Is Viscose Sustainable? What Exactly Is This Semi-Synthetic Material?

Viscose is a semi-synthetic fiber made from a renewable resource: wood. It is affordable, versatile, looks like silk, and feels like cotton.

It is also very frequently used as a greenwashing tactic by many retailers, with brands claiming viscose is a fiber that comes from a natural resource and is, therefore, eco friendly.

But what these companies don’t tell you is how viscose is made from a combination of carbon disulfide, sodium hydroxide, and other potentially harmful chemicals.

These inconsistencies beg the question: is viscose truly sustainable? Or has it just become another corporate tool for making a profit? Let’s dive in.

Viscose neckerchief
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What Is Viscose Fabric?

Viscose is a first-generation rayon that is neither fully natural nor fully synthetic. Made from the cellulose fibers of plants, viscose fabric is cost-efficient to manufacture and is a very versatile material.

Viscose is frequently used in clothing as well as some household items like upholstery or carpeting. You may also see it used in blankets, sheets, and other forms of bedding.

Because it is quite affordable, viscose is one of the more used textiles in the clothing industry—chances are, you probably have some shirts made from viscose or viscose blends.

A Brief History of Viscose Fabric

Viscose was invented in the late 19th century and is generally touted as one of the very first—if not the first—manufactured fibers. It was originally intended to serve as a cheaper alternative to silk and was developed by Count Hillaire de Chardonnet.

However, Count Chardonnet’s version was considered too flammable and it was further improved by the Bemberg Company. Although developed late in the 19th century, viscose only became popular around the 1930s when it was starting to get used more as artificial silk.

Albeit our use of viscose, today is markedly different from using it primarily as artificial silk, the properties of viscose remain pretty much the same, bringing us to our next point: the qualities of viscose fabric.

Viscose Qualities and Characteristics

As we previously mentioned, viscose is quite a versatile fabric. Here are some of the fabric’s better characteristics:

Breathable

One of the best qualities of viscose is that it is a breathable fabric. It doesn’t stick to your body when you sweat and doesn’t trap body heat, making it an ideal material for warm and humid weather conditions.

If you live in a place where it feels like summer 24/7, then viscose is a good fabric to keep you cool and fresh throughout the day.

Its breathability is also one of the main things that separate viscose from truly synthetic fabrics like polyester or nylon.

Absorbent

Depending on what you’re looking for in a fabric, absorbency may be a good or a bad thing. On one hand, viscose being absorbent means it won’t trap heat and will help regulate your body temperature.

But since viscose is absorbent, it is not moisture-wicking. Therefore, it might not always be the best material when you are working out and sweating a lot.

Moisture-wicking fabrics like polyester dry much faster and are much better at directing moisture to the surface of the fabric so it can evaporate.

Cost Effective

Of course, let’s not forget one of the foremost reasons viscose rayon became popular in the first place: its price.

By its nature, it is quite affordable to produce viscose rayon. And while other types of rayon like modal and lyocell may be more expensive, viscose generally lies on the cheaper side of the fabric spectrum.

Especially considering that viscose can mimic the look of silk, its price point is an appealing factor indeed.

How Is Viscose Different From Rayon?

You may often hear the words viscose and rayon used interchangeably—and for a reason! There is essentially no difference between viscose and rayon fabric.

Rayon is simply another word for viscose and it became popularized in the early years of viscose fabric since the term ‘viscose’ didn’t have the best ring to it. Calling it artificial silk was a no-go either.

As a result, the term rayon came to be—derived from the french term rayonner, which means to shine through, radiate, and glow. It was a play on the silky smooth appearance of viscose that made it so pleasing to the eye.

It was used then as a way to market viscose and the term has stuck with us until today.

Although these two terms generally mean the same thing, there are some instances when there is a difference between viscose and rayon. The best example of this is when rayon is used in reference to modal or lyocell.

Rayon fabrics can be categorized into three generations: viscose, modal, and lyocell, with viscose being the first and lyocell being the latest innovation in the rayon family. You may read up more on these fabrics in our guides on modal and lyocell.

Sometimes, the word rayon may be used to describe either of these two, but it is most frequently used to refer to viscose. So, in essence, rayon and viscose are pretty much the same.

The Viscose Production Process

Viscose is a semi-synthetic fabric. This means that it sits right in the middle of natural and synthetic fibers.

