Viscose is one of those paradox fabrics. It’s soft and comes from nature but we asked ourselves is viscose really one of the good guys or just another bad guy in disguise? And yes we would like to take the moment to quote Taylor Swift “A nightmare dressed as a daydream?”. Let’s see.
Viscose, also known as rayon in some parts of the world, is derived from different soft and fast growing woods such as beech, pine and eucalyptus, which therefore makes the basic material in fact organic. Nevertheless, it is actually a semi-synthetic fibre. In fact, it can be categorized into the group of man made cellulosic fibres (MMCFs). To get from wood pulp to a fabric that can be used to produce clothing it needs to go through a chemical process, which ultimately makes it similar to a synthetic fibre. Thus, it ends up being a semi-synthetic fibre. So far so good. But, where can I find viscose?
It can be found in pretty much all our clothes from a high street skirt for 20€ to a designer suit for 2.000€. It is often used as a cheap alternative for silk – for example for those previously mentioned skirts. In that way it has a similar widespread use as polyester. In fact, it is said to be the third most commonly used fabric in the world and increasingly on demand for its positive characteristics. It is breathable, soft and maintains its shape well over time.
Is Viscose – like polyester – harmful for our planet, animals and people?
While many people believe that viscose – unlike polyester – is a sustainable fibre unfortunately it is not. It’s true in ways it’s an improvement to polyester as its core material is derived from wood, which is a natural material. Bear with me, I know this is the confusing part. As viscose is derived from wood it’s not a synthetic fibre and therefore biodegradable. That clearly is an improvement to polyester. Unfortunately, the production process of viscose is not much better than the one of polyester. This results in viscose being much like a synthetic fibre harmful for our planet.
What makes the production so harmful?
We already know it’s derived from wood pulp so let’s start there. To get a quality fabric the cellulose has to be at least 90% pure. The following will sound like my worst nightmare: a lesson in chemistry. But let’s get to it: The next step involves soda, which produces a chemical reaction that converts the cellulose to alkali cellulose. This step removes impurities from the cellulose. Then, it is pressed between two rollers to remove any excess liquid. These pressed sheets are then shredded and crumbled into a new substance, which is called “white crumb”.
Okay, but when do we get to the final stage? Well, not yet I’m afraid. The white crumb then needs to be aged. This is done by exposing it to pure oxygen and afterwards to carbon disulphide – a toxic substance that is easily inflammable and extremely irritating to the eyes and the skin if being exposed to it. That is only naming the most prominent effects. The result of the previous step is called “yellow crump”, which then needs to ripe for a few hours to then be filtered. Finally, the substance is dipped into a bath of sulfuric acid, which results in rayon filaments. These filaments are then spun, dawn, and washed to produce the desired fabric: viscose.
What is the impact of producing viscose?
After the forced chemistry lesson we know that a lot of toxic substances and acids are involved in the production process of viscose. Carbon disulphide for example has been linked to coronary heart disease, birth defects, skin conditions, coma and severe mental health issues if exposed to a person directly or via the air. Besides the heavy tolls it has on the people working in the factories and living near production plants, evidence has been found that the toxin is polluting water and air close to production plants in China resulting in large killings of aquatic life.
After all the bad news, we wanted to know if viscose can be produced in a sustainable way?
Right now, the production process causes air pollution, water pollution, severe health and safety issues for workers, high energy consumption and finally the problematic disposal of solid waste associated with the production process. A big step to a more sustainable production of viscose and other semi-synthetic fibres would be to move towards a closed-loop production system. What’s that? A closed-loop system is defined as a system that ensures emission controls and chemical recovery rates. It aims to recycle the majority of chemicals used during production and prevent the production process from negatively impacting human health and the environment. Today, most production plants are far away from such a closed-loop system, which is largely due to the pressure to cut costs and decrease production time from large fast fashion houses. Ultimately we are back at the paradoxical nature of the fibre. Viscose as a fibre has a huge potential to become sustainable if dirty production processes make room for closed-loop practices.
What to do with your garments made from viscose?
Burning them all is not an option!!! But naturally, after researching the production process, we encourage anyone to try minimizing the purchase of new clothing that is mainly made from viscose. Taking extra good care of the items that have found their way into your wardrobe in the past will increase their lifespan. Why is that so important? Increasing the lifespan by just 9 months can have a significant positive impact on the environment. Which is why I can’t stress enough to always always read the care instructions of your viscose pieces and any other piece in your wardrobe for that matter. Finally, I recommend steaming delicate viscose pieces especially if they have a silk like look to them instead of using an iron. For more robust looking items an iron can be used but make sure to ircon on a medium heat and never on maximum heat.
Researching viscose was really eye-opening for us as it is often portrayed as a good fibre when in fact it’s like we said in our intro one of the bad guys posing as a good guy. Nevertheless, there is still a big potential for viscose to become more sustainable and we hope the industry will move forward to a closed-loop production system in the future.