If you’ve decided to swear off polyester because it’s a petroleum product, you might be pleased to know that you can buy clothing made with rayon viscose, a high-performance fabric that is made of a natural, renewable resource: plants. It’s biodegradable, too!

Just kidding! It actually might be worse for the environment. And there are two major reasons why:

  1. The way it’s made (often with toxic chemicals), and..
  2. How the plants are sourced (often in a way that destroys old-growth rainforests).

The Fabric That Makes Textile Workers Go Insane

Rayon was invented over 150 years ago, and was widely commercially produced starting in the 1920s. It has become more and more popular – the global output of viscose rayon is projected to reach $16 billion per year by 2021. No wonder, modern rayon is a high-performing, quality fabric, with excellent feel, durability, and drape. Eileen Fisher has used it for years. When I visited the Green Eileen pop-up (now Fisher Found) the old viscose shirts and pants that came back in through donations had held up remarkably well, and were easy to upcycle into new garments. But I remember one of the designers looking at it ruefully and saying, “We’re trying to figure out an alternative.” At the time, I didn’t fully understand why. I just knew that something was up with rayon viscose that made it a poor choice for a brand like Eileen Fisher, which is trying to reduce its negative impact on the environment.

The whole concept of rayon viscose seems deliberately designed to confuse consumers so much that we just give up and stop caring. So far, it’s a strategy that has worked. But I’m here to try to clear this up for you.

First, let’s talk about cellulose fibers. Cellulose fiber is an umbrella term for anything made from plants, which includes cotton, linen (flax seed), hemp, rayon (a.k.a. viscose), and lyocell. Cotton, flaxseed, and hemp are already a fairly soft, fibrous plants – they have to be minimally ginned and woven before being sewn into garments, and are considered natural fibers.

But rayon (also known as viscose – they are the same thing and are used interchangeably) is not a natural fiber. Rayon is a generic term for fabrics that are made from plants that you could never imagine as soft, silky fabric: bamboo and trees. These tough plant materials are broken down through a chemical and mechanical process involving sodium hydroxide and carbon disulfide into a viscous (ah, that’s where that name viscose came from) liquid, that is then spun into threads using sulfuric acid.

This chemical-heavy, industrial process is why it is considered a semi-synthetic fiber. It’s also why there are no rayon producers in the U.S. It’s (almost always, more on this later) too toxic to comply with the EPA’s standards – workers are at high risk of insanity, nerve damage, heart disease, and stroke. And that’s inside the factory. Once you have a factory dumping these chemicals into the waterway, the whole community can be poisoned.

That’s what is happening in Asia, according to a report that came out on Tuesday by the Changing Markets Foundation. In Indonesia, rayon factory workers have been found washing the chemicals off of rayon textiles right in the river. In China, there’s abundant evidence of rayon production is poisoning workers and the local bodies of water, even turning a lake black. In India, a plant is dumping into a tributary to the Ganges, poisoning local families, causing the mental faculties of children to degenerate before they reach their teens. (Rayon has been washed multiple times and is safe by the time it reaches consumers.)

These aren’t rogue factories. They’re part of large rayon brands, and provide fabric directly to Levi’s, ASOS, Zara, United Colors of Benetton, H&M, and Eileen Fisher. This report, however, is a bit unfair, because these links were established mostly through the brands’ voluntary disclosure of their supply chain. The report says many fashion brands refused to disclose their supply chain at all to Changing Markets Foundation. And because of the high concentration of the rayon industry – 75% of it is dominated by 10 companies– you can be almost positive that any conventional brand you can think of sources their rayon from the same dirty factories.

One fabric that is often marketed as inherently eco-friendly is bamboo, because it grows quickly without use of pesticides or herbicides. But it has come under fire repeatedly for being misrepresented. The FTC has fined Nordstrom, Bed Bath & Beyond, Backcountry, J.C. Penney , Amazon, Macy’s, Kmart, Sears and more for labeling rayon made from bamboo as simply bamboo fabric. That’s sort of like putting high fructose corn syrup in a food product and listing it as “corn.” Yes, it was once corn, but it’s since been transformed into a manmade product that has serious negative implications. For something to be truly bamboo fiber, it has to be mechanically processed and woven, yielding a stiff linen.