Viscose fabric is made of plant-based components, which indicates that its raw materials are natural fibers! So why do we call it semi-synthetic? Well, the answer lies in the viscose process of manufacturing.

Instead of cleaning, carding, and weaving like you would most natural fabrics, viscose rayon undergoes a chemical process that transforms it from wood pulp into a viscous liquid ready for extrusion and subsequent spinning.

It is this chemical process that makes rayon fabric synthetic.

Viscose begins with the fibers of cellulosic plants like wood, cotton, and even sugar cane! Some of the more common components used to make viscose are beech and eucalyptus trees, although other trees may be used as well.

The raw material is cut into wood chips and then soaked and cooked in a combination of water, sodium sulfide, and sodium hydroxide, better known as caustic soda or lye. This step transforms the chips into wood pulp and preps it for the next step.

Many manufacturing companies purchase their wood pulp already pre-processed and the first step of manufacturing typically beings with the following.

Once already turned into wood pulp, the raw material is further dissolved in more caustic soda. Doing so transforms the wood pulp into alkali and cleanses it of any impurities, thereby creating a clean slate to create viscose fabric.

Once clean, the new pulp is pressed into sheets and shredded into crumbs in preparation for the next step, which—you probably guessed it—involves more soaking.

These crumbs are then soaked in carbon disulfide to create cellulose xanthate. This is then dissolved in some more caustic soda, resulting in a slightly runny, viscous solution.

This viscous solution is then extruded through spinnerets and then soaked in sulfuric acid to set them and prepare them for spinning into yarn. From here, the viscose rayon can be woven or knit into fabric, as desired.

Other types of rayon, like modal, which is a high wet modulus rayon, undergo some more processing. Lyocell, on the other hand, uses a unique solvent (amine oxide), which is far safer than the toxic chemicals used to create viscose rayon.

Is Viscose a Sustainable Fabric?

Knowing all those about viscose, it’s now time to ask ourselves the big question: is viscose a sustainable fabric?

Simply put, no, viscose is not a sustainable fabric. The material has to go through so much chemical processing (often involving toxic chemicals), that to call it sustainable would be an act of greenwashing.

In reality, though, a lot of companies market viscose as a sustainable alternative to otherwise “dirty” crops like cotton. After all, viscose is made from natural materials plus it’s biodegradable, so it should be sustainable, right?

As we’ve learned from the previous discussion, it takes more than just being made from natural materials to be considered sustainable. Let’s explore some of the more pressing environmental issues with viscose.

Chemical Disposal

Knowing how many chemicals are used in making viscose, it’s easy to get concerned about the environmental impact of chemical disposal.

As you can imagine, there are plenty of chemical residues as well as emissions in viscose manufacturing sites. And as many of us know, corporations are not always the best at dealing with their waste.

Improper disposal of these toxic chemicals not only impacts water systems but also impacts air quality as well.

The improper disposal of chemicals like carbon disulfide, sulphuric acid, and hydrogen sulfide, among others, already has negative impacts on the nearby population. Just imagine how much more of a struggle manufacturing plant workers have to go through.

In comparison, other regenerated cellulose fabrics like modal rayon and lyocell have better chemical disposal systems since some companies capture and reuse these chemicals for a closed-loop production process.

Deforestation

Investigating a product’s environmental impact requires an analysis of its supply chain. And in this case, we have to start from the very beginning and remember that viscose is made from wood. And like all commodified natural products, wood is specifically prone to exploitation—and using it for viscose is no exception.

According to Canopy, around 30% of the global rayon or viscose production relies on wood pulp from ancient and endangered forests [1], clearly showing that viscose isn’t as harmless as it seems.

Some casual wear retailers exclusively use viscose that come from Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)-certified wood pulp. This means that the wood fiber was sourced sustainably and not obtained from endangered forests.

Is Viscose Vegan?

Because viscose is a regenerated cellulose fabric and is made from a plant-based material, it can technically be considered vegan.

However, on a deeper, more indirect level, viscose rayon can also have negative impacts on animal welfare.

Deforestation, for example, is one of the most pressing ecological issues when it comes to cellulosic fabrics that require wood to manufacture.

Deforestation not only causes harm to the trees themselves but also has ripple effects on the entire ecosystem, with animals losing habitats and sources of food.

If you view viscose through the lens of its overall impact on the environment, then it becomes more complicated to think about.

