Sustainable and toxin-free living

Sustainable and toxin-free living


Viscose Rayon Is Terrible for the Environment. Here are the Sustainable Alternatives

Two women wearing floor-length modal dresses in earth tones.

This refresh of our classic Deep Dive was made possible by the sponsorship of 1 People, a Danish sustainable luxury brand with effortlessly timeless looks for conscious-minded women so that they can stay stylish in an ethical, high-quality fashion. Shop the above looks.

Years ago, when I visited a trendy store in LA, I saw a label crowing about a “natural” and “biodegradable” fiber that was “woven in a mill free of harmful substances such as heavy metals, dyes, and formaldehyde.”

It was talking about viscose, alternatively known as rayon, a soft and silky fabric that you’ll find in skirts, dresses, jackets, and linings.

If you’ve decided to swear off polyester, a plastic petroleum product, you might be thinking rayon and its siblings are the solution. After all, they’re soft, silky, and feel wonderful on the skin, and are also preferred by people with eczema and sensitive skin. But there are two major drawbacks to manmade cellulosics:

  1. The way they’re made (often with toxic chemicals)
  2. How the plants are sourced (often from old-growth rainforests)

Rayon, viscose, modal, Tencel, and lyocell, are all manmade cellulosic fibers. Their core ingredient is plant cellulose, making them technically plant-based. But unlike fibers like cotton, linen, and hemp, manmade cellulosics are not grown on a farm. They’re manufactured in a factory, making them synthetic.

There is a type of manmade cellulosic that is better. But first, let’s learn about the history of these fibers.

The Fabric That Makes Textile Workers Go Insane

Rayon was invented almost 150 years ago. Since it started being widely commercially produced in the 1920s, it has become more and more popular, with the global output of viscose rayon projected to reach $28 billion in 2025.

Most rayon is made from plants that you could never imagine as fabric: bamboo and trees. These tough plant materials are broken down through a chemical and mechanical process involving sodium hydroxide and carbon disulfide, and made into a viscous molasses-like substance called dope. That is then spun into threads using sulfuric acid. Imagine a tiny pasta-making machine and you get the idea.

These chemicals are so toxic that there are no rayon producers in the US — it would be almost impossible to comply with the standards of the EPA’s and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). While rayon fabric is safe by the time it reaches consumers, rayon factory workers are at high risk of neurophysiological effects, nerve damage, heart disease, and stroke.

And that’s inside the factory. If you have a factory dumping these chemicals into the waterway, the whole community can be poisoned. According to a report that came out in 2017 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 poisoning workers and the local bodies of water, even turning a lake black. In India, a plant was dumping into a tributary to the Ganges, poisoning local families and causing the mental faculties of children to degenerate before they reached their teens.

Because of the high concentration of the rayon industry—75% of it is dominated by 10 companies—it’s highly probable that any conventional brand you can think of has sourced rayon from the type of dirty factories implicated in the report.

The Palm Oil of Fabric

It’s not just toxic chemicals that make rayon problematic. It’s the trees being cut down to make it.

More than 200 million trees from Indonesia, Canada, and Brazil are logged every year and turned into cellulosic fabric, according to Canopy, a nonprofit advocacy organization that protects global forests from being harvested for paper and textiles. 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 is made from different types of softwood such as beechwood, which is great if it’s sourced from well-managed European or North American forests.  But Canopy found that modal has also been linked to deforestation.

Another fabric that is often marketed as inherently eco-friendly is bamboo, because it grows quickly without the 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. Forests in China are also being logged and replaced with bamboo plantations for bamboo rayon. 

There’s no way to know as a consumer where your modal clothing is coming from — wildcat Asian plantations or well-managed European and North American forests. So as a designer, you should source from the reputable brands Lenzing and Aditya Birla, who have been certified by CanopyStyle as having a low risk of sourcing from endangered forests. That covers a little less than a third of global viscose production. The rest is rather iffy.

Capri Maxi Tencel dress by 1 People

What Is the Eco-Friendly Rayon Choice?

There is hope. As of 2023, over 500 brands, including Levi’s, Ralph Lauren, H&M, Zara, Eileen Fisher, Stella McCartney, VF Corp (owner of Timberland, North Face, and Wrangler), have committed to cleaning up their rayon supply chains. This is due to the excellent work of CanopyStyle, a subsidiary of Canopy.

But if you would like to support a small brand with less purchasing power, you could do worse than looking for designs in Lenzing’s Modal, a more eco-friendly and softer version of rayon, because it uses closed-loop processing that doesn’t output toxins into the environment. That is the soft fabric used in the sustainable Danish brand 1 People’s maxi dress, pictured up top.

Another thing you can do is look for rayon and bamboo rayon that have the labels Oeko-Tex and bluesign, which mean the fabric was produced in facilities that take the necessary safety and environmental precautions.

A woman wears a blue blouse made of Tencel
This blue Cap Ferret long sleeved blouse by the Danish brand 1 People features Tencel, a sustainable alternative to viscose rayon.

But Tencel, a trademarked fabric also by Lenzing, is widely accepted as the most sustainable manmade cellulosic fiber widely available. It’s a branded version of what is generically called lyocell. Tencel is silky soft and absorbent, and is produced using amine oxide, which is purported to be safer, in an entirely closed-loop process — the chemicals aren’t discharged into the water. It’s made of certified sustainably-sourced eucalyptus. Fast-growing eucalyptus tree varieties are adaptable to almost every continent and climate, and often can be grown on land that couldn’t otherwise be farmed. Tencel has a certain feel and look, and can’t replace all of rayon’s uses. But many fashion brands and designers can be more sustainable by starting with Tencel and designing around it.

Finally, there is a lot of exciting innovation and startups that promise to decrease the use of toxic chemicals and pull from more sustainable sources. The Swedish material innovation company Renewcell processes old cotton textiles into feedstock for rayon production, the product is called Circulose. It opened the doors to its commercial-scale facility in late 2022, and can supply all sorts of cellulosic manufacturers, including Tencel, modal, and typical rayon viscose. Other manmade cellulosic fiber startups include Infinited Fiber, Spinnova, and Evrnu, which are all at the pilot stage.

Woman in a pale blue jumpsuit made with Tencel
Dakar DSS straight leg jumpsuit by the Danish brand 1 People features Tencel

In Conclusion

Yes, rayon viscose and other manmade cellulosic are plant-based and biodegradable. But the toxic chemicals used and the trees cut down to make a lot of these fabrics make it a bad choice for conscious designers and consumers.  Look for the labels Tencel, Lenzing, Aditya Birla, Oeko-Tex, bluesign, and Circulose to feel a bit better about what you’re buying and wearing.

Author

  • Alden Wicker

    Alden Wicker is an award-winning investigative journalist and author of To Dye For: How Toxic Fashion Is Making Us Sick — and How We Can Fight Back (Putnam). She splits her time between managing her internationally recognized platform on safe and sustainable fashion, EcoCult.com, and contributing to publications such as The New York Times, Vox, Wired, Vogue, and more. She’s made expert appearances on NPR’s Fresh Air, the BBC, and Al Jazeera to speak on consumer sustainability and the fashion system’s effect on people and the planet.

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