable to defend their land against corporations because Indigenous land rights were not recognized. To learn more about one of these communities, watch the video below, which tells the story of Batak activists who have been beaten or jailed for trying to peacefully defend the land they depend on:
Is Viscose Eco-Friendly?
Short answer, no. But Lenzing produces a more responsible alternative viscose called TENCEL®, which is made using a closed-loop system, so 99 percent of the chemicals used to treat cellulose are captured and not released. However it remains unclear if only sustainable forests are used.
Over 70 million trees are turned into textiles every year, not only is this harmful to ecosystems and communities but it’s just plain inefficient, since only 30 percent of tree matter is actually used for clothing, the remaining 70 percent gets wasted. These disturbing facts come from RAN (Rainforest Action Network), who run a campaign called Out Of Fashion to address the issues with using tree pulp for fashion. For viscose to be eco-friendly it would need to be sustainably sourced and treated within a closed-loop system. Cheap, fast fashion makes cheap and harmful production appealing, so it’s more necessary than ever to demand better, eco-friendly materials in our clothes.