Veganism, at its core, can mean different things to different people. Plenty of people go vegan because of dietary restrictions while others may lean more towards the reasoning of animal welfare.

However, veganism can also be about believing and acting with kindness, especially towards animals that are frequently commodified for human use. And in the ethos of ecological kindness, viscose does fall a bit short.

Nevertheless, viscose rayon remains a vegan fabric. And if you do end up buying it as a vegan, don’t worry, it’s all well within reasonable bounds.

Caring For Viscose

If you have viscose in your closet, the best thing you can do is keep it in good shape so it’ll last some time yet.

Viscose is best washed by hand and with mild detergent. If you’re using a machine under a gentle cycle, don’t forget to set it to the “hand wash” setting and use a clothing bag for good measure.

Air dry your viscose for best results as the fabric’s colors could fade under direct sunlight.

Natural Fibers That Are Alternatives To Viscose

If you’re going for more sustainable and natural alternatives to viscose, here are some of the best fabrics we can recommend:

Organic Cotton

Although viscose was made to be an alternative to natural silk, it feels a lot closer to cotton than actual silk. To add, many clothing items (e.g., t-shirts, casual dresses) can be made with cotton!

Cotton products are therefore good alternatives to viscose fabric. Plus, cotton is a natural fiber!

However, we do have to emphasize that conventionally produced cotton also has its downsides. This water-absorbing fabric also requires a lot of chemicals and water to produce and does not escape many of the environmental consequences of cotton.

Organic cotton, on the other hand, is not made with any toxic chemicals and growing cotton organically uses considerably less water. Some studies have obtained results indicating that organic cotton saves up to 91% water compared to conventional cotton. However, numbers may vary across different plantations and planting practices.

If you end up choosing cotton as your viscose alternative of choice, make sure to go for organic or recycled cotton.

Lotus Silk

Lotus silk is another silk alternative that may be a good option if you are looking for a vegan silk alternative that is not viscose.

The major disadvantage of lotus silk is its price and accessibility. Given that only a handful of manufacturers produce it, lotus silk has incredibly limited demand and isn’t nearly as mass-produced as many of the fabrics we commonly use today.

If you want to know more about this vegan silk, check out our guide on ahimsa silk here.

Synthetic Alternatives To Viscose

Viscose is made from wood pulp and is therefore not a purely synthetic material. While we generally do not recommend synthetic alternatives to fabrics, there may be instances when you need the specific properties of synthetics (i.e., performance wear).

Recycled Polyester

Some people say polyester and viscose are quite similar fabrics, and in some ways, they can be. Both polyester and viscose are made from long fibers, but the main difference between the two is that polyester is a purely synthetic fabric.

If you are looking for a material you can work out in or go to the beach with, polyester is one of your best bets, especially since it comes at a pretty competitive price point.

But just like with cotton, we do stress that not all variations of polyester are good options. Virgin polyester, for example, is one of our least favorite fabrics due to its intense environmental impact from the petrochemicals and the resulting plastic waste.

If you are in a position where polyester is superior to other textiles, such as when you need something high-performing yet affordable, go for recycled polyester instead.

Recycled polyester is essentially the same material as virgin polyester except that it has an improved ecological impact.

Nevertheless, even recycled polyester is not the most excellent material nor is it the most environmentally friendly. When using this type of fabric, you still run the risk of depositing microplastics into our water system.

So just like with any plastic, use and care for polyester responsibly.

Modal and Lyocell

Much better alternatives to viscose fabric are modal and lyocell, although lyocell is still the more eco friendly fabric.

The manufacturing process of lyocell fabric does not require carbon disulfide, a chemical necessary to create the viscous organic liquid viscose is named after.

Manufacturing companies like Tencel have also created much better ways of producing rayons like sourcing from sustainably grown forests, using a closed-loop manufacturing process, and increasing producer responsibility.

As an effect, the manufacturing process becomes way more environmentally friendly with improved air emissions, water usage, and protection of our forests.

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Final Thoughts

The bottom line is quite simple: viscose is not sustainable. Regardless of how sustainable or eco friendly companies may market viscose, it just falls short of many of the characteristics required to make a material sustainable.

So, the next time you see brands advertising viscose as some sort of sustainable fiber, think twice and stay vigilant. Because more likely than not, these brands are simply greenwashing you.

Resources:

  1. https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/zara-h-m-fashion-sustainable-forests-logging-fabric

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