There’s also modal, a type of rayon. Lenzing bills their trademarked Lenzing Modal as a more eco-friendly and softer version of rayon, because it uses closed-loop processing that doesn’t output toxins into the environment and sources beechwood from nearby the factory. However, there is another problem with modal, lyocell, and rayon that we need to discuss…

The Palm Oil of Fabric

Palm oil, if you don’t know, is an extremely destructive food and beauty ingredient. Rainforests are being burned and cleared in Indonesia and elsewhere in order to plant palm oil plantations. And now that is also happening because of rayon. More than 70 million trees from Indonesia, Canada, and Brazil are logged every year and turned into cellulosic fabric. In Indonesia, endangered animals and native people are being forced off the land, so that the local pulp mills can be steadily supplied with trees. And tragically, the typical process for dissolving pulp for rayon wastes about 70% of the tree!

Modal, that non-toxic viscose/rayon fabric, is made from different types of softwood, which is great if it’s sourced from well-managed European or North American forests. (Lenzing is rather vague on this point, though apparently Lenzing as a whole has the Pan-European Forest Certification.) But according to the nonprofit Canopy, modal has been linked to deforestation, and there are other suppliers of modal besides Lenzing that are pulping rainforests to manufacture it. There’s no way to know as a consumer where your modal clothing is coming from – Asia or North America. For bamboo, forests in China are being logged and replaced with bamboo plantations, in order to supply more bamboo for bamboo rayon.

So What Is the Eco-Friendly Choice?

There is hope. Ninety-six major fashion brands, including Levi’s, H&M, Zara, Eileen Fisher, Stella McCartney, VP Corp (owner of Timberland, North Face, and Wrangler, among many, many others), have promised to clean up their rayon supply chains by the end of 2017, due to the excellent work by CanopyStyle, a subsidiary of the nonprofit Canopy, who turned to cleaning up fashion’s supply chain from deforestation after working on paper sourcing. Nine out of the ten top rayon manufactures have made the same pledge to not source material from mills that contribute to deforestation. If these companies pull through, that will make 80% of all rayon fabrics rainforest-free.

There is also some interesting innovation in the works to shift the raw material away from forests altogether. Two recipients of H&M’s Changemakers award are trying to turn waste products that have cellulose in them – cow manure and grape leaves – into textiles. They’re both in the conceptual stage, but will be tested over the next year or so.

What about the toxicity of rayon production? There’s a fabric for that. Tencel, a trademarked fabric also by Lenzing, is a type of rayon generically called lyocell. (Lyocell is to Tencel as tissue is to Kleenex.) Tencel is silky soft and absorbent, and is produced using a different chemical – amine oxide – that is purported to be safer in an entirely closed loop process, so that the chemical isn’t discharged into the water. It’s made of certified sustainably-sourced eucalyptus. Fast-growing eucalyptus tree varieties are native to almost every continent and climate, and require less land and – often on land that couldn’t otherwise be farmed – than the equivalent amount of cotton. Neither does eucalyptus require pesticides and herbicides.

Just keep in mind, Tencel has a certain feel and look, and can’t replace all of viscose rayon’s uses. Eileen Fisher has reduced its use of rayon and does offer some Tencel products, but still relies on viscose for a lot of its clothing.

As for bamboo rayon, when I asked White Rabbit about their bamboo lingerie, co-founder Mariana Hernandez said, “Our supplier’s manufacturing process is green and without any pollution. They are OEKO-Tex certified and manufactured in accordance with ISO-9000 and ISO-14001.” (These are international safety and environmental standards that I personally trust.) “I have a background in Supply Chain and Quality Compliance so it was important for me to ensure that the supplier we chose abided by international safety standards.” Their supplier uses three to four-year-old bamboo trees from the Yunnan province in China.

Shop Tencel

Tencel use isn’t confined to expressly sustainable fashion brands. You’ll easily find it in all sorts of fashion. But I went through my favorite retail stores and brands to pick out some beautiful and sustainable Tencel pieces. Shop with confidence!

TLDR;

Rayon is made from plants, but it’s not eco-friendly because of its toxic production and the deforestation associated with it. Viscose is the same thing as rayon. Modal‘s production isn’t as toxic but can still lead to deforestation. Tencel (a branded type of lyocell) is the type of rayon that is the most eco-friendly. If you have a choice between rayon, viscose, lyocell, modal, or Tencel, buy Tencel.

Beyond Conscious Consumption

It’s important to think beyond just your own purchasing decisions, to consider how you can help change the system so that sustainability isn’t the elitist choice, but the default. If you care enough to purchase Tencel instead of other semi-synthetic fibers, then you should also:

  1. Donate to Canopy and the Rainforest Action Network.
  2. Email your favorite brand who uses rayon viscose and ask them what they are doing to phase it out or clean up their supply chain. I’ve heard from someone who was on the social responsibility team at a large fashion company that those emails get forwarded to them, and they use them to present their case for sustainability to the executive team. So, these emails make a difference!